Aromatherapy is one of those topics which seems to divide opinion. Some people are big believers in it and other people think it’s a lot of nonsense. Many people think that it can be kind of nice to have a pleasant smell about the place, but don’t really take it seriously. The truth is that aromatherapy is a specialist niche in the area of plant-based medicine.
It most certainly does have scientific backing behind it and can be very effective in the treatment or at least relief of certain conditions, both physical and mental. It is not the be all and end all of medicine and serious practitioners would never claim that it does.
The science behind aromatherapy
Although the name indicates that aromatherapy is all about scent, it would actually be far more accurate, if less convenient, to call it “essential oil therapy”. It is a form of medical treatment which uses highly-concentrated plant oils, delivered either topically (on the skin) or via the respiratory system (inhaled). Essential oils are never to be taken by mouth, not even massively diluted, nor are they injected.
If you’re sceptical about the power of plants, then you might want to take a closer look at the ingredients of both prescription medication and over-the-counter medication. The mainstream medical industry has long made use of medicinal plants for scientifically-backed products which are used everywhere from hospitals to private homes. One obvious example would be mint, which is regularly used to treat common respiratory conditions.
Perhaps your issue with aromatherapy is that it is generally delivered via massage or via the use of diffusers, which release the essential oils into the air? If so then there’s science behind this too.
Aromatherapy via massage
Your skin’s main function is as a barrier between your inner body and the outer world. As such, most of what it does is stop the outside from getting in. The skin is phenomenally effective at this task, which is why even minor cuts can be a major issue from the point of view of hygiene. The skin, however, is not a complete barrier, small molecules can sink below its surface and the smallest molecules can make their way right through the three layers of the skin to enter the bloodstream.
Many cosmetic products take advantage of this fact to create products which sink into the outer layer of the skin, the epidermis. These can feel great once you’ve used them, but in reality, they have limited impact.
Often one of the major differences between budget-level products and more premium products is that the latter use essential oils so they really do have a much greater benefit to your skin, which becomes especially clear over the longer term.
Aromatherapy via diffusers
Using diffusers for aromatherapy works on the same principle as using inhalers for certain mainstream medical products. The idea is to deliver the medication via the respiratory system. This is often the preferred choice when you are aiming to treat a respiratory condition, but there are other reasons for taking this approach.
You may never have thought about it, but you breathe in and out constantly and each pair of breaths is, essentially, an air processing cycle. Therefore, it can be seen that anything which enters your body by means of the respiratory system will be processed fairly quickly.
In fact, it will be processed far more quickly than anything which either has to make its way through the skin and into the bloodstream (except by injection) or anything processed by the digestive system.
For the sake of completeness, we’ll mention that some forms of medication have to be taken by mouth so that they are processed by the digestive system in order to be made usable, but this does not apply to essential oils, quite the opposite, they should never be taken by mouth.
Aromatherapy for saunas and steam showers
Using a home sauna or steam shower is a great opportunity to make the most of both forms of aromatherapy. Depending on your needs, wants and preferences, you can use it for the treatment (or relief) of specific medical conditions, both physical and mental, for cosmetic purposes or just to influence your mood in some way, be that to pep you up when your get up and go has got up and gone or alternatively to help you to calm down and unwind after a long day.
The main reason why saunas and steam showers are such great places for aromatherapy is that the steam opens up the pores in the skin and the cuticles in the hair, which helps any massage oil blend to get to work as quickly as possible, plus the sheer quantity of steam means that aromatherapy via diffusion is particularly effective.
Aromatherapy via massage
In this context, massage can have a fairly loose meaning. You can certainly learn to self-massage, in fact, it’s pretty straightforward, but you can simply apply the massage oil to the skin and rub it in however feels comfortable to you.
You will note that we said massage oil, rather than essential oil. This is because essential oil always needs to be diluted.
Diluting essential oils for massage
If you are using essential oils for medical purposes, then you do not necessarily need to put a great deal of thought into the base. You can simply opt for any practical option. If you are using essential oils for cosmetic purposes, then you will want to give some thought to the base you use.
