Aromatherapy is an ancient practice that has found new popularity. It’s more than just pretty smells, of course. Choosing the right scents and products can promote relaxation and healing.
Known by many other names, aromatherapy dates back to ancient Egypt, where volatile oils were integrated into many aspects of daily life, ranging from healing and massage to embalming and religious observance (think incense).
It certainly had its place in other ancient societies, too: The Chinese are celebrated to this day for their sophisticated, age-old use of aromatic herbs, and one arm of traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) relies heavily on aromatic massage.
The sweet smell of health
Aromatherapy is based on the principle that aromatic oils – applied to the skin in diluted form and inhaled – act on psychological, physiologic and molecular levels. They stimulate specific areas of the brain and limbic system, triggering memories that result in relaxation or re-energizing (depending on the oil or combination of oils used) effects that have real health benefits.
“Aromatherapy is natural, preventive medicine,” says April Amstutz, director of massage at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “People seek it out for many reasons: to help relieve stress or anxiety; to soothe stiff, achy muscles; to relieve congestion. I’ve seen people reap great benefits from the treatments,” she says.
A rose by any other name
The key to effective aromatherapy is in the quality and nature of the materials used. Pure essential oils – as opposed to artificial fragrance oils or perfumes – are, well, essential. (Cheaper, artificial fragrances smell nice but lack the therapeutic benefits of their natural counterparts.) Before you buy, know the basics:
• An essential oil is the essence of a plant material in liquid form. The concentrated essence is generally obtained through distillation and is diluted with a “carrier oil,” which is a pure, unscented vegetable oil – often almond or apricot kernel oil – that effectively carries the essence to the skin. Essential oils can be purchased individually or in combinations customized to meet your needs.
• A word to the wise: Blend at your own risk. “We don’t recommend that you blend essential oils without guidance: They are very potent,” Amstutz emphasizes. “Of course people experiment all the time, but to ensure that your blends are safe and will do what you expect, you really need education – or at least, to do some reading and research.”
• Other safety precautions:
•Never ingest essential oils.
•Do not apply undiluted essential oils to the skin.
•Some oils can cause allergic reactions in certain people, so test a small area of skin 24 hours before using any oil extensively.
•Pregnant women, children, people with asthma, epilepsy and other chronic illnesses should consult a physician before trying aromatherapy.
All the buzz
Essential oils are increasingly popular, and their booming availability means there’s huge variation in the quality and purity of products. A particularly potent and beneficial way to enjoy aromatherapy is through massage.
“Aromatherapy massage treatments really center you,” says Laura Hittleman, Director of Beauty Services at Canyon Ranch.
She encourages clients to explore the benefits of mini-treatments as well. Candles and other forms of burning essences create ambiance in the home, after-bath body lotions refresh or relax, antiseptic oils, such as lavender, soothe a variety of injuries.
“I encourage guests to try an inhalant essence on long flights to reduce that
spaced-out, jet-lagged feeling. Or to put a little tonic on a tissue as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Or, if you have trouble sleeping, to try a relaxing oil in the bath before bed,” Hittleman says. “Aromatherapy is really just another way of being mindful and in the moment.”