Aromatherapy uses essential oils from aromatic plants, shrubs, and trees to anchor health, enhance beauty, encourage healing, and promote balance and stability. In my practice, aromatherapy includes awareness of and attention to everything from the chemical constituents of an oil and its associated therapeutic properties to the symbology and subtle energy associations of the oil and its source plant right down its mythology and lore.
Many aromatherapists, myself included, also work with carrier oils, butters, waxes, hydrolats, essential waters, resins, oleoresins, and more in blending oils, creating products, and addressing clients’ needs.
Essential oils — the cornerstones of aromatherapy — may be sourced from a variety of plant parts (roots, wood, bark, twigs, leaves, peel of fruit, needles, grasses, flowers) in a host of ways (distillation, cold-pressing, solvent extraction). Ideally, the source of the essential oil — be it flower, bark, cone, root, leaves, twigs, resin — should be sustainably grown and harvested without the use of pesticides and harsh chemicals such that the resulting essential oil’s purity is not compromised.
Watch out for fragrance oils that are nothing more than a synthetic blend of chemicals that trick the nose with their scent — fragrance oils won’t carry the same therapeutic properties, some are sensitizing to the skin, still others are downright hazardous.
Ideally, essential oils are labeled with their Latin name (so as to make one “mint” discernible from another “mint”, as in Peppermint, Mentha piperita, and Corn Mint, Mentha arvensis, for example) along with their country of origin, distillation date, and distillation method. The best providers will provide a GC/MS — or gas chromatography/mass spectrometer — report for each batch to illuminate the unique chemical components it offers. The GC/MS report reveals the volume of individual chemical constituents in an essential oil and alludes to how it can be used therapeutically.
Aromatherapy experts and chemists familiar with the typical constituents in a given essential oil may also use a GC/MS report to discern if a given essential oil has been adulterated.
Historically, essential oils have been used in a variety of ways to achieve desired outcomes for body, mind, and spirit. They have been used aesthetically in beauty and skin treatments, therapeutically to encourage wellness of body, mind, or spirit, and energetically to provide subtle energy support and encourage balance. Essential oils and their sources have also been incorporated in rites, lore, ritual, and magic for centuries (i.e., myrrh resin found in ancient Egyptian tombs), but essential oils themselves are a more recent tool.
Aromatic products used throughout history, including herbal products featuring aromatic plant material, have historically included just about everything: compresses, inhalants, bath salts, smelling salts, sitz baths, creams, perfumes, douches, massage oils, room sprays, body butters, balms, salves, cleaning products, and ritual incenses. Today, reputable aromatherapists use quality essential oils in varied holistic and aesthetic work for which they are competently trained and, ideally, certified. Some, myself included, extend their use of essential oils and herbs to more esoteric, energetic, and magical blending.
Essential oils offer a host of benefits for body, mind, and spirit. For example, a single essential oil may address multiple issues for wellness by both reducing anxiety and pain. Every essential oil presents with unique chemical components that inform its fragrance, associated therapeutic properties, and energetic essence.
Subtle differences in the chemical components of an essential oil may be dependent upon something as simple and subtle as the location of the oil’s source, the time of its harvest, and the method and quality of its distillation. (When entertaining the way soil, light, and climate impact the essential oil resulting from a given source plant, I like to think of how terroire contributes to the unique flavor, acidity, and color of grapes in wine.) That means different batches of the “same” oil might present differently from different fields, farms, distillers, or manufacturers. Each essential oil nevertheless has a “normal” range for a variety of components; experts and chemists can reasonably expect an unadulterated essential oil to fall within this normal range for its expected components.
In their practice, trained aromatherapists balance their knowledge of and experience with essential oils with the details they have about their intended recipient or client. Ideally, they also have an established relationship with not only the essential oil they are using, but also that oil’s source. Aromatherapists may be blending for desired aromatic, therapeutic, energetic, or magical outcomes — or any combination therein. Many aromatherapists, myself included, enjoy sharing recipes, educating individuals about the safe use of essential oils, and empowering individuals to apply aromatherapy in their daily lives. Anyone and everyone can benefit from essential oils, but their use should be informed by and anchored in safe practices. DO explore and play and discover and try, but please do so with safe recipes from qualified sources using quality essential oils with a keen understanding of the potential risks for the end user.
For an essential oil to be safe and effective, it should be pure, unadulterated, undiluted by synthetics, and premium. We recommend using sustainably sourced, pesticide-free, wild-crafted and/or organic essential oils from reputable, responsible, and transparent suppliers.
Note that the “pure, therapeutic grade” and “certified” labels you may see on some branded products do not represent any kind of third-party or government verification of purity, quality, or efficacy–those phrases are pure marketing.
Instead of relying on marketing phrases, I suggest you look to find essential oil suppliers who back up the quality, integrity, and efficacy of their products up with a GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometer) report. A GC/MS report reveals the chemical components present in a given batch of essential oil; issues with purity, contamination, or quality are often uncovered in a GC/MS. Even if you don’t know how to decipher such report, you’ll want your supplier to care enough about what they sell to have one–and to be transparent enough to share it. The fact remains that the only way to ensure an essential oil’s quality in terms of chemical components and purity is to have it tested and reviewed by a qualified chemist or analyst.
Of course, subtle energetics, quality of scent, and one’s personal response to an essential oil will and should also inform your decision making.
A NOTE FROM THE UNTAMED ALCHEMIST ABOUT INGESTION & INTERNAL USE: You may come across individuals and/or companies who enthusiastically suggest that essential oils should be ingested, taken internally, or used recklessly undiluted. Generally speaking, I don’t broadly recommend ingestion or internal use — and I’m not alone. Many reputable aromatherapy educators, authors, and industry organizations agree that the potential for harm in oversimplifying the risks associated with uninformed ingestion and internal use is just too great.
Essential oils are incredibly concentrated and effective when used appropriately externally. I see no need to encourage individuals who are new to aromatherapy to begin gambling with internal use or ingestion when they have much safer, less expensive, and less hazardous opportunities to benefit from essential oils available.
Does internal use have a place in aromatherapy practice? I think so, absolutely, yes — but you may not be ready to explore that place safely without either more education or the cooperation of a qualified aromatherapist and health care practitioner.
Do I use essential oils internally? YES, I do, only rarely — and that use is informed with all I’ve learned and experienced over 20 years working with oils and herbs. Is ingestion and internal use my first thought for myself and my clients when approaching a blend? Absolutely not — there are too many other amazing options available for me to get stuck in one delivery method! Am I prepared to share my recipes for internal use broadly with anonymous users in a vacuum of potential contraindications, safety concerns, and education? Hell to the no.
Please, be weary of marketers representing themselves as “trained” aromatherapists. Some have taken to making sweeping, generalized statements that encourage ingestion, internal use, or reckless, undiluted application that may not be safe for you and your family. There is a big difference between aromatherapy education and a good sales pitch.