When you are using essential oils for standard massage, which is to say at room temperature, you have a huge range of options open to you. When using essential oils for massage inside a home sauna or steam shower, then your first consideration should be practicality.
Create your aromatherapy blends outside your sauna or steam shower
This tip may seem fairly obvious but for the sake of completeness, we’ll mention it anyway. You want to prepare your aromatherapy blend outside your sauna or steam shower and then take what you need, and only what you need, into your sauna or steam shower, using an appropriate container.
Let’s look at how this works in practice
In principle, you can apply essential oils in combination with just about any kind of moisturizing base. In practice, when you plan to apply your aromatherapy blend in a sauna or steam shower, you probably want to use some form of oil as your base.
This will allow you to use a spray bottle to apply it either to your hands, to be rubbed on wherever you’d like, or directly on to the relevant part of your body. Spray bottles tend to do a good job of holding onto their contents if they get tipped over, so you’ll avoid wasting your aromatherapy blend if it slips in your hands.
When you create your aromatherapy blend, you will almost certainly want to use a glass container for storage. In fact, ideally, you will use a dark glass container and store your aromatherapy blend in a cool (not cold), dark place.
Before you enter your sauna or steam shower, you will then decant a small quantity of your aromatherapy blend into a plastic container, preferably a spray bottle or at least one with a flip-up lid and pouring hole.
The reason for using a glass container to store your aromatherapy blend is because glass does not leak chemicals as some plastic can and so will safeguard the purity of your aromatherapy blend.
There are two reasons why you should decant a small quantity of your blend into a plastic bottle, preferably a spray bottle.
Firstly, we’ve already touched on the safety aspect. If you drop a glass container it can break and, even if you don’t, the heat of a sauna or steam shower can cause the glass to break without being touched. What’s more, glass conducts heat, so you would have to put your hand on hot glass to use your aromatherapy blend and this is definitely to be avoided if at all possible.
Secondly, there is the need to protect the quality of your blend. A plastic container will limit the amount of heat transferred to the essential oils and, basically, protect them from being overcooked.
Even so, you should only take the smallest possible amount of your aromatherapy blend into your sauna or steam shower and use it up completely or dispose of it in some way, such as putting it into a standard room diffuser.
Creating your blend
For home use, sticking to a maximum of 2% dilution is your safest option. This means that for every 30ml (fluid ounce) of carrier oil, you will want to add up to 12 drops of essential oil.
If you use more than one essential oil, then you reduce the quantities of each to make up a total of, at most, 12 drops of essential oils per 30ml of carrier oil.
Choosing your carrier oil
There are far too many carrier oils on the market to go through the pros and cons of each for each possible situation. Instead, we’ll just say that, as a minimum, you want an oil that is easy to apply (not too thick and not too runny) and has low to no odour, because you don’t want the smell of the carrier oil to fight with the smell of the essential oils.
Generally speaking, fruit and vegetable oils are excellent for aromatherapy, however, for use in a home sauna or steam shower, we’d avoid the ever-popular coconut oil as this is basically a solid until melted.
Argan oil is a great choice, as are jojoba oil and sweet almond oil. Everyday olive oil is also very decent.
Choosing your essential oil(s)
There are countless essential oils available to buy. Some are very mainstream and can be bought in numerous locations both online and offline (for example lavender) and some are very niche.
Most are safe for most people to use, but some require caution and a few can be very dangerous unless you know exactly what you are doing with them and are best left to qualified aromatherapists (if they are used at all).
The best advice we can give, therefore, is to start with your end goal in mind and then research oils that are suitable for that purpose.
Then look specifically to see if there are any cautions regarding their use. If in doubt, ask. A reputable supplier should be able to answer any questions you have, which is one advantage of using a specialist retailer over a high-street store.
Alternatively, you could see if there are ready-made aromatherapy blends that would suit your purposes.
One point to note about essential oils is that the smell of single oils on their own can get overpowering, even if you usually like them.
This is why aromatherapists tend to use essential oils in combinations of three, specifically they usually blend equal quantities of oils that are held to be top notes, oils that are held to be middle notes and oils which are held to be base notes.
