Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of plant-derived, aromatic essential oils to promote physical and psychological well-being. It is sometimes used in combination with massage and other therapeutic techniques as part of a holistic treatment approach. Aromatherapy offers diverse physical and psychological benefits, depending on the essential oil or oil combination and method of application used.

In aromatherapy, essential oils are carefully selected for their medicinal properties. As essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream through application to the skin or inhalation, their active components trigger certain pharmalogical effects (e.g., pain relief). In addition to physical benefits, aromatherapy has strong psychological benefits. The volatility of an oil, or the speed at which it evaporates in open air, is thought to be linked to the specific psychological effect of an oil. As a rule of thumb, oils that evaporate quickly are considered emotionally uplifting, while slowly-evaporating oils are thought to have a calming effect.

Types of Application

Inhalation ~ Either direct or indirect inhalation, the most basic method of administering aromatherapy. Technique can be as simple as applying several drops to a hankerchief or more complex such as adding oils to hot water in a bowl or bath. The latter method is best used to treat respiratory and/or skin conditions. Other methods (such as vaporizers, light rings, candles, incense, etc), although more commercial, can be used to disperse oils throughout larger areas.

Direct Application ~ Because of their potency, essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil or lotion before being applied to the skin to prevent an allergic skin reaction. Massage is a common therapeutic technique used in conjunction with aromatherapy to both relax the body and thoroughly administer the essential oil treatment. Essential oils can also be used in hot or cold compresses and soaks to treat muscle aches and pains (e.g., lavender and ginger).

Precautions and Side Effects

~ Essential oils should only be taken internally under the guidance and close supervision of a Physician. Many essential oils are highly toxic and should never be used at all in aromatherapy.

~ Citrus-based oils (including bitter and sweet orange, lime, lemon, grapefruit, and tangerine) are phototoxic. Exposure to direct sunlight should be avoided for at least four hours after their application.

~ Caution should always be exercised when applying essential oils topically. Some oils can be extremely irritating to the skin if applied in high enough concentration or without a carrier oil or lotion.Before using essential oils on the skin, individuals should perform a skin patch test by applying a small amount of the diluted oil behind the wrist and covering it with a bandage or cloth for up to 12 hours. If redness or irritation occurs, the oil should be diluted further and a second skin test performed, or it should be avoided altogether. Individuals should never apply undiluted essential oils to the skin unless advised to do so by a trained healthcare professional.

~ Pregnant or nursing women, children, people with specific illnesses or physical conditions should avoid using certain essential oils. Individuals suffering from any chronic or acute health condition should consult Their Physician before starting any treatment with any essential oil. Individuals utilizing homeopathic treatments should avoid certain essential oils as they may act as an antidote to the homeopathic treatment.

~ Asthmatic individuals should not use steam inhalation for aromatherapy, as it can aggravate their condition.

~ Essential oils are flammable, and should be kept away from heat sources.

Types of Oils

Carrier Oil ~ Oil used to dilute essential oils prior to use in massage or other skin care applications.

Essential Oil ~ A volatile oil extracted from the leaves, fruit, flowers, roots, or other components of a plant and used in aromatherapy, perfumes, and foods and beverages.

Volatile Oil ~ Used to describe the nature or tendency of an oil (or substance) to vaporize or evaporate quickly when exposed to air.



Most essential oils are produced by distillation, however there are a variety of distillation methods. In all methods, water is heated to produce steam which carries the most volatile chemicals of the aromatic material with it. The steam is then chilled in a condenser and the resulting distillate is collected. Essential Oils will normally float on top of the distilled water component and may be separated off.

  • Steam Distillation ~ Uses an outside source of steam which pipes the steam into the distillation unit, often at high pressure. The steam then passes though the aromatic material and exits into the condenser.
  • Hydrodistillation ~ The botanicals are fully submerged in water, producing a "soup", the steam of which contains the aromatic plant molecules. This is the most ancient method of distillation and the most versatile. It's the method most often used in primitive countries. The risk, of course, is that the still can run dry, or be overheated, burning the aromatics and resulting in an Essential Oil with a burnt smell. Hydrodistillation seems to work best for powders (ie, spice powders, ground wood, etc.) and very tough materials like roots, wood, or nuts.
  • Water & Steam Distillation ~ A water and steam distillation arrangement can be compared to a kitchen steamer basket, with the botanicals supported in a "basket" over boiling water, thus exposing the plant material only to the rising steam vapors. This is the best method for distilling leafy materials, but doesn't work well for woods, roots, seeds, etc.


Very delicate aromatics cannot survive the process of distillation, so to capture these aromas, a process of solvent extraction is used. An extracting unit is loaded with perforated trays of blossoms. The blossoms are washed repeatedly with a solvent (usually hexane or carbon dioxide). The solvent dissolves all extractable matter from the plant which includes non-aromatic waxes, pigments and highly volatile aromatic molecules. The solution containing both solvent and dissolvable plant material is filtered and subjected to low pressure distillation to recover the solvent for further use. The remaining waxy mass is what is called the concrete and it contains as much as 55% of the volatile oil.

The concentrated concretes are processed further to remove the waxy materials which dilute the pure essential oil. To prepare the absolute from the concrete, the waxy concrete is warmed and stirred with alcohol (usually ethanol). During the heating and stirring process the concrete breaks up into minute globules. Since the aromatic molecules are more soluble in alcohol than is the wax an efficient separation of the two takes place. But along with the aromatic molecules a certain amount of wax also becomes dissolved and this can only be removed by agitating and freezing the solution at very low temperatures (around -30 degrees F) In this way most of the wax precipates out. As a final precaution the purified solution is cold filtered leaving only the wax-free material (the absolute.)

This solvent extraction actually yields three usable products; first the concrete, the precious absolutes, and the floral waxes, for addition to candles, thickening creams and lotions as a softly floral scented alternative to beeswax.

  • Carbon Dioxide Extraction ~ When CO2 (carbon dioxide) is subjected to high pressure, the gas turns into liquid. This liquid CO2 can be used as a very inert, safe, "liquid solvent." which will extract the aromatic molecules in a process similar to that used to extract absolutes (above.) The advantage, of course, is that no solvent residue remains, since at normal pressure and temperature, the CO2 simply reverts to a gas and evaporates.

Cold Pressing

Produced by scoring or zesting the skin of a fruit. Generally used on citrus fruits. Although many citrus oils are also produced by steam distillation, they seem to lack the vibrancy of the cold pressed oils.


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