The Essentials of Essential Oils
by Valerie Ann Worwood

Ten years ago, it was difficult to find aromatherapy and essential oil product lines in any store, even the cutting edge health food stores may have stocked only one or two aromatherapy products. Looking at the shelves in the same health store today and you find them piled high with so-called "aromatherapy" products claiming they contain "essential oils.”

Unfortunately, in these highly competitive times, these words seem to be more about marketing buzz words that sell inferior products to the unsuspecting consumer. The sad fact is, the huge majority of "aromatherapy" products contain synthetically produced fragrance.

A real essential oil has been extracted from a single botanical plant source containing an aromatic, liquid volatile substance. It’s these aromatic molecules we inhale when we smell a rose, or an orange, or the spices in our food. Pure 100% natural essential oils have nothing added and nothing taken away. Aromatherapy harnesses these pure plant substances to create a healing therapy that just happens to be aromatic and may include the inhalation of essential oils, or an external application in the form of a body oil combined with massage techniques.

In Europe, aromatherapy is generally prescribed by a herbalist or general physician and may even be taken internally. It has absolutely nothing to do with the so-called "aromatherapy" candles, carpet fragrances, dish washing liquids, toilet paper and cat litter, that now fill our supermarket shelves.

Essential oils are raw materials, exported and imported by the ton, an agricultural commodity that for some third world countries, is one of its most profitable economical crops. They are used in many diverse products such as pharmaceuticals, perfumes, toiletries, cosmetics, foods and drinks.

Essential oils have been is widespread use for longer than you might think. The original secret "7X" flavorings formula of Coca Cola, invented by John Pemberton in 1886, is thought to have contained the essential oils of orange, lemon, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander and neroli. The 7th ingredient may have been lime oil, or extract of vanilla. Chewing gum is an icon of the American novelty and invention, but is nothing without the essential oils of peppermint or spearmint.

Much of the research into the safety of essential oils has been done by the food and drinks industry, by the perfume trade, and by pharmaceutical companies. A huge number of studies have been carried out all over the world on the anti-microbial effect of essential oils. Oregano and thyme prove effective against several strains of bacteria and viruses. Geranium essential oil stimulates circulation, while Italian everlasting has analgesic effects on sore and aching muscles. Chamomile is calming and soothing, particularly on inflammatory conditions, and it can be used safely on children. Eucalyptus, although mostly known for its decongestant ability, is also an anti-inflammatory and helps relieve the pain of over worked muscles.

With the advent of the first aromatherapy self-help book in 1990, wise consumers realized that using essential oils in their pure natural state was not only very easy, but surprisingly effective for all manner of things. Lavender was indeed a very good relaxant, and for those plagued with insomnia, it brought a restful night’s sleep by simply dropping 2-4 drops on a pillow. Best of all, it was natural and not addictive. Lavender baths are now legendary for being able to ease the stresses of the day. Put 4-6 drops of 100% natural lavender onto warm water in bath, light a few candles, and relax in the lavender infused water. If you do not like the smell of lavender, try geranium or neroli, or both mixed together. The options when using essential oils are endless.

No longer are muffin recipes swapped at PTA meetings. The trend now is to swap essential oil blends. For study and concentration, try 4 drops of lemon and 2 drops of rosemary, placed in the water of an oil burner or diffuser. Alternatively, just put the drops in a mug of hot water. For safety’s sake, with children, drop the essential oil on a piece of absorbent paper and place near the student.

There are plenty of studies to prove that these simple methods do have an effect. Aroma psychology is big business, with large corporations looking to diffuse fragrances into the workplace to keep staff awake and focused. Grapefruit essential oil, for example, has an enlivening effect, while lemon seems to help the mind focus and rosemary stimulates memory.

Thankfully, it’s easy to find essential oils. Most good health food stores stock them and there are numerous mail order companies as well. Good organically produced essential oils are expensive, and do not age well, so buy little and often from reputable companies or people you trust. Be warned though about labelling. The product must be "100% pure natural essential oil.” Ideally, it will be organic too. A problem arises, however, in that a substance made entirely of man-made chemicals can be called an "essential oil,” in law. This is why great care must be taken in finding a good supplier. That is, in fact, the most difficult aspect of aromatherapy. Good information on how to use essential oils is now much easier to find, and the range of life-aspects that aromatherapy can enhance is huge. Aromatherapy is about body, mind, and spirit. Even romance benefits from good aromatherapy; just see what a drop or two of pure rose otto can do for you!

Valerie Ann Worwood is author of "Essential Aromatherapy, The Complete Book of Essential Oils" and "Aromatherapy, The Fragrant Mind, The Fragrant Heavens, Scents and Sensuality" and "Aromatherapy for the Healthy Child". All published by New World Library, Novato, CA, (415) 884-2100.