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Massage Today
January, 2013, Vol. 13, Issue 01

Getting the Name Right Gets the Right Essence

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT

When I was teaching professional level aromatherapy to a small group of cosmetology and aesthetics students at a technical college, I happened to see the catalogue all the students were likely to use to purchase supplies.

Glancing at the essential oils section, I discovered that only one variety of chamomile was listed and it did not include its full common name. The catalogue was good enough to supply the Latin binomial, Matricaria recutita. That truly surprised me since this is not the chamomile most often used in facials and skin care.

Anyone who purchased this variety of chamomile would have had quite an expensive and unpleasant surprise. That experience clearly demonstrated the importance of getting the name right - both the common name and the one that truly identifies the plant. Without understanding this, a person exploring a different catalogue might also discover more than one type of chamomile listed. That catalogue would surely use the full common names, along with the Latin binomial: Roman Chamomile (also known as English Chamomile) with the Latin binomial Anthemis nobilis or Chamaemelum nobile, German Chamomile, Matricaria recutita or Matricaria chamomilla and Moroccan Chamomile, O. mixta or A. mixta. But, without knowing the difference, how could a wise purchase be made?

Right Essence - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Common names for the same essential oils can also vary, so its best to know all the ways an essence might be called. For instance, Frankincense (Boswellia carteri) is the name given by the French who discovered this holy oil during the crusades. It shows the importance placed on this plant by the Arab culture as it means "true incense." In the Middle East, this essence was and still is known as Olibanum, the name it was called for thousands of years. Some texts, catalogues and articles will also use this more ancient name. Another essence, Helichrysum angustifolium, has three common names, Immortelle, Everlasting and simply Helichrysum. When looking for this essence in an alphabetical listing, all three might need to be searched before it is found.

But it is the Latin binomial, also called the "botanical name" that will truly identify the plant itself. Just like anatomical terms, the universal language of Botany uses Latin. The botanical name consists of two Latin words, one of which designates the plant family and the other the specific variety of that family. It could be likened to putting a person's surname first followed by their specific first name, which differentiates them from the others in the family with that same surname. The Latin binomial or botanical name is always written in italics with the first letter of the first name capitalized and the second all lower case.

The botanical name may be close to what the essence is commonly called, or it can be quite different. For example, the common name Thyme has the botanical name Thymus vulgaris while Geranium's botanical name is Pelargonium graveolens. All professional level texts on aromatherapy will list the botanical names for each essential oil described. These binomials are also commonly seen in articles by professional aromatherapists that are aimed at their peers. Gradually, this standard is reaching into the greater marketplace. Knowing the botanical name is a matter of simple memorization. Until that full memorization occurs, when shopping for essential oils, it is good to have a list of common names and Latin binomials handy for consultation.

Going back to the chamomile example, we must know Latin binomials because this commonly used essential oil has different varieties that vary in price and are used for different purposes. This is true for many essences where some varieties available also have toxic properties and are not desirable for use in aromatherapy. And unfortunately, you can't always rely on a catalogue to have only the variety you want.

For example, here are three chamomiles you may find listed:

  1. Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis). This is pale yellow to yellow green oil and has a pleasant "apple or hay like" scent that reminds some of the tea made from its dried flowers. It is antispasmodic and sedative and reduces inflammation. It is helpful for headaches, ear aches, stomach discomforts and symptoms of PMS. It soothes anger. It is commonly found in cosmetic preparations where it helps relieve redness and spider veins.

  2. German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), on the other hand, is a very dark blue with a piercing herbaceous medicinal aroma. Its color is due to the high level of a chemical, chamazulene (azure means blue), which is responsible also for its much greater anti-inflammatory property. A different chemical in high quantity gives this chamomile the property of granulation and tissue regeneration. This is makes German chamomile very helpful in serious conditions involving pain and certain skin issues, like ulceration. But, aestheticians who ordered this chamomile from that catalogue would not have been happy about putting it in a simple facial product, not just because of the unpleasant smell, but also the dark blue color which would be apparent in the product and would stain linens.

  3. Moroccan chamomile, a less common variety, (O. mixta) is pale yellow to brownish-yellow and is also herbaceous with a slight camphor quality to the aroma. It has also a similar but different chemistry and while antispasmodic and sedative, it is frequently chosen to alleviate amenorrhea and dysmenorrheal, and for depression and irritability.

For massage, any of these chamomiles could be used. German, Matricaria recutita, could be chosen for a severe spasm with inflammation. Roman, Anthemis nobilis, is helpful for stress related muscle pain and tension in the body due to insomnia. It is also very helpful for facial massage for TMJ. Moroccan would be quite helpful in massage for clients with PMS and menstrual issues.

The ever popular lavender also has three common varieties that may be listed in a catalogue: Lavender, Lavender Spike and Lavindin. The lower prices of the other two names might attract a purchase, but you need to know what you would be getting and how it is best used. A less expensive lavender variety is well suited for cleaning purposes, for instance. And one may even be helpful in massage.

Lavender, Lavandula offcinalis, L. angustifolia, is considered "true lavender" and is the most expensive of the three varieties. Spike Lavender, L. spica, L. latifolia, is more camphoraceious in aroma and has a chemical composition that makes it very helpful for protection from respiratory infection (via inhalation), muscle aches and pain, and as an insect repellent. It is less expensive than true lavender because it yields more essence and has a less "flowery" bouquet. Lavandin, L. fragrans, L. burnatti, is a hybrid of true lavender and spike lavender. In this case there are three varieties or clones, Abrial which is closer to spike lavender in property and application, Super, which is more similar to true lavender and Grosso, with the least desirable aroma and rarely used in aromatherapy but could be used for cleaning purposes.

Maritime lavender, L. stoechas, has a high level of ketone content and must be used in caution with children because of possible toxicity. It has mucolytic and antimicrobial qualities that could help with infrequent inhalation in respiratory infection but due to the toxic potential, it is not commonly used in the U.S.

Another thing we may see in the proper listing of an essential oil are words that indicate a particular "chemotype" of the same plant. Rosemary, Rosmarinus offcinalis, is a good example of this differentiation. Sometimes the chemotype is indicate after the designation "ct." There are three principle chemotypes of Rosmarinus officinalis: camphor (Spain), 1,8 cineole (Tunisia) and verbenone (France). Simply put, the camphor type is the one most desirable for massage, the 1,8 cineole for respiratory infection and the verbenone for detoxification and fragrance.

I hope this topic will spur the reader on to learn more about the essential oils, their true names, properties and specific uses. I highly recommend getting a good, professional level education in aromatherapy before embarking on using essential oils in a massage session. This will help not only the therapist, but importantly the client, to receive the perfect essence for their specific needs.

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


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