What is aromatherapy?
It is an approach to health care through essential oils. Plants with aromatic particules, called aromatic plants, are distilled with steam. They contain various therapeutic properties : such as antalgic, antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, cauterizing, or anxiolytic effects. They are used preventively or in the treatment of several pathologies, either on their own or in combination with other therapies. They are also used as cosmetics and parfumes. They can be used in cooking, though it is advisable to turn to floral waters, which are easier to use in this context.
An essential oil is a natural product, influenced by the weather, exposition to sunlight, nature of the soil, altitude, distillation,… The same oil can vary a lot depending on the country, the producer, and even the year, for circumstances are never the same. For instance two true lavenders picked at the same time in the same area but at different altitudes (800 and 1,000 meters above sea level, say) will not have the same smell.
Distilling essential oils
Aromatic plants are distilled with steam. They are introduced into a still through which steam in an independent boiler enters through a pipe. Steam extracts aromatic particles from the plants, resulting into a gazeous blend. This blend is fed into a coil steeped in cold water where condensation occurs. By the end of the process both the water used in distillation and the extracted oil are collected in a container. Since the essential oil is lighter it floats on the surface. The water that contains those aromatic particles is called hydrolat or floral water.
The method for extracting oil from citrus (such as lemons, oranges, bergamots or grapefruits) is different. Their zest (or peel) is squeezed (away from any source of heat) to extract aromatic particles. Here we will not refer to aromatic oils but to essences.
Products of aromatherapy
Three types of products are used in aromatherapy: essential oils, hydrolats, and vegetal oils.
- Huile essentielle
- Aromatic particles can be found in various parts of the plants depending on the species: in the flowers (rose), fruit (orange), leaves (laurel), wood (Atlas cedar), bark (cinnamon), or roots or rhizomes (ginger). There are several ways of using essential oils: rubbing it on the skin or adding drops to your bath, through oral ingestion or suppositories, through inhalation (using a diffusing device that does not heat the oil as this would alter the components).
- Hydrolat or floral water
- The term refers to the water that has been used in the distillation process and contains the plant’s aromatic particles. As a rule hydrolats offer the same properties as the corresponding essential oils. They contain fewer active principles but have hardly any side-effects. They are recommended for sensitive people, young children, pregnant women, and elderly people. They offer the further benefit of mixing well with water, contrary to essential oils that float on the surface.
- Vegetal oil
- Vegetal oils are derived from oleaginous plants (such as almonds, avocadoes, hazel nuts). They each have specific properties. They are used as carrier oils for essential oils. It is recommended to choose a vegetal oil that has not been heated during extraction (cold pressing) so as to preserve all its properties.
We unduly tend to think that because they are natural essential oils cannot do any harm. They are natural all right, but can actually be dangerous. If you are interested in aromatherapy, it is advisable to go to a specialist or to get trained into how essential oils should be used.
A few preliminary words of caution :
- Essential oils must be kept out of reach of children.
- Pregnant or feeding women as well as children under three must not use them without a specialist’s recommendation.
- Only a specialist can decide whether an essential oil can be ingested orally. Some are dermocaustic (skin sensitive) or hepatotoxic and could cause damage if ingested.
- Contact with the eyes, ears, and genital and anal areas must be avoided.
- Some oils (mainly citrus) are sensitive to light and may stain your skin if exposed to sunlight. Avoid sunbathing for 12 hours after application.
- People who suffer from allergies or respiratory conditions must be cautious when using essential oils.
Yet these words of caution should not prevent you from finding out more about aromatherapy. My intention is certainly not to frighten you away but to make you aware of the fact that these products are powerful and cannot be used lightly.
- « L’aromathérapie, se soigner par les huiles essentielles », Dominique Baudoux, éditions Amyris.
- « Le guide de l’aromathérapie », Guillaume Gérault et Ronald Mary, éditions Albin Michel.
- « L’hydrolathérapie, thérapie des eaux florales », Lydia Bosson et Guénolée Dietz, éditions Amyris.