Essential oils are a simple and pleasant way to treat some types of illness. [Photo: Bigstock]

Essential oils for health and wellbeing

12 September, 2011

Our sense of smell is one of our most ancient senses. It affects our lives and emotions in ways which scientists have only just begun to explore.

Throughout history highly concentrated oils extracted from flowers, herbs and animal sources have been used to calm or stimulate the emotions and enhance well being. The use of balms, ointments and scented oils is even documented in the Bible. Scent has historically been thought to have the power to heal and repel evil and as such has played a part in religious rituals across many cultures.

For the Egyptians, it was part of the burial ritual and a symbol of status.  The Greeks believed fragrance connected them to the Gods. The Romans used perfumes for seduction and herbs as aphrodisiacs whereas in the Middle Ages perfume was used mainly to cover up the stench of disease.

The modern use of essential oils as a therapy, however, began in the 1930s when the French chemist René Maurice Gattefosse coined the term aromatherapy. Fascinated by the benefits of lavender oil in healing his burned hand without leaving any scars, he started to investigate the healing potential of other essential oils.

During the Second World War, a French army surgeon, Dr Jean Valnet, successfully used essential oils to treat wounded soldiers and patients in a psychiatric hospital. Not long afterwards, Marguerite Maury, an Austrian beauty therapist and biochemist, elevated aromatherapy to a holistic therapy when she began prescribing essential oils as a remedy for her clients. She is also credited with the modern practise of using essential oils in massage.

Today aromatherapy is something of a catch-all phrase for a wide range of healing techniques – from massage to hydrotherapy to creating a pleasing ambience in a room – that involve the use of highly concentrated oils derived from plants and flowers.

How does it work?

Essential oils are thought to affect the body in two ways. The first and most obvious is through their aroma. Humans have the ability to distinguish between more than 10,000 different smells. But smell is a complex sense that involves much more than the detection of odour. When we breathe in an odour we are taking in a mixture of chemicals and in recent years it has become apparent that these chemicals can affect us in many ways.

Of all the senses, smell has the most direct connection to the mind and emotions. All fragrances, natural and synthetic, are able to breach the blood brain barrier (the protective membrane that surrounds the brain) and gain direct access to the limbic system – the emotional switchboard of the brain.

Studies have shown that inhaling fragrances can cause changes in both the circulation and the electrical activity in the brain.

Apart from their direct effect on the brain aromatherapy oils can also enter the blood system through the skin (for instance when used in massage), through the lining of the lungs (when they are inhaled) and, more rarely, when taken orally (this is not a method which is advised unless under competent professional supervision).

Once absorbed into the blood stream, the medicinal properties of the oils – whether they are antifungal, antibacterial, anti-viral or antiparasitic – can begin to have an effect.

What all this means is that aromatherapy probably works on the mind and body at the same time.  In therapeutic use there are about 150 essential oils, distilled from plants, flowers, trees, bark, grasses and seeds.

Each has a distinctive chemical make-up and a unique therapeutic, psychological and physiological effect. Some are antiseptic others are antiviral, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, antidepressant and expectorant. They can be used, among other things, to stimulate, relax, improve digestion and eliminate excess water.

What all this means is that we know a lot about the composition of plant oils and we have a lot of theories about how their application might beneficial. But large scale research is not always easy to come by – mostly because many conventional scientists dismiss the idea that essential oils on their own could be of value. Nevertheless some real benefits have emerged from the scientific literature.

Antimicrobial action

Many essential oils including lavender, geranium, peppermint, eucalyptus, lemongrass, orange, clove and thyme have been found to exert an antimicrobial action. Among the most thoroughly studied of all is tea tree oil which has shown great benefit in the treatment of fungal infections such as athlete’s foot.

In one study it was as effective as the drug tolnaftate in improving symptoms of athlete’s foot. It has also been shown to be as effective as the drug clotrimazole in treating fungal nail infections. Tea tree has also been shown, in laboratory tests, to kill antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Whether it can do the same in humans remains to be seen (for a scientific overview of the uses of tea tree oil see here).


Essential oil massage has been found effective in improving the well being of cancer patients and other people in hospital.

In one study 122 individuals who were in an intensive care unit reported feeling much better when lavender was administered compared to when they were simply given a massage or allowed to rest. No changes in blood pressure, respiration or heart rates were noted, suggesting that the effects of massage were very gentle.

In another study conducted by researchers at the University of Vienna, orange oil was diffused in the waiting room of a dental office via an electrical dispenser.

The patient’s who were exposed to the room odour were then compared to a group who were not for signs of anxiety, alertness and calmness. Those exposed to the odour were significantly more relaxed and the effect was most pronounced on women.

Similarly, studies into students have found greater alertness, better moods and enhanced brainwave activity and ability do maths problems when exposed to the aroma of either rosemary or lavender essential oil. What has yet to be determined is whether this effect is physiological or psychological (though some would argue that it really doesn’t matter as long as it works).


Because essential oils can be used to aid relaxation, they may also be useful in aiding sleep. In 1991 British researchers at the University of Leicester measuring sleep patterns in the elderly over a six week periods also found that being in a scented room was as effective as sedative drugs.

Another small but often quoted study, reported in the Lancet in 1995, showed that elderly people “slept like babies” when a lavender aroma was pumped into their bedrooms at night. These people had all had difficulty falling asleep and normally had to take sleeping pills to get to sleep prior to the aromatherapy (for a review of the uses of lavender oil see here).


