Aromatherapy – the theory and the practice



by Jennifer Kotowicz HHP, RAc – Facial acupuncture, rejuvenation and weight loss.

We all know that the sense of smell evokes strong memories and emotions.  Sometimes this can be an overpowering experience. Olfaction is a complex experience.  My husband as a chef is particularly aware of this, and he really relies upon his sense of smell.  He smells and tastes the ingredients of his creations, from start to finish, as he makes a dish.  Aromatherapy, is the world of smell used therapeutically to affect or change emotional states.  I use pure essential oils from plants, which are usually more expensive than synthetic fragrances, but I find them more authentic.  It is self evident that they are truer to the smells we experience in the natural world.  

Simply speaking, to experience aromatherapy you just smell an oil and take time to notice your reaction to it.  This is very simple but very personal and depends on your unique response and preferences.

Generally, essential oils can be categorized in a number of ways. A simple way to organize them is into three groups like the perfume experts do, based on the nature of their chemistry and how we perceive them.  They refer to them as “notes” like in music. I’ll show you how to create your own blend combining the “science” of it with what is obvious in your favourite smells.

Top or head note.  This is your initial impression of an odour, and represents the smallest molecules that evaporate the quickest. They are fleeting expressions.  They are often seen as stimulating and energizing, bright and light in effect on our mood.  Examples of this would be citrus oils (grapefruit or bergamot),  ginger, or spearmint.

Middle or heart note: This is perceived just prior to the top notes disappearing.  They represent larger molecules that don’t evaporate quite as quickly, and linger on a little longer.  Middle notes are mellow and serve to balance, mask, and “round out” the experience.  They can serve to soften or introduce the initial exposure to the later base notes, which can be unpleasant on their own. Lavender and rose are good examples of smells which have dominant middle notes, making them popular oils.

Base or root note:  These are perceived before the departure of the middle notes, and are large, heavy molecules that evaporate slowly and linger for a longer time, even up to a day.  They are perceived as complex, rich and deep, and sometimes musky.  These earthy smell elements have the effect of being grounding and calming. Examples of smells with dominant base notes are the essential oils that have resins like sandalwood and cedarwood, or vanilla and jasmine.

These categories are very subjective and most oils have properties of all three levels. For example I have seen charts that classify neroli as both a top and a bottom note. By keeping this information about their general characteristics in mind, it is easier to blend them.  If you want an energizing oil mix, say to impact low mood or depression, you can use an oil or make a blend with more top notes.  If you want a grounding impact of the smell, as in a calming effect, you use a stronger base note formulation.  The middle notes are important to better introduce the base notes, or extend the effect of the top notes.

You can receive the benefit of using these oils many different ways. If they are mixed into skin care products not only will they give off pleasant smells but also they often have excellent antioxidant properties that benefit the skin, and as such, can slow down the effects of aging.

But just because essential oils are natural, does not necessarily mean they are safe.  100% pure essential oils can be quite caustic and they can cause chemical burns on your skin if not diluted properly in a carrier oil.  In my opinion it is best to do a bit of research on blending with carrier oils if you do want to use them topically. Using the oils for just aromatherapy purposes can be a bit more straightforward, since you don’t have to put them on your skin. 

Below is an ingredient listing of the oil blend I use during my facial treatments. The essential oils are blended with specific carrier oils to create a lovely blend that will absorb well into the skin, balancing and improving its appearance.

Face and body oil: Cold Pressed Oils of Apricot, Organic Jojoba, Organic Rosehip, Wheat Germ, Evening Primrose, Vitamin E; Essential Oils of Lavender, Rosewood, Palmarosa, Carrot Seed, Frankincense, Sea Buckthorn, Rose, Sandalwood, Neroli.

At the clinic we are experimenting with incorporating aromatherapy into our acupuncture and massage treatments, where we create a positive association with the relaxing experience with a smell of the client’s choosing.  It could be something they like that has a history of already working positively for them, or it could be something we experiment with in the session to find a smell that’s just right.  They take it home with them and then can remember the strong experience of being looked after in the clinic, feeling relaxed and whole again.  They can evoke that feeling again in the future just by smelling the aroma.  Some of the strongest memories can be formed when coupled to smells, and this is the basis of aromatherapy too, not just the theory of what each particular scent element does.  Have you ever been away from “home” for a long time, and return after years, to remember a flood of memories with a smell?  Or, perhaps it is an old recipe that your mom used to make, or baked bread?  What we are trying to do, is to help you create a positive neural patterning (look up the brain research on the amygdala!) between a smell and relaxation and wellbeing, that you reinforce at the clinic and at home.  Perhaps you use the aromatherapy at home when you do meditation or yoga, or anything which makes you feel more like you’re living in your own skin again.

In then end, you will know what works for you, just by trying some things out.   Have fun!