By Mary Kathleen Rose
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2004.
In the past few years there has been a seeming explosion of interest in aromatherapy. From scented candles, incense, air fresheners, and potpourri to organic essential oils and massage and skin care products, the consumer is presented with a vast array of aromas to tease the sense of smell. Some of these products are marketed as ways to improve your home and work environment. Others are assigned special significance for healing or as ways to enhance the quality of your physical or emotional health.
With this popularity, there come concerns about the safe application of the chemicals used, whether for aesthetic or medicinal purposes. The truth is, very few of these highly marketed “aromatherapy” products are real. Many of the elements used in popular scented products are synthetic chemicals with known detrimental effects, particularly for sensitive individuals. Even where there are not immediate observable problems, the prolonged use and exposure to these synthetic and toxic chemicals may contribute to multiple sensitivities and chronic illnesses over time, including fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, and cancer.
But what about pure essential oils, the aromatic oils distilled from a variety of plant materials, including flowers, leaves, needles, peels of fruit, wood, and roots? Many people think because they are produced from natural materials they are always safe and beneficial to use. And while pure essential oils are preferred in body care and other scented products, these oils are highly concentrated substances and should be used with caution. As more people turn to the use of essential oils on a regular basis, let’s examine some of those discretionary measures.
Ecological: A large amount of plant material is used to produce essential oils. Most plants contain 1 percent to 5 percent essential oil. For a plant with 1 percent essential oil, it takes 100 ounces to make 1 ounce of essential oil. For plants grown commercially, such as lavender, that is not a problem. But for wild plants, that can be a serious concern. Another issue of concern is the use of herbicides and pesticides. Most essential oils are not organically grown.
Allergies, sensitivities, and irritation: Many people are sensitive to the effects of scents and essential oils, whether airborne or applied to the skin. The user of essential oils must always be alert to the possibility of allergic reactions. Sensitivities may develop over time and can be especially hard to identify if a variety of essential oils are used in combination. Allergies may manifest as sneezing, itchy eyes, headaches, skin irritation or rashes, or severe respiratory distress.
Antibiotic resistance: Many essential oils have antiseptic and antibiotic properties. While these are often the qualities sought after in using the oil, it should be noted that overuse of antibiotics, even topically on the skin, can contribute to antibiotic resistance. This is the capacity of bacteria to inactivate or exclude antibiotics or otherwise block their inhibitory or killing effects. Resistant bacteria evolve as a result of using antibiotics.
Masking rancidity: Essential oils are often used by diluting them in carrier oils. Because the essential oils are so concentrated this is a way of controlling the dose used, as well as providing a scent to the carrier oil which then may be used on the skin for body care or massage. But the strength of the scent may mask rancidity in the carrier oil. Commonly used massage oils, like almond oil, apricot kernel oil, avocado oil, or wheat germ oil, are not stable, so the essential oil simply covers the smell of rancid oil. For use in body care, olive oil is the most stable, along with coconut oil. Coconut oil, which is solid at cool temperatures, can be melted by placing its container in a pan of warm water for a few minutes. Organic coconut oil is inexpensive and works well as a massage lotion. It has a wonderful aroma of its own, without the addition of any other scent.
Imposition of scent: Health conscious people are increasingly asserting their right to clean air. This is evidenced by the move toward bans on cigarette smoking in public places. But what about strong scents used in personal care and beauty products — regardless of whether they are natural or synthetic? We share the air with other people and need to be considerate of that. And of course there is the reality of actual allergic reactions to a substance worn by another person. One woman tearfully complained to her husband after he came home from receiving an aromatherapy massage. She was allergic to the essential oil that had been used in his massage. Strong scents can also just be unpleasant or annoying to other people. For example, a strongly scented substance like patchouli can be a joy to one person, abhorrent to another.
Desensitization: The frequent use of essential oils can result in the desensitization of smell. This human sense is designed to discern many different scents. One should be able to tell if a food is fresh or rancid, desirable or undesirable. One should be able to distinguish one substance from another. The well-developed sense of smell can help us to find particular plants in the wild or in the garden. Smell is one of the methods by which a mother and baby bond, or that people are attracted to or repelled from one another. The sense of smell alerts us to danger, as in the smell of a gas leak or a fire, or other toxins in the environment.
Overuse of essential oils, or other strongly scented substances, diminishes our ability to use our sense of smell to its full potential. Previously, I gave the example of a massage oil’s rancidity being masked by the use of essential oils. Susun S. Weed, well-known herbalist and health educator, calls aromatherapy “the white sugar of herbalism.” I think the analogy is apt. When individuals eat only refined sugar, they lose their ability to taste the sweetness in whole food (i.e., the sweetness of a carrot or whole grain bread). In a similar way, with overuse of essential oils, the individual loses the ability to discern the subtleties or scent in whole plants.
Natural Scent Therapy
So how is it possible to take advantage of our sense of smell to enjoy life more fully? Keeping the above cautions in mind, let’s explore other ways to incorporate essential oils into our daily routines.
Enjoy the scents of living plants in the garden. There is nothing more invigorating and sensual than the smell of fresh honeysuckle flowers as their scent wafts in through an open window on a warm summer evening. Fresh roses of many varieties are delightful to see and smell. Artemisias provide a stimulating, pungent scent, and valerian flowers give a gentle, sweetly encompassing aroma. Surround your home with mint — easy to grow, they smell great and can be dried for herbal teas and infusions. There are many varieties of mint — peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, lemonbalm. Other members of the mint family provide great additions to raw and cooked dishes — oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, and garden sage.
