The ancients knew a thing or two. Along with inventing papyrus, eyeliner and the 365-day calendar, the Egyptians were the first known civilisation to have developed the use of essential oils for cosmetology and physical and mental ailments. Essential oils are also mentioned in Ayurvedic texts from India as well as traditional Chinese medicine. With the burgeoning modern interest in alternative medicine, essential oils are standard products at any good spa or organic health store.
Essential oils are derived from various parts of a plant: bark, stem, roots, leaves and flowers. Distilled either by steam or water, they are – contrary to what many think – not oily at all. Most essential oils are colourless; a few are yellow or amber hued.
Typically, the extracted essence is diluted with a “carrier oil” such as grapeseed or sweet almond oil.
Among alternative health practices, essential oils are extensively used in aromatherapy. It is believed that the chemical mix in each essential oil offers both therapeutic benefits as well as cures for various physical ailments and psychological disorders. Typically, the oils are inhaled or applied on the skin. A popular form of at-home usage is to lie back and soak in a warm water tub containing a few precious drops of the prescribed oil (and, perhaps, silently thank the ancient Egyptians!)
Essential oils are chosen for use according to the season, type of ailment and even gender. There are almost as many oils as there are plant species around. Here’s a ready guide:
Bergamot is used to induce emotional well-being among people suffering from an excess of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, fear and that ultra-modern ailment, stress. Bergamot promotes feelings of confidence and eases depression and fear.
Vetiver, grown in Indonesia, China and Brazil, is used in similar instances to Bergamot. Vetiver’s “cool” properties heal those unable to cope with grief and also treat exhaustion and insecurity.
Frankincense helps overcome feelings of loneliness; it allays panic attacks and combats stress.
Seasonal oils To combat summer heat and fatigue, two or more oils of floral and herbal origin such as geranium, chamomile, jasmine, lavender,lemongrass, patchouli, ginger, peppermint, rose, orange and sandalwood can be combined and used. These oils are light and energising, with cooling properties.
Citrus oils (sweet orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit) are typically summery, light oils, but also combat the blues in dull grey weather. When temperatures drop in autumn, oils from spices like cinnamon, clove, ginger, cumin and fennel are ideal for their spicy, warm and woody notes.
Oils for Physical Ailments Tea tree oil, a popular ingredient in cosmetics fights acne, insect bites, sinusitis and whooping cough. Eucalyptus with its fresh, woody aroma is good for inhaling during colds, coughs, bronchitis and flu. Thyme can heal cuts and insect bites and help blood circulation and muscle pains. Lavender is a wonder oil, used for a host of problems from allergies, burns, dysmenorrhoea and headache to hypertension, sprains, vertigo and labour pains!
There are no hard and fast rules for blending essential oil combinations; rather, it is a highly subjective expertise acquired with time, knowledge and practice. Essential oils can be toxic if ingested; and citrus oils can turn phototoxic, so be wary of topical applications.