Many of us associate different scents with memories. When you’re walking through a grocery store, you might smell fresh baked cookies, and it reminds you of being a child in your grandma’s house because she was always baking. This is why it’s not surprising that aromatherapy is so popular. Are there any health benefits? How can you capitalize on them?

Aromatherapy is a holistic healing treatment that uses natural plant extracts (essential oils) to promote health and well-being, which is why it’s often referred to as essential oil therapy. The practice isn’t new. In fact, it has been used for centuries. Many ancient cultures in China, India, and Egypt used aromatic plant components in resins, balms, and oils for medical and religious purposes because of their physical and psychological benefits.

The process of essential oils distillation is attributed to the Persians in the 10th century but is thought to have been in use for much longer. It wasn’t until the 16th century that information about essential oil distillation was published in Germany. By the 19th century, French physicians recognized the potential of essential oils in treating disease. The term “aromatherapy” was first used by a French perfumer and chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, in his book on the topic published in 1937.

According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), aromatherapy is “the therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils) for holistic healing.” The International Standards Organization (ISO) defines an essential oil as a “product obtained from vegetable raw material, either by distillation with water or steam, or from the epicarp of citrus fruits by a mechanical process, or by dry distillation.”

Essential oils are plant extracts made by steaming or pressing various plant parts (flowers, bark, leaves, roots, peels, petals, or fruit) to capture the compounds that produce fragrance. The cells that give a plant its fragrant smell are its “essence” This becomes an essential oil. Authentic essential oils aren’t blended with other chemicals or fragrances, and they’re made using a specific process that doesn’t change the chemistry of the plant. It takes a lot of plant products to make essential oils. For example, it takes about 250 pounds of lavender flower to make 1 pound of lavender essential oil, and about 5,000 pounds of rose petals or lemon balm make 1 pound of either essential oil.

Aromatherapy is thought of as both an art and a science. Recently, it has gained more recognition in the fields of science and medicine. Experts believe that aromatherapy works by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that controls emotions. It’s also thought that they could impact your hypothalamus, which may respond by creating feel-good brain chemicals, such as serotonin.

Aromatherapy is said to have many benefits, like managing pain, improving sleep quality, reducing stress/agitation/anxiety, soothing sore joints, treating headaches/migraines, alleviating side effects of chemotherapy, easing discomforts of labor, fighting bacteria/virus/fungus, improving digestion, enhancing hospice/palliative care, and boosting immunity. When it comes to certain conditions, aromatherapy is thought to be beneficial for asthma, insomnia, fatigue, depression, inflammation, peripheral neuropathy, menstrual issues, alopecia (hair loss), cancer, erectile dysfunction, arthritis, and menopause. Further research is needed to see if it helps treat Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and heart disease.

You might be surprised to learn that there are nearly one hundred types of essential oils, and each one has different healing properties, uses, and effects. The best essential oil for your condition depends on what symptoms you’re looking to ease or the fragrances you prefer. Oils can be used by themselves or combined to create a synergistic blend that provides even more benefits. According to NAHA, the most popular essential oils are clary sage, cypress, eucalyptus, fennel, geranium, ginger, helichrysum, lavender, lemon, lemongrass, mandarin, neroli, patchouli, peppermint, Roman chamomile, rose, rosemary, tea tree, vetiver, and ylang-ylang.

In addition to the variety of essential oils, you can use them in several ways. Since aromatherapy works through the sense of smell and skin absorption, the most popular methods are diffusers, aromatic spritzers, bathing salts, body oils, creams, lotions, facial steamers, hot/cold compresses, and clay masks. Some other options include necklaces, bracelets, and keychains. These have absorbent materials where you apply essential oils and can sniff them throughout the day. Another similar option is an aroma stick (essential oil inhaler), portable plastic sticks with an absorbent wick that soaks up the essential oil. Usually, they come with a cover to keep the scent under wraps until you’re ready to use it.

Aromatherapy is generally safe, but there are some precautions you should take when using them. It’s important to remember that “natural” products are also chemicals, and they can be hazardous if used in the wrong way. The most important is to not apply any essential oil directly to your skin because they are highly concentrated. Instead, always use a carrier oil to dilute them. For this same reason, you should never swallow essential oils. If you do, it can damage your liver or kidneys.

