Aromatherapy is the use of pure essential oils for the enhancement of body, mind and spirit. Essential oils are concentrated substances with very complex chemical structures that are extracted from highly aromatic plant material. Today the term Aromatherapy is used commercially to promote just about anything from a hair shampoo to air fresheners, however, when we use the term Aromatherapy we mean the use of therapeutic quality essential oils to promote wellness and balance for body, mind and/or spirit.
Aromatherapy and You!
These days, essential oils are incorporated into practically every sphere of life. They are used by aromatherapists, nurses, counselors, psychologists, massage therapists and beauty therapists. Medical practitioners in France treat chronic infections using essential oils, and they have long been used extensively in the complex and exacting perfume industry. The use of essential oils is not restricted to professionals. Everyone can learn how to safely use these wonderful gifts of nature for their own benefit, as well as that of family and friends. Whether your interest lies in utilizing essential oils in beauty preparations or to enhance emotional and physical well being (or both), we are sure that you will find a use for Aromatherapy in your life.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils occur naturally in some plants and are in fact the aroma that one smells. Essential oils are tiny droplets, which are found in glands, glandular hairs or sacs in different parts of the plant. They can be found in flowers, leaves, stems, bark, wood, roots and fruits of plants. For instance squeeze the skin of an orange and out pops an aromatic, volatile essential oil. Essential oils are complex chemical compounds containing esters, alcohols, phenols, aldehydes, ketones, terpenes, ethers and sesquiterpenes among others. Each of the chemicals contained in an essential oil will impart its own unique properties to that oil. For example lavender essential oil would have analgesic, antidepressant, carminative, emmenagogue, rubefacient, stimulant and sudorific properties as some of its major chemical constituents are linalool, linalyl acetate, geraniol and lavandulol. Essential oils are volatile as they evaporate easily, and although called an oil are in fact not oily to the touch. Essential oils are extracted from the plant by a number of different means including steam distillation (the method most often used), cold pressing, enfleurage, solvent extraction and CO2 extraction. For more information read the answer to the question Essential Oils – What should you really know about them?
How do essential oils work?
Essential oils enter the body through two routes. When inhaled they enter the body via the olfactory system, which has a direct connection to the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is known as the primitive brain and it encircles the top of the brain stem and forms a border linking cortical and midbrain areas with lower centers that control automatic, internal body functions. It comprises the hippocampus, amygdala, septal area and several regions of the cerebrum. It is associated with feelings such as hunger, thirst, anger, sadness, sexual arousal and pleasure. It is also associated with creativity, learning and memory. This is one of the reasons why so often something that we smell will trigger a memory or remind us of something or someone. This can be both pleasant and unpleasant. The sense of smell is very sensitive and in fact we do not even have to be able to consciously smell something for it to have an effect on us. When diluted and applied externally, some of the essential oil molecules may permeate the skin, pass through the capillaries and into the blood stream which will of course carry them to all parts of the body.
Why would one use essential oils?
Essential oils are used for many different reasons and in a number of different ways. They can truly address the needs of the body, mind and spirit. They can be used to help with emotional challengers such as lack of self esteem or they can be used for more physical and mental problems such as stress, muscle aches and pains, headaches, depression, colds and flu etc. Aromatics have a long history of being used in religious or spiritual practices and today essential oils can be utilized to access the spiritual side of our nature. They can be diffused while meditating or praying. They can be used in a diffuser to create just the right mood or atmosphere or to clear a stuffy nose. They can be added to personal products such as soaps, body lotions and creams for skin care and personal hygiene. They can be used in baths, compresses or massage oils to enhance many different aspects of life.
How can I be sure I am purchasing a good quality essential oil?
Unless you have found a reputable essential oil supplier whom you trust this can sometimes be a case of trial and error. Be wary of any essential oils that all cost the same price. In the case of true essential oils this is an impossibility. For example the essential oil yield from different plants varies greatly and any source offering oils such as rose, neroli and jasmine (which have a low essential oil yield) for the same price as lavender, peppermint and orange (which have a much higher yield) must be suspect. You would expect a good essential oil to be sold in a dark glass bottle (usually blue or brown, sometime violet or green) and to have the following information available on the label and/or information leaflet.
Try to educate your nose. Whenever possible, smell one essential oil e.g. lavender or geranium from several different sources and see what your nose tells you.
How do I find a reputable supplier essential oils?
