What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of plant extracts to restore balance to mind and body. Plant extracts have been used for thousands of years, by Cleopatra in her beauty regime, by the Egyptians in their burial ceremonies, the Romans as part of their hygiene and bathing, and finally by the Greeks as medicine.
Today aromatherapy is both an art and a science. As a modern science it is researched all over the world. Essential oils are wide and varied, having a broad range of therapeutic properties. The calming and sedating effects of oils are often compared to the action of traditional drugs such as Valium and other nervines and sedatives. A recent hospital study in Manchester, England identified both geranium and lemongrass as having been successfully used to completely eradicate M.R.S.A, an antibiotic resistant virus, currently identified as a severe problem in the hospital system.
In our world of the spa and clinic, aromatherapy products surround us. From skin care formulations, to massage and bath blends, essential oils are used to either add fragrance or to utilize the broad range of therapeutic actions they can have on the mind and emotions, the skin or the body.
By its name, one would assume that it implies that there is a therapeutic action based on ‘aroma’ or smell alone. The term has become a very popular word. However, we do need to be clear about what we actually mean when we use the term. It has been the failure to make a clear definition that has led to a misunderstanding and the abuse of the term aromatherapy. A broad definition of aromatherapy is defined by Jan Kusmirek is:
“The use of pure essential oils to seek to influence, to change, to modify, mind, body and spirit, physiology or mood.”
How Do They Work?
Essential oils can impact the body in two ways:
Via the olfactory nerve to the brain.
Via the skin through a follicular shunt or a slower transdermal penetration.
Aromatherapy, as previously discussed implies the use of the sense of smell. Of our five senses, the sense of smell is the most profound. We can remember something we have smelled long after something we have tasted, touched, heard or seen. When using essential oils, some smells are nostalgic and bring happy memories while others evoke not so happy thoughts. We are actually drawn quite naturally towards the oils that we actually need for our bodies to heal. When we do smell an essential oil, within seconds it reaches the limbic center of the brain, the hypothalamus and the pituitary, sending the appropriate message to the nervous system, to usually either calm, sedate or stimulate the mind and body. We therefore must make an accurate selection for our clients based on their needs.
Once we apply a blend of essential oils to the skin, entry into the body and therefore the effects on the body take a little longer to become apparent. Essential oils are liposolvent, therefore are readily absorbed by the skin. They can easily enter the follicle dissolving through matter and secretions that may be impacted in the follicle. We know from scientific research that once applied small amounts of essential oils can be found in the blood stream within 20 minutes and up to two hours later. So, can we impact the structure and function of the skin, yes we can, therefore enhancing the outcome of the facial treatment.
Aromatherapy has many uses and is used in many ways in many different clinical settings. In the spa it is used to its fullest for the holistic treatment of our clients. As defined, aromatherapy is about the treatment of the whole person. One might ask why we would consider this as important. If we consider who our clients are today, many of our clients are worried about job security and finances, relationship issues and in some cases, simply the aging process. All these things affect our health and wellbeing, each in our own way, from emotions causing worrying thoughts, sleepless nights, elevated stress levels to increased muscular aches and pains. Aromatherapy can help on all levels. Whether it is the application of essential oils in a facial, a massage, or simply diffusing a suitable blend of oils in the treatment room to uplift or sedate the clients mood, all these things help us to connect to our client on a deeper level and increase their well-being.
As we now understand essential oils can have a big impact. Knowing that they can enter the body and the bloodstream, makes choosing quality oils highly important. Not all essential oils are created equal. For instance, some sold into the beauty and skin care industry were originally harvested and distilled for the fragrance industry. These oils, often sprayed with pesticides, are also not always distilled with the care required to maintain the active chemical components that have a very active effect on human beings. They are usually available at a much lower price and used for fragrance in bath, body and skin care lotions. Quality oils used for therapeutic use are often hand harvested and distilled at exact temperatures. Make a point of asking your supplier questions about the country of origin of your oils and their quality control practices. Know your source, cheap is often not appropriate for skin and body care.
Where to Begin
Essential oils are not just a pleasant aroma; they have a profound effect on the well-being of your client. On a simple level you can contact a knowledgeable and reputable supplier that can assist you with some pre-blended oils to meet the needs of your client. Commercial blends for skin care, body blends for massage and blends to diffuse into the atmosphere are available. Ensure that your chosen supplier provides you with product education, ingredient knowledge and application techniques.
In the U.S. contact the national organization, The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) and in Canada contact the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapist (CFA). Both of these professional organizations can guide you towards quality education and ultimately national licensing if you wish to become a qualified professional.