Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils for therapeutic purposes administered through inhalation, topical application, or other method. An aromatherapy practitioner can administer essential oils through the skin, the nasal mucosa via inhalation, oral intake, or application in one of the body’s orifices.
Application on the skin indicates that the essential oils are absorbed through the skin, into the blood stream, and spread throughout the body in the blood (Petersen, 2014). The absorption varies based on the type of essential oil, as well as the temperature of the oil and the skin, the level of humidity in the environment and on the skin, possible damage on the surface of the skin, and certain qualities of the essential oil and its components, such as their viscosity and volatility (Lis-Balchin, 2006). For instance, the higher the volatility of the oil the faster it is absorbed through the skin. Essential oils can also enter through hair follicles, sweat ducts, and sebaceous glands, and then make their way into bodily fluids and blood stream (Rhind, 2012).
Oils can be rubbed directly on the skin through a lotion, scrub, or massage. Some essential oils can be applied undiluted, although most oils require dilution or mixing with base oil, ethyl alcohol, apple cider vinegar, sea salt, Epsom salts, or other (Petersen, 2014). The exact formulation varies, and often is determined by the practitioner administering the essential oil (Lis-Balchin, 2006). Compresses can also be applied to the skin, hot or cold, where a cloth is soaked in water with essential oils (Petersen, 2014).
The M technique® is a registered method of applying essential oils that was originally created for nurses to administer essential oils to fragile or actively dying patients (Freeman, 2009). It has more widespread use since it is a relatively simple method to learn and use, involving “a series of gentle stroking movements performed in a set sequence” (Freeman, 2009, p. 391).
It is important to note that any method of application on the skin also entails inhalation, as this is unavoidable.
Inhalation involves the essential oil entering the body into the bloodstream through the nasal passages, into the lungs, and through the respiratory system (Rhind, 2012). This method affects the central nervous system through the limbic system (Lis-Balchin, 2006). The limbic system handles emotions such as anxiety, fear, wellness, harmony, sexual desires, and others (Buchbauer, 1993). Some believe inhalation is more effective than massage because it provides a more direct path of action for the essential oils to enter the body, and because certain compounds within essential oils are fragrance compounds and can only be absorbed through the nasal passages (Buchbauer, 1993).
Another method that involves absorption through the skin and simultaneous inhalation is adding essential oils into a water bath for the feet, hands, or entire body (Petersen, 2014). Hot water enhances dermal absorption so it is important not to add too much essential oil. It is also important not to mix in the oil until after the water has filled the container or bathtub to avoid the essential oil evaporating prematurely (Petersen, 2014). This method allows for the essential oils to have slow volatilization (Lis-Balchin, 2009). There is some controversy over whether or not essential oils in a bath are absorbed through the skin, as some believe absorption occurs only through the mouth and nose, but others believe that some absorption also happens through the skin (Lis-Balchin, 2009). Studies have demonstrated that certain components of essential oils applied through the skin were later found in the bloodstream and in urine (Freeman, 2009).
Essential oils applied as perfumes and body sprays also involve skin absorption and nasal inhalation (Petersen, 2014).
Other methods of using aromatherapy purely involve inhalation. Nasal sprays can be used where the essential oils are added to vaporizers, misters, or aerosols. These can be used to create environmental sprays, room sprays, and floral waters (Petersen, 2014). Using diffusers or applying essential oils to a heat source allows the oils to evaporate and disperse in the air. Candles are also effective in dispersing essential oils into the air. The candle can be made with pure essential oils, or essential oils can be added to an unscented candle (Petersen, 2014). In addition, there is steam inhalation. This can be effective for those with a cold, cough, or sinus infection but not for those with asthma, as it involves adding essential oils to a bowl with boiling water and inhaling the steam. Other home uses include adding essential oils in the vacuum cleaner, toilet roll, toilet bowl, garbage cans, washing machine, dryer, or on cotton balls for drawers and closets (Petersen, 2014).
Oral intake involves absorption of the essential oil components through the mucous membranes of the mouth (Petersen, 2014). Mouthwashes and gargles can be used to treat sore throats and infections in gums or within the mouth. A man by the name of Lister originally created an antiseptic gargle with thyme (Thymus vulgaris) essential oil. His creation was the inspiration behind Listerine, a mouthwash that contains thymol, a phenol extracted from T. vulgaris (Freeman, 2009). Toothpastes can also contain essential oils (Petersen, 2014).
Oral intake of essential oils through dilution in a carrier oil or through capsules also involves the digestive system, liver, and kidneys (Lis-Balchin, 2006) as the essential oils move through the body. It is believed that the essential oils also create physiological effects in the excretory organs as they leave the body (Petersen, 2014). They can be exhaled or eliminated through urine, sweat, and feces, regardless of how they enter the body (Rhind, 2012). Essential oils can be consumed through food, tea, capsules (Petersen, 2014), and mixed with disper, vitamin c lozenges (Buckle, 2003), honey, water, juice, milk, sugar, apple cider vinegar, lactose, or charcoal tablets (Petersen, 2014).
Conditions treated through oral intake of essential oils include arthritis, indigestion, bronchitis, eczema, high blood pressure, and venereal diseases, among others (Lis-Balchin, 2009). Oral intake of essential oils should be done with care and under medical supervision, as many oils can be toxic when ingested (Lis-Balchin, 2006), lead to poisoning, or interact adversely with medications (Buckle, 2003).
Application Through Orifices
Direct application in the vagina, anus, or other orifice can be done directly or via a tampon or suppository that has been dipped in the essential oil or a solution of the essential oil (Lis-Balchin, 2006). The other orifices can include the mouth, ear, or nose (Buckle, 2003). This method is not encouraged, as it can be painful, cause uncomfortable and unpleasant discharges, or cause more severe effects on the body (Lis-Balchin, 2006). Nonetheless, some believe this method is safer than oral ingestion because it bypasses the digestive system and the liver (Buckle, 2003). Enemas and suppositories have even been used to deliver essential oils to children to treat diarrhea and other gastro-intestinal conditions (Buckle, 2003).
Considerations and Precautions
Before determining the correct method of application, it is important for the patient to consult a healthcare professional or well-trained aromatherapist (Lis-Balchin, 2006). Considerations include the patient’s medical history, outcome of treatment, contraindications of oil, dosage of oil, and method of application available and most convenient for the patient (Petersen, 2014). This would help determine the best course of action for the patient.
Some essential oils have a low therapeutic margin, which means that there is a narrow difference between the oil having a therapeutic and a toxic effect, making it very important that only the stated dosage is used (Petersen, 2014). It is best if the essential oils do not make direct contact with eyes and mucus membranes to avoid injury and irritation to these areas. Also, patients with preexisting conditions, frail conditions, pregnant women, nursing women, advanced age, or children should use essential oils with extreme caution, under supervision, or avoid them altogether (Petersen, 2014).
Buchbauer, G. (1993). Molecular interaction: biological effects and modes of action of essential oils. The International Journal of Aromatherapy, 5(1), 11-14.
Buckle, J. (2003). Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils In Practice (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Churchill Livingstone.
Chiu, T. (2010). Aromatherapy: the challenges for community nurses. Journal of Community Nursing, 24(1), 18-20.
Freeman, L. (2009). Mosby’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine, A Research-Based Approach (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
Lis-Balchin, M. (2006). Aromatherapy Science: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals. London, United Kingdom: Pharmaceutical Press.
Petersen, D. (2014). Aroma 501 Aromatherapy Science. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Rhind, J.P. (2012). Essential Oils: A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Singing Dragon.