Our senses play a huge part in how we experience and react to the world around us. Hearing a displeasing sound can trigger anxiety, while breathing in a beautiful scent may send you back in time, consumed by an equally lovely memory.
In fact, our sense of smell is so powerful that certain essential oils—which are typically extracted from parts of plants and then distilled—can promote feelings of wellness.
What Is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system—the part of the brain that controls emotions.
“Essential oils can be used for a myriad of reasons,” says Leslie Cohen, an aromatherapist and owner of The Blissful Heart wellness collective in New Jersey. “They can help with respiratory issues, evoke a mood—calm, happiness, sensuality—and deepen a meditative practice.” Cohen says they can also be used to help clean surfaces and dissipate not-so-nice odors.
There’s science behind the power of aromatherapy, too. According to the journal, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, it’s been shown to provide stress relief, promote healthy sleeping patterns, and ease symptoms of anxiety.
Pick A Few Favorites
Getting the most out of aromatherapy means honing in on the oils that are best for your needs.
When you first start investigating essential oils, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the options and combinations. “Start with only five to 10 primary essential oils for your basic natural healthcare kit,” recommends Stephanie Tourles, a licensed esthetician, certified aromatherapist, and herbalist in Maine. “Try truly multi-purpose oils, like Roman chamomile, eucalyptus, geranium, lavender, sweet marjoram, sweet orange, peppermint, rosemary, and thyme.”
Many oils come in standard or milder versions, so be sure to look out for that, as well.
1. Diffuse or directly inhale
You can buy a diffuser to disperse the essential oils into your space, though Cohen prefers direct inhalation, if you’re game. “Put a few drops of your favorite oil or blend on your palm, rub your hands together briskly, cup around your nose, and breathe deeply,” she instructs. “This is by far the quickest and most effective way to enjoy the benefits of many oils.”
That said, you should be cautious with which oils you apply directly to your palms—or any part of your body—and breathe in. Many are caustic and almost any essential oil can cause a reaction (like sun sensitivity, allergic reactions, or skin irritation) if you are sensitive to it, she explains.
The solution? Dilute them with oil or cream (more on that below)! “Some need to be diluted more than others to make them safer,” Cohen notes. “In general, think about how it might taste or how it’s used in its complete form. For instance, oregano, black pepper and cinnamon are hot when you eat them.” So, you wouldn’t want to put ‘hot’ oils directly onto your skin.
If you’re planning on directly inhaling a strong oil, start with one drop only and cautiously bring your hands to your nose to make sure it’s not too overpowering for your respiratory system, Cohen advises. “Those hot oils can burn your sinuses. Also be careful not to touch your hands to your face if you’re using a strong oil.”
2. Apply directly to your skin
If you want to apply an essential oil to your skin, your best bet is to dilute it to a very low concentration—one to three drops per ounce of an oil with a preferably organic, fat-soluble base or “carrier” oil like sunflower oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil. You can also use an unscented cream. After diluting it, you can test the blend on a small area of your body before using it as a massage oil, for example.
After the patch test, you can work with different concentrations. Generally, you want to mix a drop with at least a teaspoon of a carrier oil.
A Note of Caution on Formulations
“Children are not small adults and cannot handle the same dilution ratios as adults,” she says. So, do your research before concocting your blends!
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy is one particularly reputable resource that provides details on how to dilute your oils appropriately (depending on what you’re using them for and who you’re using them on) and how to locate a certified aromatherapist in your area.
You can also find a practitioner by searching on the Aromatherapy Registration Council site.