If you associate aromatherapy with dream catchers, crystals, and anything of the hippy-dippy variety, it’s time for a paradigm shift. Using essential oils to promote balance and even cure physical ailments is something that dates all the way back to the Roman times. Today, it’s an under-the-radar option for anyone who’s sensitive to artificial scents or looking for a natural way to de-stress.
We spoke with Geraldine Howard, aromatherapy expert and co-founder of the all-natural line Aromatherapy Associates, and asked for the 411 on smelling your way to health. From what scents work best when you’re feeling overworked, tired, or sick, to how exactly aromatherapy works, we got the ultimate crash course in navigating essential oils.
Click through the slideshow above for your beginner’s guide to aromatherapy!
First things first—what exactly is aromatherapy? “Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from plants for therapeutic purposes,” Howard says. “Essential oils can work on a physical and emotional level to improve the state of your health and well-being.” The first documented use of the word aromatherapy dates back to 1937—a French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé published a book about the healing properties of essential oils, citing a time where he burned his hand badly and treated it effectively with lavender oil.
“When we small an aroma, it triggers both an emotional and physiological response,” Howard says. On a physical level, she says that the smaller molecules of essential oils penetrate more deeply into your skin, which can help ease muscular aches and pains, improve circulation, and optimize the cellular renewal process. “On an emotional level, the scent of essential oils can have a dynamic effect,” she says. “The sense of smell is the most primitive of our senses, and is linked to the deepest parts of the brain, which governs basic instincts, memories, and emotions.”
If you’re feeling stressed, Howard suggests breathing in lavender or chamomile. “They’re both great oils to help aid relaxation,” she says. “Frankincense is [also] fantastic at helping to relieve stress, calm the mind, and focus the thoughts.” She recommends two products from the Aromatherapy Associates line: the Light Relax Bath & Shower Oil ($65), which contains lavender, ylang ylang, and petitgrain to “help the body unwind after a busy day,” and the Deep Relax Bath & Shower Oil ($65), a more powerful blend of vetivert, chamomile, and sandalwood to aid a peaceful night’s sleep.
“Bergamot is great at helping to re-awaken [your] senses and ylang-ylang is a fantastic pick-me-up before an evening out, or when energy levels are flagging,” Howard says. In other words, smell those scents to give yourself the second wind you need to make it to happy hour drinks. Other energizing scents she recommends: pink grapefruit and rosemary, both of which she says will refresh your mind and give you a stimulating boost.
Though there’s lack of clinical evidence that proves aromatherapy’s ability to fight off infections, Howard swears by the healing powers of eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, and pine. “They’re anti-viral and anti-bacterial, and can really help support your body’s natural defenses,” she says. She mentions the benefits of pine, especially: “It provides fantastic relief from respiratory disorders, like hay fever or colds, and is a good tonic to keep on hand both in the summer and winter.” She recommends her line’s Support Breathe Essence ($29), which contains antiseptic properties to ward off bugs: “Simply pop a couple of drops on a tissue and inhale!”
“Rosemary, ginger, and black pepper are incredibly effective at easing localized muscle tension,” Howard says. The three modes of application for aromatherapy are aerial diffusion, direct inhalation, and topical application—the latter of which is used most for dealing with muscle aches. She recommends using Aromatherapy Associate’s De-Stress Muscle Gel ($38) for overworked joints and sore muscles.
And there you have it—our beginner’s guide to aromatherapy! Are you an essential oil user? Have you heard of any other benefits? Sound off in the comments!