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Massage Today
January, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 01

Basic Aromatherapy: Recognize and Offer High-Quality

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT

I have been with Massage Today since the first year of publication in 2001. So many new readers have joined us since that first year, and many are now viewing these articles for the first time.

This 10th year of publication seemed like a good time to review some of the basics of aromatherapy and begin again ... from the beginning.

It's my hope that the information and guidelines presented in this and following articles on the basics of aromatherapy, culled from more than 20 years of experience, will help propel Massage Today readers in the right direction on a journey through the wonderful, welcoming and profitable world of essential oils.

Aromatherapy is a natural adjunct to the practice of massage and one that greatly enhances the therapeutic experience. The demand for aromatherapy is booming. It has truly become a must-have modality at spas and salons, and essential oil companies are springing up everywhere.

Most schools of massage still have minimal training in aromatherapy, but massage therapists don't have the luxury of years of private research and experience to become proficient in this modality. Because of this, and my love for the essences, I became a teacher of aromatherapy CE courses for massage therapists. I then went on to develop a "Foundations in Aromatherapy" course; and after becoming a registered aromatherapist (the only recognized credential in the U.S. today in this unregulated industry), I went on to develop professional level courses that would prepare those interested in becoming registered aromatherapists, too.


aromatherapy - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Though still relatively new to the U.S., the art and practice of aromatherapy is as old as our relationship with plants. Infused oils, pomades and plant resins were used from ancient times for healing, cosmetic and ceremonial purposes. References to the properties and uses for essential oils are found in manuscripts from China, India and Egypt that date as far back as 2,800 B.C. However, since most of these substances were rare and costly, they were employed mainly in the Royal Courts and Temples, administered with ritual and invocation. Trade routes, methods of extraction and blends were closely guarded secrets.

A plant's "essential oil" is a liquid produced in small, gland-like pockets. It is called an oil, not because it has the same chemistry as non-volatile oils such as almond or olive, but because it will emulsify into fats and not water. Another term for this is "lipophilic". Essential oil producing glands appear in different parts of individual plants. Citrus oils come from the rind, flower oils from the petals and other oils from leaves, resinous bark, berries and roots.

The word "essential" refers to the fact that this liquid both contains the imprint of the plant's specific chemistry and has meaningful qualities for the plant itself.

The volatile molecules of the essential oil communicate with the plant's environment, and with mankind, through aroma and vibratory rate. Volatility refers to the ability of this liquid to change into a gas at room temperature. This is how it is conveyed into the nasal cavity and lungs. When it reaches the olfactory nerve it becomes an electrical charge which runs along the nerve pathway into the brain, activating different glands and centers. In the nasal mucosa and lungs, it passes quickly into the bloodstream.

After a long history in the Middle East, India and the Orient, the use of essential oils caught on in Europe largely as a result of contact with these precious materials during the Crusades and through increased trade routes. Although archeologists have recently uncovered a clay distilling apparatus in Egypt, the process through which we get many of our essential oils was greatly increased after glass became a more common material.

The distillation process was written about extensively in 16th century Germany. This made a large number of previously unobtainable plant essences grown in Europe, like lavender, chamomile and rosemary, available. Along with herbs and spices, essential oils were the medicines of the time and the primary ingredient of costly personal fragrances. Nineteenth century chemists, anxious to identify the active biochemical ingredients and their effects, laid the groundwork for synthetic derivatives which led to the decline of both essential oils and herbal medicine.


Modern scientific literature on essential oils began in the 1920s with the French chemist, Rene Maurice Gattefosse. He suffered a serious burn while working in his laboratory in the family's cosmetic firm and, knowing the herbal lore about healing burns, plunged his hand into an open vat of lavender (a popular ingredient in the colognes and sachets of his day.) To his relief and amazement, the burn healed without pain, blister or scarring. His subsequent investigations into the sedative and regenerative properties of lavender led to scientific exploration and testing of other essences. He coined the term "aroma therapie" to describe this medicinal aspect of the fragrant botanical component.

A great deal of medical research on the effects of essential oils now exists, leaving no doubt that when the right oil is chosen, at the right time, wonderful things can occur. It is also possible to complete medical school in France and specialize in aromatherapy.