Live plants can be a welcome addition in the winter months as well. Rosemary works well as a potted plant, as can basil or garden sage. The best essential oils can be very expensive. Because of their concentration, they usually should last a long time, but for the self-reliant individual, it can be very satisfying to surround yourself with aromatic plants you grow yourself.
Culinary herbs and spices: The best part of making chicken soup is simmering the herbs. Use any of the following in a combination to suit your taste: onion, garlic, ginger, rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley. The herbs and spices used in cooking are the everyday natural scent therapy of many traditions. The smell of curried dishes or tangy spices awaken the senses and start the flow of digestive juices. Cilantro and mint are refreshing additions to salads. The spices used in baking — cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and chocolate — give taste and flavor to many foods. Just to enter a home with fresh gingerbread cooking is an uplifting experience. And what can beat the smell of fresh baked bread? It’s natural scent therapy at its finest.
Herbal teas and infusions: Many herbs make enjoyable beverages. Try any of the mints, chamomile, ginger, or raspberry leaf. A tea is an herb brewed in a relatively short time, strained, and enjoyed. Use one or two varieties at a time, savor the smell, and notice its effect on your mood. An infusion is a stronger version of an herbal beverage. (Generally 1 ounce of dried plant material is brewed in a quart jar to which boiling water has been added. Let sit for 3 to 4 hours, strain, and drink.) A brew of peppermint tea simmering on the stove is a great way to deodorize your home. Or try cinnamon and cloves for festive holidays occasions. Simmer them alone or add to hot apple cider.
Fresh and dried arrangements: A dozen flowering stems of lavender can be tied with a ribbon and hung on the wall or laid on a shelf to impart its pleasing scent for many months. A basket of rose petals is beautiful and evokes a feeling of luxury and romance. Citrus peels can be placed on wood stoves to release their scent as they dry.
Sachets and pillows: Lavender flowers can be placed in small muslin bags to scent a drawer. Each time you reach in, you can be gently stimulated by their scent. Sachets can also be filled with damiana, a very sensual smelling herb, or other herbs of your choice. A classic dream pillow is filled with subtle smelling mugwort. Hops strobiles can be a pleasant, mildly intoxicating scent for an herb pillow. An easy sachet can be made by putting the herbs or flowers in a plain envelope and sealing it. A sprig of artemisia tridentata (big sagebrush) or white sage provides powerful purifying scents to influence the mood of a room.
Herbal steams: An herbal steam is another way to enjoy the aromas of fresh or dried herbs. Place a handful of herbs in a quart-sized bowl. Pour boiling water over the herbs. Sit with your face a few inches above the bowl and cover your head with a towel, letting it form a kind of tent. Breathe in the moist aromatic steam. This can be a wonderful treatment for sinus congestion, hayfever allergies, or just to relax after a hard day at work. Experiment with different herbs: chamomile to relax or peppermint for stimulation.
Herbal baths: Whole herbs can be added to a hot bath. Place the herbs or flowers in a large teaball or a muslin bag. Here are some herbs to try for different effects: eucalyptus leaves, pine needles, rosemary, roses, chamomile, and spearmint.
Natural candles: Many commercially-available scented candles contain chemicals and/or wicks that are toxic when burned. Rather than being aromatherapy, they may be detrimental to your health. Sensitive individuals even exhibit allergic responses to the unlit candles. I prefer natural beeswax candles. Beeswax has a wonderful scent and conveys an expansive, yet soothing, effect when burned. Look for beeswax that is rich in yellow color and imparts a definite scent even when unlit. It loses its color and scent over time.
Infused oils for cooking and skin care: Whole plant material may be infused in olive oil to extract its medicinal qualities, as well as impart its scent. Use fresh plant material that has been allowed to dry for a day or two. For example, place finely chopped rosemary in a jar, fill it with pure olive oil, and cap it with a canning lid so no air gets in. Let it sit on the counter out of sunlight for 2 to 3 weeks. Do not refrigerate. Room temperature is necessary to the process. Strain the oil through a handkerchief and store in a cool, dry place. It can be left unrefrigerated for several weeks; it will keep for several months to a year in the refrigerator.
This infused rosemary oil is great as a base for salad dressing. Simply pour over greens and vegetables along with some lemon juice for a great and satisfying taste and smell. Rosemary oil can also be used as a hair conditioner. Massage it into the scalp and leave on for 20 to 60 minutes. Wash hair as usual.
Lavender flowers and/or leaves can also be used this way to make an infused oil that is great for skin care and massage. You can use either extra virgin olive oil or “pure” olive oil. Like coconut oil, olive oil is a stable oil and is very good for the skin.
A Way of Life
Plants underscore the rhythm of life. I love gathering fresh plants in the fall and drying or infusing them, enjoying them throughout the seasons, and returning them to the compost the next summer, as new plants are sprouting. We can enjoy plants through a fuller range of experience by including the senses of sight, touch, and taste.
It’s important to remember that, while essential oils may be the pure distilled oil of the plant, they are not the whole plant. In herbal medicine, there are benefits to using the whole plant that are not derived from using the essential oil alone. For example, a sprig of lavender stems and flowers, tied with a ribbon, is a delightful addition to the décor of a room, subtly imparting its scent over time. A basket of rose petals is a beautiful sight as well as sensual treat to smell.
Natural scent therapy is a way of life. With an educated approach you can safely enjoy its benefits. Pleasant scents in our environment encourage us to inhale deeply, allowing the benefits afforded by full and deep respiration. Aromas can be soothing or stimulating, often evocative of images and other associations. A scent can be uplifting and mood altering. As you open yourself to the world of aromatic herbs, spices, and oils, you open yourself to the possibilities of greater enjoyment of life and better health.