The Art & Science of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy can be defined as the skilled use of a plant’s essential oils by topical application or inhalation for therapeutic and/or aesthetic results.  It is considered by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) to be both a science – the use of essential oils which contain chemical properties known to produce certain physiological and psychological effects – and an art – due to a multitude of blending possibilities which can achieve desired physiological benefits, and at the same time, be personalized to each client’s unique situation and sensibilities.

Aromatherapy works by absorption of the aromatic molecules through the skin and via the olfactory-limbic connection to integrate with the human body and psyche.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are tiny, aromatic droplets of volatile liquid produced in the glands, sacs, and veins of plants, and are what gives the plant its scent.  The origin of essential oil production differs from plant to plant, and may be produced in the flower, fruit, leaf, stem, bark, root, or seed.   Essential oils are not vital to the life of the plant, but are essential to the survival of its species. Volatile oils exist to attract pollinators, deter pests, and protect from diseases.  Each essential oil has its own characteristic aroma and profile of therapeutic properties.  Essential oils possess physical properties that can be antibacterial, antiseptic, and/or anti-inflammatory, and have the potential to kill germs, destroy bacteria, and eliminate offensive odors.  Some oils can relax, others may stimulate.  These aromatic gifts from nature can help combat depression, exhaustion, and anxiety.  They have the power to evoke distant memories, lift spirits, aid in concentration, and balance emotions.

What Essential Oils Are NOT

Essential oils do not contain all of the properties and constituents of the plant it came from.  It is not the life essence of the plant.

The synergy theory of plant medicine is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The synergistic properties contained within the entire plant work together within the body to provide a more complete holistic healing action, which is, in itself a very good reason to forego the internal use of essential oils in favor of other forms of plant medicine which will provide safe levels of the volatile oil, plus the added beneficial properties of the rest of the plant – such as minerals, vitamins, and demulcent properties.

Extracting Oils From The Plant

A pure essential oil is obtained by extracting a plant’s volatile oil from the flower, leaf, fruit, bark, root, or resin through the process of steam distillation, or the cold-pressing of citrus oils such as orange, lime, lemon, and grapefruit.

Steam Distillation

Heated water vapors are forced through a large vat of plant material, rupturing the oil sacs and glands, thus releasing the oils in a vapor.  From here, the steam and vapor are forced through a condensing chamber which is surrounded by cool water.  The cooled steam and vapor become water and oil which naturally separate.  The lighter essential oils are siphoned off the top of the distilled water.  What remains is distilled water aromatically infused with plant properties known as hydrosols or distillates.

Cold Pressing

Citrus peels are machine pressed to extrude the oils and fruit waxes.  The oils are then separated from the wax.

Solvent Extraction (Absolutes)

Oils extracted in this manner, are not considered true essential oils, and are not used in the practice of aromatherapy, but are used heavily in the perfume industry.  The aromatic plant chemicals are extracted through the use of a solvent (usually certain gases or alcohols) which produces a highly scented concentrate.  CO2 extractions produce the most pure form as virtually all of the CO2 can be removed.

Essential Oils Are Particularly Suited for:

General well-being and mood-balancing
Stress and anxiety related issues
Muscle and joint pains
Skin conditions
Respiratory health
Inflammatory Issues
Cleaning and deodorizing

Essential Oil Safety

Essential oils are powerful allies and deserve our utmost respect; they are highly concentrated plant constituents possessing potent chemical components.  Used minimally and properly, they can relax, balance, rejuvenate, invigorate, and help mental concentration.  They have many healthful properties such as being anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-bacterial and anti-spasmodic.  When improperly used, essential oils can be skin irritants, photo-toxic, or even neuro-toxic.   Essential oils should not be used on children under 12 years of age, women who are pregnant or nursing, or those in frail health without the advice and supervision of a trained professional in the field of health and aromatherapy.

Always consult a reputable source which includes a full profile of the benefits and safety concerns on any essential oil you plan to use in your preparations.  Moondrop Herbals Cottage of Natural Elements offers for sale, several herbal and aromatherapy books by reputable authors, as well as an on-site reference library for its patrons.

Physiological Interaction

Essential oils are generally used in one of two ways: either by dilute topical application to the skin, or by inhalation of the essential vapors. According to The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NaHA), The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (IFPA), and The Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC) – The internal (including ear canal, eyes, vagina, etc.) or undiluted (*topical or internal) use of essential oils is not recommended, unless in the care and monitor of a trained health professional.

How can I find high quality essential oils?