The oils can also lead to interactions with medications because they can undergo unexpected changes while in the gut. Some citrus essential oils may make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so avoid them if you’ll be exposed to sunlight. Children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult with a doctor before using essential oils. Many experts recommend using caution with essential oils if you have hay fever, asthma, epilepsy, high blood pressure, eczema, or psoriasis. Since aromatherapy is a complementary therapy, you should always talk to your doctor before using them.

Aromatherapy isn’t without side effects. Thankfully, they’re generally mild and don’t last long. The most common ones are rashes, asthma attacks, headaches, skin irritation, nausea, and allergic reactions. You’re more likely to have a bad reaction if you have atopic dermatitis or a history of reactions to topical products. It’s critical to note that some people report developing allergies to essential oils after using them many times before. If at any time a new allergic response appears, stop using the essential oil immediately and avoid its smell.

It’s a good idea before using a new oil to do an allergy test. The best way to do this is to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil at twice the concentration you plan to use. Next, rub the mixture into an area the size of a quarter on the inside of the forearm. After 24 – 48 hours, if there’s no allergic response, it should be safe to use.

It’s essential to note that a maximum concentration of 5% is generally considered safe for adults. To achieve a 0.5 – 1% dilution, use 3 to 6 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier. So, for a 5% dilution, you would add 30 drops to one ounce of carrier.

While you can experience a reaction to any essential oil, some are more likely to cause an impact, like oregano, cinnamon bark, jasmine, lemongrass, ylang-ylang, chamomile, and bergamot. It’s also vital to be aware that some oils can be toxic, such as bitter almond, inula, khella, mugwort, pennyroyal, sage, sassafras, thuja, turmeric, and wintergreen. Some oils are very toxic, including ajowan, arnica, boldo, calamus, cascarilla, chervil, camphor, deer tongue, horseradish, jaborandi, mustard, narcissus, nutmeg, parsley, rue, santolina, spanish broom, tansy, tonka, wormseed, and wormwood. If you plan on using any of these, do so under the guidance of an aromatherapist.

While there’s plenty of information available online and in books for you to start your journey with aromatherapy, it’s a good idea to meet with a certified aromatherapist when you’re first getting started, especially if you have specific issues you’d like to address. The best way to find one is through an online directory or by asking at a spa or yoga studio.

An aromatherapist will ask you questions during your initial consultation and talk about your medical history, lifestyle, diet, and current health history. They’ll use this information to develop an individual treatment plan to meet your goals and manage your symptoms. Based on these needs, the aromatherapist may recommend a single oil or a blend. Consultation fees will vary depending on several factors, including where you live. On average, you can expect to pay up to $100 for an initial consultation and up to $50 for follow-up consultations.

Since essential oils are available online, in health food stores, and in some regular supermarkets, it can be challenging to know what to look for when buying them. You want to find a quality product that is 100% natural, meaning it shouldn’t contain any additives or synthetic ingredients. It’s vital to realize that essential oils aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They don’t need FDA approval as long as they don’t claim to treat a specific disease. Since there’s no regulation, the label may not list everything that’s in the bottle. That’s another reason why you shouldn’t ingest them.

The first thing to look at is the container the oil comes in. It should be dark-colored (brown or blue), small (4 ounces or less), and made of glass. Since pure essential oils are highly concentrated, they can dissolve plastic bottles, tainting the oil over time. Next, you need to look at the label. It should have the plant’s Latin name, the part of the plant used to make it, how the oil was extracted (ex. distillation or mechanical cold pressing), information on purity, and the country in which the plant was grown.

It’s also a good idea to evaluate the company. Only purchase products from a well-known and reputable aromatherapy company that’s been around for several years. You also want to compare prices. There’s usually a range in price, depending on how involved harvesting and production are. However, if you find an extremely low price for an expensive essential oil, it probably isn’t pure. Keep in mind that many companies claim their essential oils are “therapeutic grade,” but that’s just a marketing term.

Definitely avoid fragrance or perfume oils because they’re made from essential oils combined with chemicals or entirely from chemicals. Some beauty and household products, such as lotions, make-up, and candles, contain products that may appear to be essential oils, but they are really synthetic fragrances.

When using essential oils, remember that concentrated products may be poisonous before dilution, so you should handle them with care. Also, only small doses are required. Many experts recommend not using them routinely because your body can get used to them, lowering their effectiveness. When storing essential oils, be mindful that light, heat, and oxygen can affect the integrity of the oil. This is why keeping them in the original containers in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to use them is key.

Aromatherapy can have many positive benefits as long as it’s used properly. Always check with your doctor and do a skin test before using them. Once you do this, happy smelling!