In the spa arena, they are the cornerstone of aromatherapy, a word coined in 1928 by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who discovered lavender oil’s medicinal properties when he applied it to a burn following a lab accident. In the 1950s, aromatherapy became popular with massage therapists, beauticians and other healthcare providers, but it really took off stateside in the 1980s with the country’s growing interest in complementary and alternative medicine.
Extracting the Oils
There are as many as 100 essential oils used in aromatherapy. The concentrated extracts are taken from different parts of a plant using specific methods—for instance, citrus oils are pressed from the fruits’ rinds, lavender is distilled from its flowers and sandalwood from the tree’s heartwood. Don’t let the name fool you, however—essential oils are in fact non-oily plant and flower essences. Their unique molecular compositions are what determine how they smell, as well as how they are absorbed and used by the body.
Pure essential oils should not be confused with fragrance oils or even aromatherapy oils, which tend to be synthetic copies with less therapeutic value. “In the same way that we might choose the ingredients that we consume with care, finding the purest essential oils makes a qualitative dierence during treatments,” says Fender. “If the plant matter is processed too harshly, the benefits can be lost.” That’s why the skincare pro recommends always reading the fine print on the oils you select to ensure they are organic, therapeutic grade, sustainably harvested and that the manufacturer has maintained the extracts’ molecular integrity.
Another good indicator that you’re getting the real deal is price. “Bulgarian rose is one of the most expensive essential oils in the world—one drop comes from the extract of up to 60 roses,” notes Janel Luu, CEO of PurErb. “Still, a small amount goes a long way, so think of paying for quality oils as an investment that will last.”
Delivering the Benefits
Essential oils are believed to address a wide range of health concerns. Experts aren’t entirely sure why they possess such powers, but one theory is that when compounds from the oils are inhaled or absorbed through the skin, chemical messages are transmitted to the part of the brain responsible for regulating mood. “Certain scents are known to relieve stress and anxiety,” says Lynda Solien-Wolfe, LMT, vice president of massage and spa at Performance Health.
There are endless ways to incorporate essential oils into spa products and services. “They may be used in a diffuser, misted onto towels and robes, or mixed into massage creams to promote relaxation and give clients a sense of well-being,” says Luu. “They may also be blended into unscented skincare products—such as balms, facial oils, cleansers and moisturizers—to boost hydration, brightness or suppleness.”
Oils are rarely applied directly to the skin (exceptions include lavender and tea tree oil, notes Solien-Wolfe), but rather diluted in a base or carrier prior to being used, which makes them easier to distribute and absorb. For massage, it’s best to combine them with an oil- based product, such as jojoba, sweet almond, grape seed, olive or fractionated coconut oil, says Solien-Wolfe.
But again, a little goes a long way. “The amount you use depends on the oil and whether the service is for the face or body,” explains Fender. “As a general rule, you can use five to ten drops per ounce of carrier oil—but some oils are powerful, and only a drop or two should be used.” You don’t want to overwhelm the client, so start light, adds Franklin Warren, senior new product development scientist at Performance Health. “You can always add more,” he notes.
Combining a few different oils into a blend can be a nice way to offer multiple benefits at once. “One of the newest trends we’re seeing is a request for a ‘happy blend,’ which can be anything citrus-based,” reports Solien-Wolfe.
Here are some of the spa industry’s most popular extracts, and a few of the health issues they are believed to address.
Chamomile: Eases anxiety, insomnia, menstrual cramps
Eucalyptus: Boosts mental clarity and energy; relieves congestion Geranium: Eases PMS, hormonal imbalances, nerve pain
Ginger: Relieves nausea, pain, digestive distress; physically warming Lavender: Eases anxiety; aids healing of burns, wounds, insect bites Lemon: Boosts energy, detoxifies and cleanses
Patchouli: Improves mood, relieves depression symptoms
Peppermint: Relieves nausea, muscle soreness, headaches; boosts energy Rose: Eases anxiety and PMS; softens skin
Rosemary: Boosts energy and mental clarity
Sage: Eases anxiety, menstrual cramps, labor pain
Tea Tree: Antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antimicrobial Ylang Ylang: Improves mood, relieves depression symptoms
Handling With Care
Although essential oils are generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they do need to be stored and administered carefully. “Keep them in a dark place and protect them from extreme temperatures,” advises Warren. “Oxygen exposure can oxidize the product and break down the scent profile, so keep your bottles closed. Use colored glass bottles, not plastic, which can cause a chemical reaction.” Remember that essential oils are highly flammable too.
Even when oils are diluted, there’s a chance that guests can have an adverse reaction to certain types, so be sure you’re familiar with the safety data on each one. In some cases, clients should avoid sun exposure after using essential oils, and a physician should be consulted prior to administering them to people with severe asthma or a history of allergies. There is even some evidence that essential oils may be toxic to a fetus. “If a client is pregnant or breastfeeding, recommend that she check with a doctor before using products that contain essential oils,” cautions Luu. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) has a handy safety guide for additional considerations.
Finally, refrain from making specific health claims. “To be on the safe side, therapists might simply say that some people have experienced certain benefits from a particular oil, or they might also share their own experiences with it,” advises Luu. Above all, make sure that everything you do—from proper handling to administering to communicating the benefits—is done with your clients’ best interests and optimum health in mind.
–by Alexa Joy Sherman