Today there are many suppliers of essential oils and it can be quite difficult choosing the right one or right ones. It can take a little while and some investigation but there are some wonderful essential oil suppliers out there. Request a brochure. Compare prices. Then speak to the supplier. They should be knowledgeable and be able to answer questions on any of the products they offer. Unless you are able to test the essential oils you buy yourself it often boils down to a matter of trust so take the time to find someone whom you feel you can trust. You want to be sure that they have done their homework and that you are getting what you expect to get when you purchase from them. Writing to them, email or mail, or speaking to them will give you a feel of what sort of a person they are and how they conduct their business. Ask questions. Make sure that their oils are 100% pure essential oils and not diluted in carrier oil. If their brochure does not list information with regards to the Latin name, Country of Origin etc. of the oils you could ask for this information. Once you have decided on a supplier try their product. Purchase a small quantity and try it out. Sometimes you will find that you may wish to purchase from more than one supplier. X may have a lavender essential oil you really love while Y has a rose essential oil you have to have.
What is meant by adulteration?
Adulteration is when an essential oil has been added to or changed. This can happen in a number of different ways. For instance, in order to extend an essential oil, a carrier oil could have been added. Unless clearly marked on the label that the essential oil is diluted in carrier oil this is, of course, highly unethical. Unfortunately given the high cost of some essential oils this can happen. For instance, a drop of essential oil on filter paper should not leave an oily mark behind. Another way oils can be adulterated is to extend an essential oil with a similar smelling cheaper oil. Here what you are purchasing is a 100% essential oil, however, you are not getting the oil you thought you were getting. Melissa is an example of an oil that is often sold adulterated. Melissa yields an extremely small amount of essential oil and is very expensive. If you see Melissa offered for the same price as for instance Lavender beware. The fact that adulteration of essential oils does happen on the market place today is another reason why you should find an essential oil supplier whom you can trust.
What do you mean by neat?
When we refer to using essential oils neat we mean that they are used undiluted.
What dilutions of essential oils should be used?
Essential oils are concentrated substances so remember less is better than more. Do not use undiluted essential oils topically on the skin and be sure you are aware of any contraindications with regards to each particular oil before you use it.
What you should really know about them?
Over the last few years, aromatherapy and the use of essential oils has had a real surge in popularity and there has been a large increase in the number of people using essential oils regularly for all sorts of things.
A simple Google search will bring up lots of sites and blogs that share information on essential oils and how they should be used. Some are very good, but many are not so good. In addition to this, the number of groups dedicated to aromatherapy and the use of essential oils on social media sites, like Facebook, is also growing in leaps and bounds and all of them are sharing information about the oils and how they should be used.
We live in a very fast paced world these days where many of us are dealing with information overload, and since you have been told that essential oils are safe to use because they come from nature, you might think that having access to free, quick, off the cuff recommendations for the use of essential oils for all sorts of purposes, even serious health conditions, is a time saving way to go. Unfortunately it just isn’t that simple. Yes essential oils do come from nature, but it is important to understand that they are very concentrated, complex chemical compounds, and to keep in mind that people can be quite individualistic as to how they react and respond when exposed to essential oils. It can never simply be a case of ‘one size fits all’, or ‘it worked for me so it has to work for you’. There is just so much more to consider. Which is why I believe it is really important for you to know where you are getting your information and recommendations from. What training does the person giving you the advice and recommendations actually have? Are they really sharing information or is it marketing rhetoric and hype? Only you can discern this but I think you owe it to yourself and your precious family to make sure.
What are Essential Oils?
More than 250,000 different plants have been identified to date. Not all of these contain essential oils, those that do are classified as aromatic plants. Not all aromatic plants contain enough essential oil to make their extraction commercially viable and today there are around 450 plants that are used to produce commercially viable essential oils.
When we look at all plants we find that they all undergo primary and secondary metabolism processes. While the distinction is not always clear, processes generally classified as primary metabolism are those that have remained relatively unchanged throughout biological evolution. On the other hand processes belonging to secondary metabolism is according, to Kurt Schnaubelt in Biology of Essential Oils, “… mostly expendable for the growth and development of the individual plant, yet the plant will not be able to survive or propagate without it. “
It has been estimated that within the plant kingdom there are somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 secondary compounds, of which only a small proportion has been identified. Essential oils are the result of secondary metabolism and are produced in order to meet certain needs and requirements of that particular plant. Exactly why essential oils evolve into such complex chemical compounds is unclear. However, the fact that variable factors such as, time of day, time of year, maturity of the plant and others can cause changes in the plant’s essential oil complex chemistry indicates that the plant adapts and changes the essential oil it produces to meet its needs and requirements at the time.
What is the function of essential oils in the plant?
Research indicates that essential oils appear to fulfill two main functions in the plant. Those of communication and defence.