  • First, be sure the essential oils are pure aromatic plant oils without dilutants.  Some essential oils on the market are cut with a carrier or may be diluted with lesser quality products (sometimes this is exactly what you want, you just want to KNOW what you’re purchasing, and the label should clearly state this).
  • Next, look for the botanical name on the product label. For example, Peppermint should include ‘Mentha piperita’, its latin or botanical name.
  • Purchase oils that are organic (especially citrus, or other pressed oils) or are sourced from a supplier you trust.  Keep in mind that many essential oils are made from wild-harvested plants or plants cultivated without chemicals, which lack organic certification, but still contain high quality oils.
  • The term ‘Fragrance Oils’ are most likely synthetically produced and are not true botanical essential oils.

Why Do Essential Oils have such a Wide Price Range?

Each type of plant differs in the amount of material necessary to produce viable oils, this in turn influences the cost of the essential oil to the consumer.  Other factors affecting the price of oils include:

  • Length of growing time for the plant to reach maximum potential for extraction
  • Sustainability of species
  • Crop success from year to year
  • Difficulty in obtaining the material – where grown
  • Supply and demand

Marketing Buzz Words: ‘Therapeutic’ and ‘Food Grade’

When first starting out, many beginning aromatherapy enthusiasts look for oils that are ‘therapeutic grade’ or ‘food grade’ oils. These distinctions, however, are not industry standards,  nor are they endorsed or regulated by any government agency. It is purely a marketing term. You can learn more about this issue by visiting: or

Buying and Storage Tips

  • Always research the plant part and production method used. Occasionally several different options exist for one plant, like Cinnamon Leaf and Cinnamon Bark, or Neroli, Bitter Orange, and Petitgrain. These oils will come from different parts of the plant and contain very different properties and aromas from one another.
  • Purchase small amounts to start. One drop of essential oil goes a very long way, so a 10ml bottle will last quite a while.
  • Store essential oils in dark colored glass such as amber.
  • Store your essential oils and natural products in a cool, dark cabinet away from heat and light, and out of reach of children and pets.
  • Don’t store essential oils with the glass and rubber-top dropper in the bottle! Essential oils are concentrated and can be corrosive to rubber and certain plastics. Always remove glass droppers and use a cone-lined screw cap. The drop-by-drop reducers that come in small bottles are fine and do not need to be removed.

What Are Safe Ways to Use Essential Oils Topically?

All that being said, using essential oils topically can be wonderfully healing for mind, body, and spirit.

You should always dilute essential oils with a carrier of some kind. This generally will be a carrier oil, glycerin, aloe vera, mineral salts, or alcohol.  Any time you are working with a new essential oil and want to make a skincare recipe, do a patch test to make sure you won’t have a reaction and the oil is right for you. (The adage that if you have a reaction to an essential oil, you’re just going through a detoxification period is another marketing myth).

Always avoid mucous membranes like the eyes and mouth unless you are under the care of a practitioner. These oils can be very caustic and can cause serious chemical burns.

Research the properties of each oil before use to make sure it isn’t contraindicated for your health. A generally safe dilution guideline for average adults to follow is:

  • 1% Dilution: 5-6 drops per ounce of carrier is appropriate for face care preparations or other delicate skin areas.
  • 2% Dilution: 10-12 drops per ounce of carrier is appropriate for aromatherapy applications and most body care recipes.
  • Up to 5% for localized acute treatment of minor ailments.
  • For perfumes where you will be applying only to very small areas the dilution rate may be as much as 30% essential oil to 70% carrier.

Some oils are best avoided for topical application (such as clove, cinnamon, red thyme, and oregano) or should be used in very low dilutions in synergy with other oils (such as peppermint, lemongrass, bergamot, and bay laurel).

Are essential oils safe to use internally?

There is much mis-information available about the safety of using essential oils internally.  The short, best answer is NO.

According to Clinical Aromatherapists, Naha (National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy), and the AIA (Alliance of International Aromatherapists), just to name a few professional organizations, you should never use essential oils internally without the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner (a sales rep for an essential oil company is NOT a qualified healthcare practitioner). Certain essential oils can be incredibly caustic, causing burns or irritating the mucous lining of your digestive tract.  Whole plant medicine, in the form of teas or extracts offer a safer and more nourishing method to support your body’s own natural health and healing processes – more and stronger is not always better or more helpful.

What recipes can I make using essential oils?

Essential oils can be used in many different ways. From natural body care formulas, such as natural perfumery and massage oils to diffusing for aromatherapy and inhalations, to home cleaning products, and much more, these versatile plant ingredients offer many safe possibilities when used properly.

Gift Yourself with Knowledge

Purchase at least ONE reference book by a reputable author before trying random recipes online. Here are a few suggestions from very reputable authors in the field of aromatherapy and just happen to be available at The Cottage:

Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art by Mindy Green and Kathi Keville
Essential Aromatherapy by Susan Worwood and Valerie Worwood
Complete Book of Essential Oils by Valerie Worwood
The Complete Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook for Everyday Wellness by Nerys Purchon and Lora Cantele
Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils by Valerie Gennari Cooksley

Online References

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