Pure essential oils derived from plant secretions are astringent, antibacterial, and highly concentrated (always dilute before using). The right mix can help you relax, recharge, or melt away fatigue, stress, and depression. Cost usually depends on how difficult a particular oil is to extract, but, fortunately, essential oils are so effective that a little goes a long way. Here’s how to try aromatherapy at home.
In the tub
What could be more relaxing on a winter day than a hot, fragrant bath? Place 9 or 10 drops of a gentle oil, such as lavender, in a full tub. The oil will pool on the water’s surface, intensifying the aroma, says Jade Shutes, founder of the East West School for Herbal and Aromatic Studies in Willow Springs, North Carolina, and author of the book Aromatherapy for Bodyworkers (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007). If you prefer a mellower experience, add the drops to a dispersing agent–such as a tablespoon of honey, whole milk, or vegetable oil–before placing in the bath water. Oils can be added individually or in combination with other scents. To find a complimentary blend: Slowly waft two or more open bottles under your nose at the same time. They should smell balanced and not too pungent. Use less of the dominant scent.
Essentials: “Lavender sedates the nervous system and can calm stress,” says Shutes. It may also help induce sleep. For deep relaxation, Shutes recommends combining 5 drops lavender with 1 drop of Roman chamomile and 1 drop of comforting neroli. Although too cooling for use in a full bath, peppermint and rosemary essential oils have circulation-stimulating and pain-relieving qualities perfect for soothing tired, sore feet. Mix 4½-5½ drops of peppermint or 5½-8 drops of rosemary in a large, hot foot bath.
On your body
Instead of springing for a professional massage when muscles tighten up, work out knots at home with sedative essential oils that have a depressant effect on the nervous system. As long as it has very little scent, any light oil–such as vegetable, sunflower, or walnut oil–or professional oil-based massage lotion can make a good carrier. Don’t use over-the-counter lotions, however, which are typically water based and soak in too quickly. Start with 1 drop of essential oil for every teaspoon of carrier. “If you know your skin sensitivity, you can increase that slightly,” says Ingrid Martin, author of Aromatherapy for Massage Practitioners (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2006). “Using a strong blend, however, without assessing your skin sensitivity first can result in skin rashes and allergic reactions. But eventually you may want to add more essential oil to have a greater effect on physical injuries.”
Essentials: Mild, sedative oils, such as lavender, clary sage, and mandarin, calm gently, while ginger’s warming and anti-inflammatory properties make it ideal for massaging on lower backs and joints. Ginger gets hot, though, so use it only on specific sore spots. Try rich avocado essential oil for a luxurious foot massage.
In the air
Their germ-fighting abilities make essential oils superb natural household cleaners. “The easiest way to mix them,” says Shutes, “is to add essential oils to a spray bottle filled with water, shake it, and spray whatever needs cleaning.” Or create a high concentration (about 40-60 drops per 4 ounces of water) and use as an air freshener. To clean dishes, floors, and counters, add a touch of unscented dish soap and 5-10 drops of the oil of your choosing to a sink filled with 1½ gallons of hot water. Another good option for people who want that clean-house smell but don’t want to bombard their family with synthetic fragrance: Add oils to unscented dish soap and laundry detergent. For example, mix 3-5 drops of the essential oil of your choice with an unscented laundry detergent before each load.
Essentials: A drop of lavender or frankincense adds a light aromatic touch to clean laundry. But for cleaning purposes, Shutes prefers lemon or lemongrass, which are antimicrobial and have an uplifting, energizing effect. Always wear rubber gloves when cleaning with lemongrass, as it can cause dermatitis in sensitive skin. Tea tree, which was noted for its antimicrobial properties in a 2006 review from the American Society for Microbiology, is another effective option
Companies to keep an eye on
1. Aura Cacia: This easy-to-find aromatherapy line includes many essential-oil-based body care products.
2. EO: All of EO’s hair, bath, and body products are scented with natural essential oils.
3. Oshadhi: Farmers in more than 60 countries supply more than 650 single essential oils.
4. Simplers Botanical Company: This herbalist-owned company offers more than 70 organic essential oils. (Katy Neusteter)