Nature’s aromatic essences can be used in many different ways to promote health of body and serenity of mind. Whether you wish to harness their powers to treat a specific ailment, to buffer the adverse effects of stress, or simply to enhance mood, this article is devoted to the basics of preparing and applying essential oils for healing purposes.
Buying essential oils
It is vital to obtain only the purest aroma therapy grade essential oils. Most aroma therapists buy their oils from specialist mail order suppliers, not from shops concerned with beauty and perfumery. The advantages offered by mail order suppliers include a wider range of oils and lower prices on larger quantities. However, if you are new to aromatherapy, it may be best to buy your oils from a health shop or other retail outlet specialising in natural remedies. This will give you the opportunity to smell the essences before buying.
But do check that an essential oil labelled as such is in fact 100 per cent essential oil. You may come across a bottle labelled ‘Aromatherapy Oil’, which often means it is a mixture of about 2-3 per cent essential oil in a carrier such as grape-seed or almond oil. These are fine as ready mixed massage oils, albeit an expensive way to enjoy aromatherapy. For instance, a 10 ml bottle (the average size) of a diluted essence is barely enough for a single face and neck massage, whereas a 10 ml bottle of concentrated essential oil, once correctly diluted, is enough for over 100 face and neck massages
Moreover, ready mixed oils are not concentrated enough to be used by the drop to perfume the bath water; neither are they suitable for use in vaporisers for perfuming rooms. Indeed, the entire contents of a 10 ml bottle (approximately two tea spoonfuls) of ready-mixed oil added to a bath full of water would emanate a faint aroma, whereas just two drops of the concentrated essence would result in a stronger aroma. Diluted oils also have a limited shelf life.
Caring for your oils
Essential oils evaporate readily and are easily damaged by light, extremes of temperature and exposure to oxygen in the air. For this reason they are sold in well stoppered, dark glass bottles. They must never be sold in bottles with a rubber pipette (as was common several years ago). In few essential oils, especially cedar-wood, cause rubber to perish into a sticky mess.
In theory, most essential oils will keep for several years. However, with the exception of citrus oils may deteriorate in six to nine months. A few oils improve with age, rather like some good wines. Examples of these are sandalwood, Patchouli and frankincense. But the more often you open the bottle, the greater the chance of oxidation, a process whereby a substance is chemically combined with oxygen and its original structure altered or destroyed as reflected in the deterioration of the aroma.
To prolong the life of your oils, store them in a dark place in normal to cool temperatures (65°F or below). If you have a large selection of oils, they could be stored in a fridge (perhaps a second hand fridge used exclusively for this purpose), but not in the freezer compartment. Although many essences turn cloudy when kept cold, after an hour or two at room temperature they become clear again. Citrus essences, however, are the exception and may become irreversibly cloudy if stored in very cold conditions. Nevertheless, this will not affect their therapeutic properties.
Should you decide to store essential oils in the fridge, always take them out at least an hour before use? If too cold, essential oils do not flow freely. Certain essences need special treatment. Rose Otto, for instance, is semi-solid in cool temperatures, but becomes liquid with the slightest warmth, so rub the bottle between your hands for a few seconds before use. Other oils such as vetiver, cedar-wood, patchouli and myrrh become increasingly viscous as they age and therefore take much longer to become liquid. In fact, myrrh becomes quite solid as it ages. In this instance, you may have to steep the bottle in a cup of hand hot water for about ten minutes. Although heat speeds up the oxidation process, with myrrh it seems there is no other choice.
Although concentrated essential oils have a long shelf life, once diluted in a base oil such as cold-pressed sweet almond or sunflower seed, the aroma will quickly deteriorate along with the oil’s therapeutic properties. Massage oil blends should be stored in the same conditions as concentrated essences, but for no longer than about two months.
Aromatherapy starter selection
With such a vast array or essential oils from which to choose, a great many of which are endowed with similar properties, you will need some guidance on selecting oils for a starter kit. In fact, you could get by on just two essences: lavender and eucalyptus. But if you intend to take the art of aromatherapy seriously, you will probably need a basic selection of about eight carefully chosen oils; enough to create a variety of fragrant compositions. Essential oils often smell heller when two or three are carefully blended together. Since the therapy is meant to be enjoyable, appreciation of the aroma is a vital part of the treatment.
Even though your final choice will be influenced by personal preference, it is also important to be open-minded. Unless you are familiar with essential oils, they may smell rather strange at first. Remember, plant essences are highly concentrated substances. With a few exceptions, it is only when they are correctly diluted that they become pleasant. You may also discover that a previously disliked oil takes on an intriguing persona when carefully blended with other essences.
Take patchouli and vetiver, for instance. On first encounter with their heavy, earthy, overtly Eastern aromas you may feel overwhelmed. But blend either of these oils with larger quantities of fresher smelling essences such as bergamot, lavender and geranium and the aroma takes on a more delicate quality. Then there is Clary sage; despite its reputation as a ‘euphoric’, its sweet herbaceous aroma can be disappointing. Yet Clary has great potential; blend with a tiny amount of the deeply resonating vetiver and a tinge of cheery bergamot, and you create a relaxing aroma reminiscent of woods and dappled sunlight.
Ideally, any initial selection of essential oils will include; a representative from the floral, woody, citrus, spicy, resinous, herbaceous, camphoraceous and earthy groups. As well as presenting a wide range of therapeutic possibilities, such a selection offers plenty of scope for creative blending.
When choosing oils for your kit, you may wish to include a representative from each of the aroma families. Those listed are the most popular essences used in aromatherapy.
Citrus: bergamot FCF, grapefruit, lemon, lime, mandarin, orange.
Floral: geranium chamomile (Roman) rose (or rose phytol), lavender, neroli.
Herbaceous: chamomile (Roman), lavender, peppermint, rosemary, Clary sage.
Carbonaceous: eucalyptus, Rosemary, peppermint, tea tree.
Spicy: coriander, black pepper, ginger, cardarnorn.
Resinous: frankincense, myrrh, gal-ban-um
Woody: cedarwood (Virginian), sandalwood, juniper, cypress.
Earthy: patchouli, vetiver.
As you can see, a few essences belong to more than one group a reflection of their complex chemical make-up.
Suggested Starter Kit: bergamot FCF, geranium, lavender, eucalyptus (or tea tree), coriander, frankincense, juniper berry, patchouli