Aromatherapy: The Basics

Highlights of this article:

  • What is Aromatherapy?
  • What are essential oils?
  • What are fragrance oils?
  • How do I know what I’m purchasing?
  • How do I use essential oils?
  • How are essential oils stored?

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils in order to take advantage of their benefits for the body, mind and spirit. Essential oils have been used therapeutically for hundreds of years but as modern medicines began to appear around the turn of the century the use of essential oils declined.

In the 1950’s, the practice of aromatherapy enjoyed a strong revival that has continued into the present. While the professional practice of aromatherapy requires extensive training, anyone can enjoy many of the benefits of essential oils at home with just a little reading in one of the many affordable and readily available reference texts now on the market.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are complex mixtures of naturally occurring compounds that exist in some plants which have fragrant flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, or seeds. From an organic chemist’s point of view, the active constituents of essential oils are composed of hydrocarbons and oxygenated hydrocarbons which can be grouped according to their molecular structure into terpenes, esters, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, and phenols.

Essential oils may be extracted from plants using a variety of methods but for aromatherapy purposes, the only acceptable methods are those that are non-toxic. This includes distillation and cold pressing. Essential oils can also be extracted using a variety of solvents. The solvents are evaporated out and the resulting product is called an absolute. Because most methods of creating absolutes result in a product that contains at least some traces of solvent, some aromatherapists recommend avoiding absolutes. A good therapeutic quality essential oil is produced using non-toxic procedures that preserve the life-giving vital essence of the plant. Essential oils vary greatly in quality and not all are therapeutic quality.

Do not confuse essential oils with vegetable oils, which are also sometimes called “carrier” or “base” oils. Essential oils are volatile, which means that they evaporate when exposed to air; they are very fragrant; they do not feel slick or oily, and do not leave an oily residue. Vegetable oils, such as almond oil, apricot oil, olive oil, or avocado oil are not really fragrant; they do not evaporate readily; they do feel oily and leave an oily residue. Vegetable oils are used in aromatherapy for the purpose of diluting essential oils so that they can be safely applied to the skin.

What are Fragrance Oils?

“Fragrance oils” are chemical mixtures that mimic natural plant aromas. They may smell just like the “real thing” but are not appropriate for aromatherapy. Read product labels carefully and avoid those labeled as “fragrance oils”, “essential fragrance oils”, or “nature identical”.

Know what you are purchasing

Some products sold as “essential oils” are diluted in cheaper “carrier” oils or are adulterated in some other way. Again, read product labels carefully but be aware that labels may not disclose full information. Several popular aromatherapy books outline simple tests that purchasers can perform at home, to aid in detecting inferior products. We encourage you to learn these methods and apply them to the products you purchase. Become familiar with the botanical names of the oils you want to use and never purchase an essential oil that is not labeled with the botanical name, as well as the common name.

Use of Essential Oils

Add 2 to 4 drops of essential oil to a warm (not hot) bath. For a massage/body oil, add 1 drop of essential oil per teaspoon of high quality, cold pressed vegetable oil, such as sweet almond or grape seed oil. For room fragrancing, add a few drops to a diffuser or a pot of steaming (not boiling) water. If you are mixing several oils in a “blend”, treat the “blend” as a single oil; in other words, use no more than 4 drops of the “blend” in a bath, or 1 drop of the “blend” to a teaspoon of vegetable oil. These and other methods of use are described in aromatherapy reference books.


The shelf-life of most essential oils is about 12 months, with proper handling. Oils should be stored in a cool (not cold) place, where they are not exposed to sunlight. Refrigeration of essential oils is not recommended since some can be spoiled by this procedure. Open bottles only for use and keep caps securely closed, as exposure to air speeds the deterioration of any botanical product, including essential oils.

*This information is provided for educational interest and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.

© © 2010 Joie Power, Ph.D. / The Aromatherapy School | All Rights Reserved

This article, “Aromatherapy: The Basics” was originally published in: World Health News – Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter 1999, Atlanta, GA.

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