Aromatherapy Part 1: How it Works

Aromatherapy is the use of plant oils in treatment. Although the word aromatherapy was first used in 1937 the principles on which it is based are very, very old. The use of infused aromatic oils, made by macerating dried plant material in fatty oil, heating and then filtering date back to the first century.

The lungs and the skin are both vital to the practice of aromatherapy, as these are the two routes by which essential oils enter the body.

Essential oils evaporate on contact with the air, so when breathed in they are carried with the inhaled air through the nose and into the lungs. The two primary bronchi, which first bring air into the lungs, divide into smaller passages, which in turn divide and subdivide into tubes of every decreasing size The smallest being called the bronchioli. The bronchioli then lead to the even smaller alveolar ducts, which look like tiny balloons or bunches of grapes. These alveoli, supply oxygen to the blood and remove waste matter in the ‘exchange of gases’. The walls of the alveoli are made of the thinnest tissue in the body, and through this fine membrane fluids can pass. The surface of the membrane is always moist, so that oxygen and other soluble particles dissolve before passing through it.

The importance of this process is to understand that the particles of essential oils that have been breathed in can pass directly through these thin-walled structures, and enter the bloodstream for circulation to other parts of the body.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are the base materials of the aromatherapist. They are the pure cells of a plant extracted by distillation.

We use the term essential oil loosely to describe all the oils used in aromatherapy, but strictly speaking only those extracted by distillation should be called essential. Some oils are extracted by pressure (most citrus oils) and should be called “Essence of”. Some are solvent extracted (most floral oils) and should be called “Absolute of”.

Essential oils are very highly concentrated, and should only rarely be used undiluted. They are very volatile and evaporate quickly. They should be kept in airtight bottles in a dark and quiet place. They are damaged by sunlight, temperature changes and even loud noise.

Carrier Oils from Mountain Rose Herbs

Even though they are called oils, they are light and non-greasy. They dissolve easily in fatty oils, but not in water.

Essential oils are highly complex chemically and this makes them both versatile and safe, since many properties act together to balance them out. Some people are surprised by the many therapeutic properties mentioned for a single oil, but this reflects the complicated chemistry of the oil.

How you apply essential, or aromatherapy, oils has an impact on their healing capabilities.  Because they are so highly concentrated, it is not often recommended that you apply essential oils in their pure form directly to the skin.

Baths- A few drops of oil directly in water

Massage- A few drops of essential oil added to massage oil or any carrier oil (almond, jojoba, coconut etc)

Vapor Inhalation- 5 drops in steaming water. Inhale the steam using a towel tent over the head

Lotion/Cream/Salve- Essential oils added to these products are absorbed through the skin

Compress-Add essential oil to warm water. Dip in a cotton cloth and wring it out. Place this on the body.

If you don’t know where to start with aromatherapy, I buy all of my supplies from Mountain Rose Herbs. You can find them on my blogroll. Enjoy!



  1. June 1, 2012 at 8:25 AM

    Love this post, thanks.

  2. denlyn3 said,

    June 1, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    I feel more relaxed just by reading about this. Thanks for the tips.

  3. June 2, 2012 at 1:04 AM

    […] Aromatherapy Part 1: How it Works […]

  4. ybertaud9 said,

    June 9, 2012 at 6:20 AM

    Great info! Made this into a photo post on my FB page, both I & II ! Thanks! 😉

  5. July 27, 2012 at 8:55 PM

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  6. February 6, 2013 at 7:30 AM

    Why should fennel not be used regularly? I’m rather new to essential oils, but I’m doing a lot of reading. It concerns me if I’m using something unsafely, but I’d like to know the reason why. Thank you!

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    • imee said,

      May 11, 2015 at 4:57 PM

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    April 7, 2014 at 2:20 AM

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