The word “aromatherapy” has become a buzzword for marketers globally, causing the true meaning of aromatherapy to be distorted. Whether we’re talking about air fresheners, hand soap or trash bags, just because a company’s marketing team decided to slap the word aromatherapy on every scented product does not make it therapeutic, nor aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy in the truest sense of the word is the use of 100% natural, whole, unadulterated, aromatic essences obtained from specific botanical sources by steam distillation or expression for the body, mind and spiritual health. These aromatic essences are better known as essential oils, and they can be used as an inhalation and in a compress, bath, diffuser or carrier oil that is then massaged into the body.
In the UK, estheticians are called beauty therapists. Many beauty therapy training programs at Level 3 diploma include aromatherapy as part of the curriculum. There, an aromatherapy treatment is more than just a body massage using essential oils; is a total treatment of the face and body via the skin.
A Quick History
René-Maurice Gattefossé, regarded by many as the father of aromatherapy, was a perfumer, chemist and researcher who discovered the therapeutic properties of essential oils by using lavender to heal wounds on his hands. Dr. Jean Valnet then expanded on the medicinal use of essential oils, introducing them to European doctors who prescribed them to be taken internally.
Marguerite Maury, an Austrian biochemist, cosmetologist and former student of Gattefossé, conducted pioneering research into the therapeutic and cosmetic uses of essential oils in the 1940s and 1950s, adding the dimension of lymphatic drainage massage. This method of topically applying the essential oils became especially popular within the spa setting.
After attending a lecture given by Maury, British beauty therapist and spa owner Eve Taylor was inspired to develop her Clinical Aromatherapy Treatment. Taught to beauty and massage therapists worldwide, the technique has become a gold standard for the beauty industry.
The Holistic Treatment
An aromatherapy treatment is a specific massage technique, the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body. It helps to relax the body, relieve aches and pains, encourage circulation and assist in lymphatic flow.
This holistic approach to well-being recognizes the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit. It understands that true health and balance cannot be achieved by treating physical symptoms alone, but requires addressing the emotional, mental and even spiritual aspects of a person's life.
Using carefully selected essential oils, aromatherapy aims to harmonize the whole person, promoting relaxation, emotional stability and physical vitality. By engaging the senses and influencing the mind, aromatherapy encourages a state of inner equilibrium and self-awareness, making it a powerful tool for promoting holistic wellness.
The specific techniques used in aromatherapy treatments influence the lymphatic and nervous systems, although we know everything will be affected because every system is interconnected.
Related: 9 Aromatherapy Spa Treatments
A crucial sense organ involved in aromatherapy treatments is, of course, olfaction—the sense of smell. It is through clients’ sense of smell that essential oils will make their first impact.
The olfactory system comprises of olfactory epithelium, olfactory sensory cells with receptor sites, olfactory bulbs and olfactory cortex. These structures are located at the top of the nasal cavity between the eyes and the brain.
When we inhale, aromatic molecules enter the nose and travel up to the olfactory epithelium. Here, the aromatic molecules dissolve in the mucus of the olfactory epithelium and are transported to the olfactory receptors. After binding to the receptors, a cascade of events occurs resulting in an electrical signal that passes to the olfactory bulb, located inside the skull just above the olfactory epithelium. The signal then passes to various areas of the brain where the information is processed.
Many of the massage movements used in an aromatherapy sequence promote lymphatic drainage. Lymph and blood circulation are intrinsically connected, so when blood circulation becomes sluggish, lymph flow slows down.
The aromatherapy treatment begins with the client lying prone, face down, on the massage table; work begins on the back of the legs. The strokes move lymph toward the nearest cluster of lymph nodes, where it is filtered and cleaned of waste, impurities and pathogens before returning to the blood supply.
The key areas where the lymph nodes are found are behind the knees (popliteal), by the groin (inguinal), in the armpits (axillary), in the abdominal area and around multiple places on the face, back of the head and neck. So, it is total body experience from head to toe and including abdominal massage.
Relaxing the Nerves
Treatment continues on the back, with close attention given to the spine. From here, we can influence the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary and automatic bodily functions such as digestion, heart rate and breathing.
Located on either side of the spine there is a chain of sympathetic ganglia, which are clusters of nerve cells from which sympathetic nerves radiate. These nerves don't have specific names, as spinal nerves do; they travel through sympathetic ganglia and then disperse to various areas throughout the body, including organs, blood vessels and glands.
During massage, the 10th cranial nerve (vagus nerve) is also stimulated and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It carries sensory information from various organs and tissues to the brain that regulate and maintain the body’s internal balance and optimal functioning during times of relaxation.
Sensory information is also conveyed by the different nerve endings in the skin, which cause the release of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters. This boosts feelings of pleasure, well-being and positivity.
Reflexology is a complementary therapy that’s usually included as part of an aromatherapy treatment. It involves the application of pressure to specific points on the feet, based on the theory that these reflex points correspond to different organs and systems in the body. By stimulating these points, reflexology aims to promote balance and overall well-being.
The Power of Essential Oils
The massage medium used in aromatherapy treatments contains pure essential oils blended and diluted into a carrier oil. Depending on the therapist's level of training, they may use a pre-blended oil from a manufacturer, or they may blend their own oils customized to each guest’s needs.
When working on the body, there are three main outcomes of the treatment: relaxation, detoxification or stimulation. This can be achieved by selecting essential oils with those properties.
Naturally, an in-depth consultation and medical history must be considered prior to essential oil selection. Essential oils for relaxation include mandarin, cinnamon and lavender. Detox oils include black pepper, juniper berry and rosemary. Meanwhile, invigorating or stimulating oils include lemongrass, thyme and galbanum.
Regardless of which essential oils are chosen, they must be left on the skin for several hours for the guests to reap the full reward of the treatment. The client must also drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol for the rest of the day, as their body will be eliminating through the lymphatic system.
Heat and anything that causes sweating must also be avoided, including exercise, saunas, hot tubs and steam rooms. This can cause a rapid absorption of the oils, potentially resulting in headaches, dizziness or nausea. Rest and relaxation are needed post-treatment.
Recommended home care consists of a treatment oil that should be used daily to continue restoring balance and well-being between professional treatments.
Gaynor Farmer-Katics is passionate about teaching estheticians how to refine their touch by increasing their repertoire of massage techniques. She has almost 40 years of experience as an esthetician, massage therapist and educator, and her business Enhanced Touch (www.enhanced-touch.com) offers online and in-person training.