Tiger Balm, that pungent red ointment infused with essential oils of menthol, camphor, clove and peppermint, was found in a 1996 Australian study to be as effective as the pain reliever acetaminophen at relieving tension headaches. It was also found to work faster.

In another study in 1995 at the Neurological Clinic of the University of Kiel, Germany the use of a combination of peppermint oil with just a trace of eucalyptus proved to be particularly effective at relieving tension headaches. The combination is thought to have a powerful analgesic effect. Adding more than a trace of eucalyptus to the mix did not alter pain, but was effective in relieving muscle tension.

Pregnancy and post-natal

Essential oils are often recommended as a way of aiding relaxation during pregnancy and labour and when used externally as a way of healing cuts and tears after birth.

Studies on the use lavender oil for healing perineal trauma after birth show mixed results. But a unique eight year study at Oxford Brookes University  involving more than 8000 mothers has shown that aromatherapy is an effective way for women to manage labour pains, helping to reduce maternal anxiety and fear as well as inducing a sense of well being.

In this study there was considerable drop in the use of opiate pain relief by the women who used aromatherapy.  In comparable teaching hospitals the rate of opiate use for pain relief is around 30 per cent.  In the Oxford study it was around 0.4%.

The oils used in the research included lavender, frankincense, chamomile, rose, jasmine, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemon, mandarin and clary sage. They were administered in a variety of ways including massage, in a warm bath, a footbath, and as drops on the forehead or palm.

Insect repellent

Many texts on aromatherapy recommend that essential oils, particularly citronella, can be used to stop pesky mosquitoes biting. Today some natural insect repellents contain quantities of citronella and chemists may also sell citronella candles to burn out of doors to keep the bugs away.

Citronella, alone or mixed with other oils such as geranium and palmarosa, is claimed to be very effective at repelling insects and such studies as exist seem to confirm this. One from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada in 1996 comparing the use of citronella candles and incense to plain candles or no candles, found that the reduction in bites with the candles and incense was 42.3 and 24.2% respectively.

Another study in Thailand   in 2001 found that several essential oils including citronella, turmeric and basil (especially with the addition of 5% vannillin, derived from vanilla) repelled three different species of mosquito (both day-biting and night-biting) for eight hours – making them as effective as conventional repellents made with the insecticide deet.

What all this means is that aromatherapy has a legitimate role in healthcare. Unlike many conventional treatments it is something which many of us can use at home safely. If you’d like to try using aromatherapy oils for health and relaxation the test on the following pages will provide some simple suggestions on making your own blends.

Try it yourself – essential oil blends

Essential oils are a pleasant, versatile and portable way of taking care of yourself. They can be used in a variety of different ways, for instance:

In the bath Mix your choice of essential oil or oils in a light base oil, such as apricot kernel oil, or in a neutral, water-dispersing oil which you can purchase at some health food shops and natural toiletry stores. Alternatively, mix it into a small amount of whole milk. Pour this mixture into the bath. If possible, aim to relax in the bath for at least 15 minutes.

For massage A good way of addressing skin problems, achy muscle and joints and fluid retention.  Always use essential oils diluted in a light base oil such as almond oil.

 As a compress This method is good for bruises, headaches, varicose veins, burns and scalds. Add between 8 and 10 drops of essential oil to half a cup of water.  Disperse well.  Soak a face cloth in the mixture and apply to the relevant part of the body.

An inhalation A particularly good choice if you have a cold, cough or any other breathing difficulty. A simple and portable way to make an inhalation is to put a few drops of your chosen oil on a hankie.  Wrap this in a plastic bag and carry it with you to use as and when you need to.

At home, you can make a steam inhalation using a bowl of hot water and 5 to 10 drops of essential oil. Lean over the bowl with a towel over your head and breathe deeply.

Alternatively, you can now buy hand held inhalers, which are small plastic containers, not unlike coffee mugs, with a special mask that attaches to the top.

Foot baths Fill a basin large enough to take both of your feet, with hand-hot water. Then add 8-10 drops of your favourite oil. This is a good way to soothe feet after a long day.  If your ankles are swollen, try following the hot bath with a cool one to improve circulation.  You can do the same thing for sore, swollen hands.

Room scents You can spread the scent of an essential oil throughout a room using an oil burner, or by placing one or two drops on a cool light bulb before turning the light on.  If you heat your home with radiators, place 5 drops of essential oil in a bowl containing a little water and place this on top of the radiator.

The way an oil is used will enhance its effect on the body. For instance, massage without essential oil has long been known to improve emotional states such as anxiety and depression as well as reducing levels of pain.

Combined with correctly selected therapeutic oils, which can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin, its effect can be even more profound.

Only a very few essential oils are safe to use neat on the skin. The best way to use most oils is to mix them in a base, or carrier oil. Simple sunflower oil from your kitchen cupboard is as good a choice as any other. Other good choices include sweet almond, apricot kernel, grapeseed, safflower and hazelnut oils.

To enrich a base oil, try adding heavier oils such as carrot, borage seed, avocado, evening primrose oil, jojoba, wheatgerm or sesame oils.  Because they are so rich and heavy, these oils should account for not more than 10 per cent of any base mixture.

This chart gives some ideas for simple aromatherapy blends that you can use at home. When mixing oils in a base, there is a general rule that says you should use no more than 1 drop of essential oil to 1 millilitre. For example, a tablespoon of oil equals about 15 mls – thus you could use up to 15 drops. Mixtures intended for babies and children should be very dilute – 2-3 drops per 15 mls.