Again, if you check a reputable source of information on essential oils, it will usually list the group to which any particular oil belongs.
NB: As a minimum, we recommend storing essential oils in a cool, dark place. Ideally, we’d suggest investing in a box that is designed specifically for storing essential oils (there are plenty of them on eBay) as these will give your good oils a bit more protection not only against temperature and light but against being spilt or knocked over.
Keep essential oils well out of the way of children and animals as they are dangerous if consumed by mouth.
Aromatherapy via diffusion
Many saunas and steam showers will come with essential oil diffusers, but if not then a battery-powered diffuser is usually your safest and most practical option.
Battery-powered diffusers tend to use water as a base, which would usually be the best option for use in a sauna or steam shower in any case.
The principles of choosing the right essential oils are the same as for aromatherapy via massage and again we’d do the blending outside the sauna or steam shower and just take in what your need each time.
Individual Essential Oils Properties
- Eucalyptus: It has medicinal properties with a woody scent. It is used as an anti-inflammatory. Promotes alertness, clears the mind. Used to fight colds and congestion; helps soothe dry coughs; combat's skin infections and conditions, such as boils and pimples reduces swelling. Also helps with muscle aches and pains.
- Geranium: It has a very floral and fruity scent and gives a very relaxing feeling. It is also used as an astringent and antiseptic. It helps in balancing and uplifting the skin. Helps reduce all types of mental stress and anxiety, helps to fight various throat and mouth infections. Through simulating the livers it helps the body cleanse and expel toxins and cleanse out the digestive system. Also, helps the body remove waste products and helps combats fluid retention.
- Lavender: Many are aware of lavender having a floral and fresh scent. Besides being a good antiseptic, it helps in sleep disorders, muscle tension and headaches. Lavender has a lot of healing properties as well, therefore it can improve the immune system and fix up small cuts and wounds. Combats all anxiety, stress and depression. Stimulates and renew's the skin cells; reduces skin inflammation; helps heal mouth ulcers, with other added benefits such as alleviating motion sickness. One of the most popular oils on the market
- Peppermint: it has a minty scent and is good for headaches and muscle aches. People also use it to cure their digestive problems and it can be used as an anti-viral. Uplifting, alerting, used in the treatment of emotional shock, cures coughs and throat infections; soothes intestinal cramps and heartburn, used to treat alleviate motion sickness.
- Tea Tree: Again this has a woody and earthy scent like the Eucalyptus. Tea tree oil can be used as anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and also as antispasmodic. Also known as melaleuca oil: Well known and used in many beauty and medical products today, known as a general great antioxidant, Used for cleaning cuts and surface wounds. Used to combat many bacteria and fungi. Used to help control acne.
- Lemon: It has a very rejuvenating scent. It can be used for treating wounds and cuts. It is also good for the treatment of infection, colds and flu. It is a good anti-depressant.
- Rosemary: It is a fresh, sweet and herbaceous oil. Rosemary oil can be used to improve the skin’s appearance as well as boost circulation and reduce arthritis. Used to help trigger the memory. Relieves indigestion and helps with flatulence; helps circulation alleviates muscular aches. Cleanses and stimulates the skin, good for countering infections.
- Ylang Ylang: It is a floral, fruity and sweet scent that is used for relaxation and for the removal of depression, hypertension, anxiety as well as stress. Surprisingly it also has aphrodisiac properties.
- Roman Chamomile: Helps with relaxation and reduces anxiety. Used to help clear acne rashes and skin inflammation and various skin conditions help reduce muscle inflammation, stimulates the appetite, helps combats diarrhoea.
- Sandalwood Soothing and relaxing; used as a remedy for insomnia, soothes throat irritation, bronchitis, and asthma. It also softens dry skin, help in the fight against dandruff; helps to alleviate vomiting and diarrhoea.
Sauna and spa expert with years of experience in the field. You can see me featured in many leading publications as well as my own published research papers. Fitness, health, home improvement and Psychology are my main interests. I’ve worked in many roles from product designer to purchaser for spa products, garden furniture and tech to a hands-on webmaster.