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The benefits of aromatherapy are more than pretty scents

Lisa Fogarty


Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

Awesome health benefits to aromatherapy and six to take on a test drive

There's a lot more to aromatherapy than sweet smells and burning incense. The ancient practice can benefit your health and well-being in ways you never thought possible.

The practice of using essential oils like lavender, eucalyptus and jasmine help do everything from reducing nausea and relieving stress and muscle pain to bringing balance to our emotional states. It has ancient roots, but continues to lure in folks who want to incorporate natural alternatives to their health care regiment.

But, to the newbie who finds herself walking aimlessly through a health food store staring at rows and rows of oils (been there, done that), aromatherapy can also be intimidating. It's difficult to know where to start or even how to use oils to achieve the best results. And what, exactly, is a carrier oil, anyway?

More: 6 Ways essential oils can seriously harm you

First, the basics on essential oils: "Essential oils are the concentrated extracts of plants, flowers and herbs that contain nutrients, enzymes, minerals and antiseptic properties," says Michelle Ornstein, licensed aromatherapist and founder of Enessa Skincare. "When applied to the skin in a diluted form, essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream and help the body release toxins and impurities."

Cary Caster — a botanist, licensed massage therapist, certified clinical aromatherapist and founder of 21 Drops Essential Oil Therapy — describes aromatherapy as the science of using essential oils "to help bring balance to the emotional, physical and mental health of an individual by either inhalation or topical application."

More: 10 Essential oils and their uses

The reason we're all flipping over oils actually came about thanks to a famous mistake. After experiencing an explosion in his lab, chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé reached for the nearest oil to help soothe his skin. Lucky for him, he chose lavender oil and the result impressed him greatly: His burn wounds healed so well he began investigating essential oils and the rest was history. The term "aromatherapy" was coined in 1928 and oils have been used ever since — even to treat wounded soldiers during World War II, says Demetria Clarke, an author and the director of Heart of Herbs herbal school.

Applying oil directly to the skin, the way Gattefossé did decades ago, isn't the only way to receive its benefits, nor is it always advisable, especially when you're dealing with a potent oil that may cause reactions if not mixed with a carrier oil (more about that in a second). "You can use essential oils in diffusers, on cotton balls, compresses, room spray, bath salts, massage oils, face creams — they have a lot of applications and usages," Clarke says.

More: This is the easiest way to make your own scented oil diffuser

To prevent a possible skin reaction, Ornstein recommends diluting all essential oils, even a gentle lavender oil, with a "carrier oil" such as almond, avocado, sunflower or an ester like jojoba. "The ratio of carrier to essential oil depends entirely on the specific oil or synergy of essential oils used as well as the desired result to be achieved," she says. Since each oil has its own personality, it makes sense to do a bit of investigative work into the specific oil you plan on using to determine how much carrier oil you should use.

Here comes the fun part: What do some of the most popular essential oils used today actually do for your health and well-being? Here's a more in-depth look at six commonly used oils and their reported benefits.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) — As Gattefossé discovered, lavender essential oil can treat burns, cuts, scrapes, insect bites and even sunburn. But, its healing properties go way beyond its topical uses. It is also known to help create a calm, relaxing environment (especially when used with a diffuser), promote better sleep and even soothe fussy newborns. "Lavender is considered one of the safest essential oils on the market," Clarke says. "Some sources say it’s OK to use lavender essential oil neat, or without dilution; however, to prevent reactions, I recommend that lavender essential oil always be diluted. Sensitivity can occur suddenly or after long-term use, and mixing lavender with a carrier oil can help prevent this."

Neroli (Citrus aurantium) — Neroli was traditionally used to treat depression, stress and other types of emotional distress, according to Clarke. It is also said to help combat fine lines, wrinkles and even stretch marks.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) — There's a good reason why some folks will tell you to eat a peppermint candy when you feel nauseous — this oil can actually be placed in a handkerchief and sniffed to relieve a sour stomach, Clarke says. Its other benefits include helping to fight fatigue, skin eruptions, sore muscles and for cooling and offering pain relief for chicken pox, insect bites, scabies and shingles. And, if you're looking to rid your clothing of unwanted odors, Clarke suggests adding a few drops of peppermint mixed with lavender into your laundry.

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) — Tea tree is an extremely popular essential oil because it has so many uses. "It can be used to treat candida, chicken pox, colds, cold sores, cuts and scrapes, flu, headaches, insect bites and itchiness," Clarke. It's also a well-researched oil, she says, and studies have found it is effective in treating acne and even athlete's foot. Always dilute tea tree oil with a carrier oil because it can cause skin sensitivities when applied straight.

Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) — If you experience hormonal mood swings associated with premenstrual syndrome or menopause, look no further than ylang-ylang essential oil to relax you and help balance your emotions. "In a diffuser blend, this essential oil can assist with feelings of angst, anxiety and irritability," Clarke says. "Also effective against depression, it’s found in many antidepressant blends."

Carrot seed oil — Ornstein says this is one of her favorite essential oils for anti-aging skin because it is high in antioxidants, which makes it ideal to use in facial moisturizers that will protect your skin from sun exposure and the environment. "Due to the fact that it contains high amounts of carotenoids, is has the ability to rejuvenate the skin," Ornstein says. "In addition, carrot seed oil contains vitamin E and vitamin C, which work as a synergy to help bring life to dull skin and stimulate new cell growth. It is also used to heal eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis and aids in skin repair."

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