Once formed in the plant, essential oils are stored in special structures, such as secretory hairs, secretory cells within the epidermis, special sacs made from several secretory cells surrounding an oil-filled space and secretory ducts (tubes lined with secretory cells). Where the essential oil is stored can sometimes be an indication of its function. For instance when essential oils are stored in secretory hairs (which point outwards from the surface of the leaves and stems of the plant) if something brushes up against the plant, the essential oil is quickly released into the air, perhaps an indication that it is there to repel predators. On the other hand when the essential oil is stored in secretory sacs and ducts (mostly located inside the leaves, heartwood or roots of the plant) the function appears to be one of protecting the plant against bacteria, fungi and pests. While not the only component of a plant to attract pollinators, the fact that some essential oil components are to be found in the essential oil at times that appropriate pollinators are likely to be around, appear to indicate that the essential oil also plays a role in the success of pollination.
How is the essential oil extracted from the plant?
Purists will tell you that end products obtained after subjecting plant material to a steam-distillation, a hydro-distillation, or a combination steam-hydro-distillation, the , hydro, steam/hydro distillation are essential oils and hydrosols also known as hydrolates. Other methods used to obtain these highly aromatic extracts are: Expression, also known as cold pressing used specifically with citrus fruits; Enfleurage previously used for delicate flowers, not used very much today; Solvent Extraction and CO2 hypercritical extraction.
How much essential oil there is available to be extracted from any plant will vary depending on the particular plant. To get an idea of just how concentrated our little bottles of essential oil actually are, I would ask you to consider the following figures showing the percentage yield of essential oil obtained from a selection of plants. For instance:
Peppermint yields about 0.3 – 0.4% volatile oil
Spearmint yields about 0.7% volatile oil
Sweet Marjoram yields about 0.2 – 0.8% volatile oil
Rosemary yields about 0.5% volatile oil
Rose yields about 0.02 – 0.03% volatile oil
Petitgrain yields about 0.2% volatile oil
So what does this really mean?
It means that in order to produce 30 ml or 1 ounce bottle of peppermint essential oil (yield of 0.3%) you would have to steam distill around 10 kg (over 20 lbs) of Peppermint flowering tops. And if you wanted to produce a 30 ml / 1 ounce bottle of rose essential oil (yield 0.02%) you would need to steam-distill around 150 kg (330 lbs) of rose petals.
Understanding that essential oils are formed as secondary metabolites in plants, as well as gaining a new perspective of just how much plant material it takes to make just a little bit of essential oil, can certainly give one new insight into just how important it is that when using essential oils, you do so with knowledge and respect, following safety guidelines and appropriate protocols.
Holistic blending is a concept that still seems to be a foreign concept to many. I get calls from people expecting a quick answer from me on what is the best oil for this condition or that condition. They seem to think that because they are wanting to get away from drugs and take a more natural approach, they can call someone up and get an on the spot solution. They don’t seem to have thought about the fact that it would be unethical for me to make suggestions about essential oils they should, or shouldn’t, use without a proper consultation, which would entail me getting a whole lot more information. I am sure they wouldn’t expect to be able to call up their medical doctor and have them diagnose and prescribe over the phone.
What is even more concerning is the fact that information on the use of essential oils is freely shared by people who have had minimal or no training. When a professional reads what they are recommending it becomes apparent that they have little or no understanding of what essential oils, with their complex chemical structure really are. Nor do they really understand what we can expect from the oils and what contraindications we should be aware of.
The truth is that there never is just ONE right oil for anything. There are many options and when one is assessing what will be the best fit is is important to take many different aspects into consideration. The best approach for those who want to use essential oils for serious medical conditions, is to seek out a trained professional aromatherapist and set up a consultation with them. The consultation will be a time of information gathering that is not just restricted to the diagnosis, (to be clear the aromatherapist will not be making the diagnosis, that is out of their scope of practice, the diagnosis if there is one, would have already been established by their medical doctor), although that would be a place to start, but will also address other aspects including: the physical symptoms the individual is experiencing; The emotional challenges they are facing, which may or may not be directly associated with their physical condition; The individual’s own willingness to be an active participant in the process and take some personal responsibility for their own health and healing; What, if any, energetic element is contributing to where they find themselves. What about their lifestyle, does this need to change? Will they be consistent in adding any sort of protocol the aromatherapist comes up with into that lifestyle? For instance, there is no point making up a blend to be used in the bath, if the individual hates taking baths. It is only when the trained aromatherapists has collected all this information, that they are able to assess it all and come up with a unique blend and protocol for using that blend specifically for the individual. Blends created in this way always turn out to be far more successful than any generic type of blend.
It is my belief that anyone wanting to use essential oils on themselves, their family and/or with others should spend time learning about these wonderful complex gifts of nature. It isn’t always necessary to take a formal course, although this can certainly take a lot of the guess work out for many, there are also many excellent books available. I also believe that when it comes to more serious conditions, if you don’t have the training yourself, you should see a professional, rather than take the well meaning, but not always accurate advice from those without proper training.