However, there are also contraindications for essences, as well as possible sensitivities and dosage guidelines. Therapists who choose to use aromatherapy in conjunction with work on mind/body - whether in spas or private practice, as room diffusion or in massage - need to be well-educated with regard to properties and effects and to treat essential oils with the respect they deserve as a powerful healing modality. Simply adding lavender to a massage oil or using the same commercially prepared blend for every client isn't the way to go if you want to use these substances professionally and responsibly.

Many books and classes on aromatherapy are available, some for continuing education credit. As in massage practice, opinions about therapeutic applications of essential oils can vary, so try to read and hear from as many leaders in the field as possible with principles of safety in mind, so that you can form your own opinions.

And, because an individual's response to essences can differ from time to time, a good "sense" of which essence to choose can be as valuable as all the literature on properties. In order to develop this, become familiar with essences and the information directly conveyed through their aroma. Pay attention to "likes and dislikes" because it is thought that these responses, occurring in the limbic region of the brain, communicate desirability of effects.

High-Quality Criteria

It is also important to realize that the most powerful aromatherapy treatment is simple inhalation. Realize that through breath, you and your client receive the treatment at the same time. The greater your repertoire of essences, the more you can moderate your own exposure to certain oils. And it is advisable to use only high-quality essential oils, which means a substance manufactured and grown with integrity and without adulteration or harmful additives.

Remember, good quality essences will cost more than fragrance grade, but it is definitely worth buying them, even for room diffusion.

True essential oils range in price from extremely expensive (like melissa, rose, jasmine,) expensive (like chamomile, helichrysum, and the endangered oils of frankincense and sandalwood) moderate (like ginger, peppermint, basil) to fairly inexpensive (like lavender, rosemary, orange).

"Bargains" are not always what they seem to be in this field. You should question whether therapeutic quality is present when a wide variety of essences are displayed in the same amount (usually 10 milliliters) for the same price. Think twice when an essence you know to be very expensive is offered in large quantity at a low price. Also think twice if oils are more expensive than the usual retail price and claims are made for certain grades or exclusivity. And finally, since light affects essential oil chemistry, avoid essences sold in clear glass bottles or those that are kept in a sunny window in a store or salon.

Many factors influence quality: the method and expertise of extraction, the region of growth, a particular species of the same plant and/or extraction from certain parts of the plant may be considered better quality and therefore more costly. (Quality standards may reflect both fragrance and levels of desired biochemical components.) For example, wild rose geranium from China may be almost twice the price of the farmed variety from Morocco. Orange blossom extracted from the flower and leaf can cost almost a third the price of that from the petal alone. And you'll pay more for silver fir (Abies alba) than for Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). As with other crops, a shortage will push the price up.

In these, and other ways, the essential oil business shares many characteristics with the wine industry. Many of the manufacturers of fine essential oils have been in business for centuries. Since plants are living organisms, they are affected by their environment and climate. Therefore, the same manufacturer can produce an essence that varies in aroma from year to year, so you can expect the same variance with true essential oils that you would from different vintages of wine.

Most distributors shop the manufacturers and repackage the essences, either singly or in blends, under their own label. It is for this reason (and because of the vast amounts of plants required to produce essential oils) that one should be wary if a distributor claims exclusivity on quality. But when distributors shop well, the results are good products that deliver fine fragrance and top therapeutic effect.

As a consumer, try essences from distributors that are recommended by lecturers or referenced by authors of books on aromatherapy or who advertise in professional journals such as the one produced by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). Compare online or in-store prices and samples. Experience will help you zero-in on the products you want to use in your practice.

The NAHA is a non-profit educational organization of peers. The organization promotes public and professional awareness of true aromatherapy and standards for practice, education and products. They can be reached by e-mail at or online at

Getting the information you need and finding the right products isn't really hard work. Attending lectures and sampling essences is both interesting and pleasurable - and it will bring tangible results. No matter how you choose to use essential oils in your practice, they will add a wonderful dimension to the therapeutic experience. Understanding the world of essential oils will no doubt provide you with a growing respect and appreciation for the beauty, individuality and healing presence of our helpful neighbors in the Plant Kingdom.

Recommended Reading

  1. Davis P. Aromatherapy, an A-Z. C.W. Daniel Company Ltd.
  2. Mojay G. Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit. Healing Arts Press, 2000.
  3. Wildwood C. The Encyclopedia of Aromatherapy. Healing Arts Press, 1996.
  4. Sheppard-Hanger S. The Aromatherapy Practitioners Manual, Vols. I and II.

Click here for previous articles by Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT.


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