We clever humans have been figuring out the therapeutic nature of plants for millennia and using that knowledge to heal, nurture and relax. If you have never taken an aromatherapy course and are beginning to look into it, the subject can feel extremely overwhelming. There are hundreds of plants, and of those, many of those have sub-species. Just Google aromatherapy and you can see how far the rabbit hole goes. This week, we are going to break down the major groups of plants and their benefits to give you a starting point, how far you go with it is up to you (and up to how long you are staying home and looking for a pastime)!
Let’s start with some history. Ancient Egyptians were some of the first documented people to build a distillery to make their oils for embalming their dead. When unearthed, it has been said that you could still smell the fragrance on some mummies. The ancient Chinese also used infused oils as mood enhancers. All this, thousands of years ago. It is only recently that the term “aromatherapy” has been used. In 1937, a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, was looking into the properties of the “essence” of plants. He had distilled (more on this process in a moment) some lavender flower buds and the liquid was sitting on his workbench when he burned himself. Having no water around to cool the wound, he stuck his burned skin into the lavender. By his records, he should have had a much worse burn, however, there was little damage. Thus his quest to research the healing properties of plant essences was further fueled. Another Frenchman, Jean Valnet, having heard of these plant essential oils and their therapeutic properties began to use them on soldiers wounded in World War II. He was witness to increased healing and reduced infections, paving the way for modern aromatherapy as well as the development of some pharmaceutical-grade drugs.
Now, what is a distillery and how is plant matter distilled into essential oils? Quite simply it is the use of water, heat and cold to separate the essence of a plant from its physical form. This process is used for flowers, stalks, barks, roots etc. The plant matter is mixed with water and boiled or steamed in a large container. A glass tube is inserted into the flask to collect the steam. It rises up into the tube which then starts to curve downward, coiling through a cooling system (like an ice bath for example). Then the distillate (fluid) drips into another container. The liquid is allowed to settle and you can see the separation of the essential oil and water. As water is denser and essential oils are hydrophobic (they do not like water) you can skim the lavender essential oil off the top. The leftover water, called Hydrosol, is also valuable and used for many cosmetic applications. If you have ever bought a Rose, Lavender or Neroli water as a facial toner or spray, you are using the hydrosol left from the distillation of the plant! Oh my, I see myself tumbling down the rabbit hole, back on track. Other ways of producing essential oils are solvent extraction, CO2 extraction, maceration (think mortar and pestle), enfleurage (Enfleurage is a process that uses odourless fats that are solid at room temperature to capture the fragrant compounds exuded by plants. The process can be “cold” enfleurage or “hot” enfleurage. *Wikipedia) and cold press extraction (using weight to squeeze the essential oils out).
As mentioned earlier, it can be overwhelming to learn all the essential oils so let’s break it down into different groups, or families, of scents. Luckily their nature, appearance, and of course scent help to make it easy. Today we will discuss the following four major families: floral, citrus, menthol and woodsy.
Starting with the most commonly scent associated type of plant: Flowers. There’s a reason for the saying “Stop and smell the roses”. Most floral essential oils are known to be calming, light and delicate. Think about it, you could use those exact same descriptors to describe an actual flower. Rose, Lavender, and Chamomile are examples of lighter, more calming floral scents and can be quite healing and regenerative for the skin. There are also the heavier, more perfumed notes of Jasmine, Ylang Ylang and Plumeria, often used as aphrodisiacs in many cultures due to their exotic and enticing scents.
Next up: Citrus. The essential oils of Orange, Lemon, Lime and Grapefruit, just to name a few, offer their uplifting and energizing scents as well as their astringent properties for the skin. Nicknamed “sunshine in a bottle”, just a few drops of delicious Orange essential oil in a diffuser on a cloudy winter day can help lift your mood and get you through.
Now for Menthol. Think Peppermint, Spearmint and Birch (Wintergreen). These have a very clearing nature, whether it be for clearing the mind, the respiratory system, or the body. Some menthols can be used to reduce pain and inflammation, such as Birch and Willow which contain high amounts of salicylate, a precursor to salicylic acid (more commonly known as Aspirin). If you are out in the woods and hurt yourself, you can soak some birch bark in water then cover the injury with it until you can get medical care (of course, if you are out in the middle of the woods you should also have a first aid bag with you). Peppermint essential oil blends can be used on the temples for headaches and a mentholated cream on the chest can help with mucous excretion from the lungs and sinuses.
Saving the best for last, well in my opinion, let’s look at Woodsy scents, this Aromatherapists’ favourite! Once again, think about a sturdy old tree in the forest, deeply rooted and offering respite from the world around. Woodsy essential oils are grounding, focusing and calming. Personally, I think that Sandalwood is one of the most calming, centring and grounding oil out there. And historically, cultures have used Frankincense for meditation, prayer and rituals for millennia. There are current studies that are researching these essential oils’ ability to focus the minds of those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Now, this is just a scratch of the aromatherapy worlds’ surface as I do not want to inadvertently trick you into reading a novel instead of a blog. If this has tickled your curiosity, there are so many resources out there: books, articles, online courses and online forums. I recommend if you are starting an essential oil collection, begin with one from each of the groups, ones that you know you like. From there, you can expand little by little. You want to look for “therapeutic grade” essential oils to know they are pure and potent. I prefer to use organically and ethically sourced oils. And remember, there is a reason they come in bottles with a drop dispenser, one drop goes a long way! If you are doing a lot of blending, do so in a ventilated environment with lots of fresh air as again, these are potent! Also a word of caution, essential oils are flammable, you do not want to be using them around open flames (or putting drops directly into a lit candle). OK, OK, enough with the safety briefing – Allow me to share 2 recipes for my favourite bath salts to experiment with this week. Enjoy!
1 cup Epsom Salt
1 cup Sea Salt
1 Tablespoon of Grapeseed oil
5-10 drops TOTAL of essential oils
Combine salts in a larger bowl
Pour 1 Tablespoon Grapeseed oil into a smaller bowl
Add Essential oils to Grapeseed oil and mix well
Add oil mixture to salts and mix well
Run a bath and pour bath salts
Step in and enjoy
|Nighttime Relaxing Blend:||Winter (or Covid) Blues Blend:|
|5 drops Lavender Essential Oil||5 drops Orange Essential Oil|
|2 drops Chamomile Essential Oil||3 drops Frankincense Essential Oil|
|3 drops Rose Essential Oil||2 drops Lavender Essential Oil|
There are not a lot of rules when it comes to blending oils for yourself. It is a personal thing, so if it smells good to you, great! *A couple words of caution about using Essential Oils: if using menthol family oils for bath salts, they are potent and can be irritating to certain areas. If you want a hint of menthol, use no more than 2 drops per bath and test it out. If you have no reaction, slowly introduce more. Also, you always want to dilute essential oils in a carrier oil (Grapeseed, Jojoba, Olive) as they can be harmful to the skin used “neat” (straight from the bottle). I always recommend testing the oil blend on a small patch of skin before putting it over the entire body. So, listen to your nose and enjoy a whole new world of natural wellbeing!