Essential oils are an easy way to boost your energy, reduce stress and change your mood on a moment’s notice. Harness your sense of smell to help you feel calm. Here, I explain exactly how to use essential oils to relieve stress, how to banish chemicals and how to bring the healing power of natural fragrances into your life and your home. Read on for the best ways to use them in your daily routine.
This guide also includes home-made solutions to bring fragrance into your home. Let’s dive right in!
Inhale the scent of lavender, and almost instantly, you may start to feel relaxed. Sniff some peppermint, and you may quickly notice an increase in energy. Fragrances, like these, often administered through essential oils, can have an almost immediate effect on your mood and wellbeing. They may also trigger memories that carry emotional connections, like the smell of your childhood home during the holidays or a visit to a favourite relative.
“Essential oils can help support all of your systems while having an impact on your emotions. That’s not a combination you’ll get from many products,” notes Lindsey Elmore, a pharmacist and the author of Essentials: 50 Answers to Common Questions About Essential Oils.
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Creating Your Haven
Our sense of smell is more closely linked to memory than any of our other senses. It’s why a whiff of a stranger’s perfume can whisk us back to our grandparents’ house, or the scent of an Italian restaurant can take you straight back to that sunkissed holiday in Sorrento. Smell is a compelling thing, indeed.
Yet most of us do little more than plonk a scented candle or two on our mantelpiece to help scent our homes. “When we’re decorating our houses, we always make sure they look great, but we often forget to consider how they will smell,” says Amelia Smith, deputy style editor for Real Homes magazine. “Scent is hugely personal, so you need to hit the high street and work out which ingredients in candles and diffusers really appeal to you. Some fragrances are proven to work well in individual rooms, such as calming lavender in a bedroom and zesty citrus in a bathroom, but it’s really about personal taste.
Once you’ve identified the types of scents you love, layer them up by combining reed diffusers with candles and then room sprays.”
Unpleasant smells are a fact of life in your home, unfortunately, whether it’s dirty dishes or an over-full bin. Even food smells can linger around the house long after you’ve finished cooking and eating. The worst thing you can do is try to mask these smells with artificial scents. Instead, remove the offending odour as quickly as you can (yes, that means you get on with the washing up and put the bin out!) and then open your windows for at least 10 minutes to ventilate the room.
Essential Oils to Relieve Stress
If you’ve got pets, invest in a spray to eliminate odours from soft furnishings (something like Febreze, although there are many supermarket own-brand versions nowadays too), and make sure you wash their beds every couple of weeks. We can become nose blind to our own homes, so be sure to wash cushion covers and throws regularly, and get curtains dry cleaned a couple of times a year to keep things smelling fresh.
Finally, as well as looking great, plants will help to purify the air, while fresh flowers can introduce a refreshing floral fragrance to your home, so don’t forget them.
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Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that bring with them the characteristics, aroma and chemical constituents of that plant, Elmore says. Take a deep whiff of a rose in the garden, for example, and you are really smelling the same chemicals found in the oils. Each essential oil has a different chemical composition that affects how it smells, is absorbed and is used by the body. In the plant world, these smells help block predators, attract bees and other pollinators and even fight off certain bacteria, virus and fungi.
In humans, the sense of smell is an almost primitive mechanism that can trigger emotions. Inside your nasal passages are tiny hairs, or cilia, that vibrate when they catch a hint of a scent. This vibration triggers an electrical signal that then travels to receptor cells; these cells set off a signal that travels along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb at the front of the brain, where it’s recognised and processed. The olfactory system is part of the limbic system, the ancient part of the brain that controls memory and emotion. “The limbic system doesn’t speak any language; it only communicates via emotions,” Elmore explains.
So a particular scent can trigger a strong memory that’s unique only to you.
“We can recognise 10,000 different odours, but no two people sense anything in exactly the same way.”
But smells can play a physical role as well as a psychological one. Research has shown several physiological effects from using aromas, including reducing anxiety and nausea, improving oral health and digestion and reducing the perception of pain. Studies have shown that infants who were bathed in lavender-infused water went to sleep faster and slept longer; they also made more eye contact and smiled more. As a bonus, their mothers had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after administering the bath.
And a Korean study found that the scent of clary sage helps reduce levels of depression among middle-aged women.
There are a few different ways to use the oils, including inhaling the scent (aromatically), rubbing it on the skin (topically) and ingesting it (orally).
You can either inhale a scent directly from the bottle, place a few drops on a tissue or handkerchief or use a diffuser, which distributes the essential oil molecules into the atmosphere. Using oils this way is quick and easy, and it doesn’t take a lot of work.
Good for: Changing the atmosphere in a room. A diffuser provides a long-lasting exposure to a scent. You can also get a faster response just by sniffing a scent from a bottle.
Some oils, such as frankincense, help to support the appearance of the skin, so you can rub a few drops directly onto your face or feet. Some areas of the body are sensitive to the oils, so avoid using them under the arms, on the face or genitalia, on any broken skin or on other areas you may find sensitive, Elmore says. As a precaution, you may want to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil (such as almond, grapeseed, coconut, olive or hemp; avoid petroleum jelly, mineral oil and other synthetics). Use about one drop of essential oil in 10 drops of carrier oil.
You can also do a patch test to see if your skin is sensitive by using a small amount of the oil and waiting an hour or two to see if you have a reaction. Older adults (above age 66) and infants (especially premature infants) are more susceptible to adverse reactions.
