The ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Chinese all relied on essences pressed from the aromatic peel, bark, seeds, roots, leaves and flowers of plants to prevent and treat illness.
When smoothed on the skin, added to a bath, or inhaled in the form of steam, these aromatic ‘essential oils’ were believed to ease tensions, heal wounds and revitalise the body.
Today, this practice, called aromatherapy, is gaining some acceptance among Western doctors as a way to use the senses to benefit health.
There is even a smattering of evidence to support the value of using aromatic oils to help the immune system fight a variety of ailments.
For example, tea tree oil – an antiseptic discovered by Aboriginal Australians – was found to make white blood cells more active.
And inhaling lavender oil was shown to be more effective for insomnia than a placebo.
How to use essential oils
To use the scented oils listed below, unless otherwise indicated, mix about 10 drops with 15 ml of an unscented carrier oil (almond or olive), then use as a massage oil.
For a compress, add 2–8 drops of scented oil to a bowl of hot water, mix well and immerse a clean cloth.
Squeeze the cloth out and place it on the skin.
For inhalation, add 6 drops of scented oil to a bowl of steaming water.
Drape your head with a towel, close your eyes, lean over the bowl and inhale.
Note: Aromatic oils are generally safe to use, provided you never take them internally or use them undiluted on the skin, unless directed otherwise by an aromatherapist.
The exceptions: tea tree and lavender oils may be used full strength on pimples, insect bites or minor burns.
Derived from the rind of an orange-like fruit, this oil has a tangy scent.
The claim: Fights skin infections and may relieve the pain of shingles and chickenpox.
For best results: Mix with a carrier oil and massage into the skin, inhale, or add 5 drops to running bathwater.
May increase sensitivity to the sun, resulting in severe burning or uneven skin pigmentation.
Choosing an oil labelled bergaptene-free will reduce photosensitivity problems.
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Most ‘cedarwood’ oil comes from juniper!
The claim: North American Indians used this scent to treat respiratory infections and today it is believed to ease coughing and other cold and flu symptoms.
It’s also an effective insect repellent.
For best results: Inhale or use as a compress. Causes skin irritation in some people. May increase menstrual flow. Avoid if pregnant.
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Pressed from daisy-like flowers, it has a fruity aroma.
The claim: Known for its calming effects, it is thought to reduce inflammation and fight skin infections.
For best results: Use topically or add 6–10 drops to running bathwater.
Low toxicity makes it particularly safe, even for children.
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4. Clary Sage
Distilled from the pale blue flowers of a plant that grows to about a metre in height.
It is a close relative of the common sage, Salvia officinalis.
The claim: Its antiseptic and astringent qualities help relieve skin inflammation, including acne.
It is also used to ease tension headaches.
For best results: Mix up to 5 drops in about 10 ml of water and heat over an aromatic oil burner.
Do not use if drinking alcoholic beverages. Avoid if operating machinery or driving. Do not use during pregnancy.
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Distilled from the cones of the cypress tree.
The claim: This aroma is said to build emotional and mental resolve.
Inhaling it may help relieve the symptoms of throat and respiratory infections.
For best results: Place a few drops in a saucer of water and leave in a warm part of the house.
May cause allergic reactions in susceptible people.
Avoid if you suffer from high blood pressure.
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Its head-clearing aroma is a key ingredient in Vicks VapoRub.
The claim: A powerful antiseptic and healing agent, it is also renowned as a treatment for respiratory complaints.
For best results: Mix with a carrier oil and massage into the chest, or add 3 drops to the dust bag of your vacuum cleaner to repel dust mites and freshen the air throughout your home.
Nontoxic externally, but taken internally it is very toxic – 3.5 ml is usually fatal.
With its powerful natural antiseptic, disinfectant and cleaning properties, eucalyptus oil can be put to work in every room of the house.
A staple of Asian cuisine, ginger is used in Indian medicine to combat arthritis.
The claim: Noted for its warming and decongestant properties, ginger also helps fight off colds and flu and reduces fever by inducing perspiration.
For best results: Mix with a carrier oil and massage into the chest, inhale, or add 6 drops to running bathwater.
May irritate the skin if applied undiluted.
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The oil is taken from the fresh, blue-mauve flower spikes.
The claim: Alleviates stress and depression, induces sleep and relaxation and promotes circulation.
For best results: Use topically or add 10 drops to bathwater. Sheets washed in water containing lavender oil may promote sleep.
Nontoxic, but the scent may trigger nausea if too much is used.
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This plant is native to Europe and Asia.
The claim: Relieves pain when applied externally to sore muscles.
Also fights fever and helps to ease headaches and respiratory infections.
For best results: Only a small amount of peppermint is required, whether used topically or in bathwater.
Keep eyes closed when inhaling its scent and wash hands thoroughly after use.
Keep away from the faces of small children; may cause wheezing or an involuntary gagging response.
10. Tea Tree
Products made with this plant have a menthol-citrus scent.
The claim: Widely recognised as a powerful tool against a variety of harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi, moulds and parasites.
For best results: To ease skin infections and inflammation, add 3–5 drops to bathwater.
For relief of respiratory ailments, add 2 drops to a bowl of steaming water and inhale the vapour for five minutes.
Sources: Alan Hirsch, M.D., Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, Chicago, Il, USA; consultant John Steele, Lifetree Aromatix, California, USA.