Using essential oils for ourselves and our families is one of the most rewarding ways to use these wonderful gifts of nature. There are a number of ways we can do this including:
Growers and Distillers
Production of essential oils starts with the people who grow the plants that produce the essential oils and continues with those who distil these precious substances. The grower needs to know a lot about growing the plants, looking after them, harvesting and storing them etc. Distillation is an art itself requiring a lot of know-how in order to bring out the best quality essential oil possible from the plant material at hand.
Suppliers will source out the best essential oils they can, often dealing directly with the farms and distillers who produce the oils. These companies can be distributors, and/or wholesalers of the essential oils.
The growth of the internet has made it possible for people to sell all over the world. For many wholesalers of essential oils and essential oil products, this is the major way they interact with their clients.
Working within an existing retail space (like a health food or natural product store), or opening your own space to sell essential oils and products directly to the customer. You could also choose to sell your products on consignment to other retail outlets or at Farmer’s Markets and craft fairs. Another venue would be through Home Parties.
Formulators of Product Lines
Creating a unique product line is another avenue aromatherapists often take. Some stick to beauty products, other like to create therapeutic products and still others like to do both. Once you have a product line you can decide whether to sell it wholesale to other outlets or sell it retail yourself.
An aromatherapist consultant will help create unique products for use by others. Whether it is a blend for fragrancing the home or office or a product to use for a specific purpose, the expertise an aromatherapist has in blending the right oils together can be very useful to manufacturing companies.
Incorporating the use of essential oils into other modalities
Essential oils are very versatile and are easily incorporated into many different modalities. Many bodywork therapists include the use of essential oils in their treatments (massage, acupressure etc); Energy practitioners of Reiki, Healing Touch, Touch for Health and many others, will include essential oils in their sessions. Yoga practitioners, meditators can enhance their practice by incorporating the right essential oils. Coaches and counsellors have also found that adding the right essential oils to their sessions can help their clients move forward. As mentioned essential oils are very versatile and how you incorporate them into your life is only curtailed by your own imagination.
A Clinical Aromatherapist can do everything that is listed above if they so choose, as well as see clients for the purpose of creating unique blends and protocols for their application to assist their clients on many levels. They are very well trained for instance our Full Professional Program (Aromatherapy 101 and Aromatherapy 201) is 610 hours.
Of course, they are not medical practitioners. They won’t claim to be able to cure all ailments, nor will they attempt to diagnose or prescribe for clients. But they can bring a lot of comfort and relief to the client and the symptoms that they are experience, physical, emotional, mental or spiritual.
During the client consultation, the Clinical Aromatherapists takes time to really get to know their client, their areas of concern, their lifestyle, their aroma preferences, etc. Once they have this information, they will come up with a unique protocol and blend to address the client’s concerns. They will also follow up with the client to make sure that the blend/protocol is working and tweak it if necessary.
Those trained in the use of essential oils will always be given the opportunity to share their knowledge about these wonderful gifts of nature with others. Whether it is through writing (a newsletter, an article, a blog, a book, a course) or teaching (an introduction workshop of any length of time, or a formal course), or just talking to others about essential oils and their uses, the opportunities to share knowledge and information with others are all around.
In North America we have four Aromatherapy Associations. While Membership in an Aromatherapy Association is not a requirement to work as an Aromatherapist, each association offers their members a number of benefits. These include the opportunity to be part of a network of aromatherapists; continuing education opportunities; a regular Journal or Newsletter. The Associations also offer their members the opportunity to use their own unique titles which are exclusive to their membership. While none of the Associations actually provide Professional Training, all of them have set up their own unique standards of education required for membership. These will vary depending on the level of membership applied for. Any school recognized by an individual Aromatherapy Association, will have voluntarily gone through, and paid for, that Association’s vetting process. However, it is NOT necessary that you take your education from any of the schools they list, in order to become a member. Anyone can apply directly, with proof of their training, to the individual Aromatherapy Association.
Canadian Alliance of Aromatherapy (CAOA) – our school is listed as one of their recognized schools. If you have taken a course from a school not recognized by them, you will be required to write their Entrance Exam.
Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists (CFA). The CFA requires that EVERYONE joining this association write their Entrance Exam. Since September 1, 2015, the West Coast Institute of Aromatherapy has chosen not to renew their School Contract with the CFA, so any of our grads wishing to join the CFA will need to apply to them directly to do so.
In the USA:
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) – our school is listed under their Recognized Schools.
Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) – As of January 2021 we have chosen not to renew our School Listing under AIA’s Recognized Schools. They are a welcoming association and anyone wishing to join this association is welcome to apply to them directly.
Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP);
Graduates of Aromatherapy 201 are also eligible to write the Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC) Exam. Passing this allows one to use the title designation Registered Aromatherapist in the USA.
The West Coast Institute of Aromatherapy is approved by the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada under sub-paragraphs 118.5(1)(1)(ii) and 118.6(1)(a)(ii) of the Income Tax Act and is eligible to issue Tuition Tax Certificates.