What is Aromatherapy ?

From spa menus to product labels, the word “aromatherapy” is scattered everywhere. But what does it really mean—and does it always mean the same thing?

The basic term refers to the therapeutic use of essential oils—based on the specific healing property of each oil—in such treatments as massage, diffusions, body wraps and soaks. Though this practice has been going on for centuries, legend has it that the term aromatherapy was coined in the 1920’s by a French scientist named Gattefosse, who discovered that lavender oil helped heal a severe hand burn.

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids extracted from leaves, flowers, roots, buds, seeds, bark—basically any part of a fruit or plant. From sore muscles and bruises to anxiety, depression and PMS, there is an essential oil for every condition, and knowledgeable aromatherapists can create custom blends for specific concerns. Oils vary in quality, but most are quite strong and should be diluted with a vegetable-based carrier oil. A few, though, can be taken internally or inhaled; peppermint oil is great for stomach ailments, and cinnamon oil can be used in teas. Some essential oils should be avoided by pregnant women, so check with a doctor before treatment.

There are a number of accredited schools and organizations for aromatherapists, and countless books and websites about related products and home remedies. While at this time there are no state requirements to be certified as an aromatherapist, most states do require that anyone using essential oils topically should have at least one related professional license, such as Massage Therapist, Naturopath Physician, Licensed Acupuncturist or Registered Nurse. Most top spas have estheticians and massage therapists on staff who are trained in the use of these healing oils.

Rules for claiming a product is aromatherapeutic vary from country to country, but as a rule, if the essential oil is not listed as one of the first few ingredients on the label, the product is probably more about smelling good than about solving any real issues—though every little bit can help.

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