Aromatherapy, or the study of plant oil aromas used to enhance health and well-being, has been around for nearly 100 years. Yet its effectiveness still has not been widely tested, although many people place full confidence in the power of plant smells to cure their psychological and physical ills.

The actual perceived aroma-based benefit to humans comes from the plant oil’s effect on the body more than its smell. Aromatherapists have identified almost 100 types of beneficial oil from plants, seeds, and roots that purportedly enhance one’s health by attacking germs, warming the circulatory system, or clearing the sinuses. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Other claims include cures or treatments for arthritis, sepsis, and additional serious medical conditions.

The smell or application of plant oils can help to calm the body under some types of emotional distress. For example, jasmine, rose, and orange are recommended to help manage anger. Cedar wood and sandalwood are good for anxiety. Frankincense and lemon may aid those who are depressed.

Essential oils are highly concentrated formulas of plant essences from the stem, leaves, roots, or flower. These can be costly, but most are effective by using just a few drops. You have to be careful, as concentrated oils can be toxic if used incorrectly. Never apply these directly to the skin without consulting a professional.

Carrier oils are cold-pressed vegetable oils that are used to dilute essential oils before they are placed on the skin. Sweet almond and grape seed oil are two examples. They can go rancid and must be stored in a cool, dry place.

Many Websites are devoted to the concept of educating the public about plant aromas and holistic medicine. There are agencies and organizations that do the same thing. For example, the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy is an organization that is devoted to promoting awareness of the benefits of “true aromatherapy” while dispelling false claims and misunderstandings. Visitors can browse their Website and others to learn more about the agency’s purpose and products, if any.

Most plant-based oils are used in four key ways:

1. Massage. Either alone or in combinations, plant oils provide effective massage oil for rubbing into the body. They have varying absorption times lasting from two hours to several days. Typically, these work by getting into the soft tissues and progressing to the bloodstream where they are routed throughout the body for specific effects. For example, lavender has long been recognized for its relaxing effects on the body.

2. Bathing and soaking. Bath oils are familiar to almost everyone. Many people have used them at one time or another. Those derived from real plants can be costly but very effective, while the synthetic kind are cheaper but do not offer much relaxing, cleaning, or healing power. Generally, however, bathers enjoy the scent of feeling fresh or attractive when washing themselves with an aromatic soap.

3. Room scents via candles or potpourri. Certain kinds of scents can be released through burning candles or emitted via sweet smelling dried grasses or plants, some scented with aromatic oils. Breathing a fragrance like cinnamon or cloves can warm the body and sometimes settle an upset stomach. In addition, some researchers believe that the smell of cinnamon acts as an aphrodisiac.

4. Skin creams and cosmetics. Products like witch hazel have long been used for their benefits to facial or body skin. They can cause the skin to contract or expand, remove debris or excess oil, or offer antiseptic cleaning of the skin. It is important to find out what each product can and cannot do before buying one for use.

Don’t just buy a bottle of oil and use it randomly. Learn all you can first and then purchase from a reputable dealer. You may want to check with a pharmacist first. If a rash or other symptoms should develop, discontinue use and notify your doctor.

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