Good for: Relieving stress and soothing sore muscles when oil is massaged into the skin, as well as improving the look and appearance of dry skin and reducing blemishes.
Some oils are designed to be taken orally, either in capsule form, directly on the tongue or in food or water (always read labels to make sure it’s safe to take internally). Keep in mind that a little oil goes a long way, so don’t use too much; just a drop or two will do.
Good for: Quenching your thirst if you add it to water. You can use oils like lavender and oregano to flavour foods, and some oils can also be used for medicinal purposes (like peppermint for digestion).
Finally, keep in mind that all essential oils are not created equal. Some manufacturers will use cheap chemicals and other additives to dilute the essential oil and cut manufacturing costs. “Companies can put anything they want on the label, so avoid anything that smells overly sweet or artificial,” Elmore says. And note that you often get what you pay for with the oils, so if the price seems a little too good to be true, the product has likely been adulterated.
Also note that oils can quickly oxidise, especially if they are not stored properly. Keep them in airtight containers away from light and heat sources. If corrupted, the oil will likely take on a rancid or strange aroma. Some oils, such as tea tree and citrus, tend to break down faster than others.
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Which Oil Should You Use? (Aromatherapy)
- Peppermint uses: When ingested, improves digestion, alleviates nausea and headaches; used topically, helps to cool and refresh skin; acts as a muscle relaxant.
- Lemon uses: Aromatically, helps brighten a room with an uplifting scent; used in food or water to enhance flavour; used topically to help with skin or hair care.
- Lavender uses: Aromatically to make you feel more calm and relaxed or induced sleep; used topically can soothe minor skin irritation, reduces the appearance of blemishes.
- Frankincense uses: Use the carterii variety on a toothbrush for oral health or to create a body butter when paired with orange oil; use aromatically to promote mindful activities like meditation.
- Oregano uses: Topically to massage into tight muscles, also helps purify the air when diffused; has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties used topically or internally.
- Tea tree uses: Tea tree oil has many uses thanks to its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antifungal properties. Use topically to treat acne, athlete’s foot or head lice.
- Eucalyptus uses: Acts as a decongestant when inhaled in vapour to relieve symptoms of colds; use oil of lemon eucalyptus topically as an insect repellent or to provide pain relief.
Natural vs Synthetic Scents
Tense, nervous headache? What could be more soothing than a whiff of lemon or perhaps lavender, both of which are known to have calming properties? But hang on, maybe the chemicals in the scented candle you little earlier is causing that headache, that itching, even that respiratory problem.
Indeed, research over recent years suggested that synthetic fragrances can harm modern society; only now are the effects of some of the components being understood, much as toxic white lead was used as a cosmetic for centuries without its harms being realised. In fact, the very properties that make a fragrance easily vapourised, and thus able to stimulate our sense of smell, also mean they’re highly reactive. They may boost our immune reactions, too.
Small wonder then that, given the pleasure we often find in lighting a scented candle or giving the air a squirt with some shop-bought concoction, the fragrance industry is seeing a boom in “natural” fragrances. The market is expected to be worth a whopping £4.3 billion within the next four years, but even this is misleading. “The fact is that all fragrances are chemical. And just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe,” says fragrance educator Karen Gilbert, who has worked with the commercial giant IFF and wellbeing pioneer Neal’s Yard.
She stresses that all scents must, by law, be toxicology tested and any known allergens listed. “The only way to get a fragrance without any allergens is actually for it to be 100 per cent synthetic. Nature is unpredictable. Essential oils are chock full of allergens.”
So the natural/synthetic divide is something of a red herring; if you feel a home fragrance is having an effect on you, Gilbert advises merely cutting back on usage. “All fragrance was previously used very sparingly, but now it’s in everything, right down to your toilet cleaner,” she notes. Alternatively, work out your intolerance through a process of elimination or simply don’t use it at all.
Yet this isn’t to deny the pleasant experience of fragrance in the home. The psychology that connects certain scents to specific effects (relaxing, refreshing, bringing focus, improving memory, etc.) is not well understood. In fact, for any fragrance to have any impact on mood, it’s because we’ve learnt to associate it with some event. Scents don’t work like drugs. It’s way more personal.
All the same, your choice of perfume in the home is likely to be evocative, if only of home. People talk of wearing a “signature” scent, but a home can have one of these too. And, if you simply find a scent at home a welcome break from some of the unpleasant smells we’re assaulted by all day, almost by definition, there’s some kind of feel-good factor.
Gilbert adds that there are, of course, other ways to bring scent into the home, through the use of what might be termed fragrance’s natural source material; what a “natural” manufactured scent might claim to use in its production. Fresh cut flowers are one prominent, if expensive, way; when buying, aim for stems with one open flower and plenty of buds. Individual indoor plants, notably eucalyptus, gardenias, Cuban oregano and corsage orchids, may not always be the prettiest but offer a longer-lasting scent.
Likewise, some of the herbs that we commonly use in cooking, the likes of parsley, sage and basil, are also fragrant, so planting up a small indoor kitchen garden is one way to bring a more consistently pleasant note to the air too. The old classic method to create a quick all-purpose air freshener is to bring a pan of water and rosemary to the boil and let it simmer for several hours. Later, once cool, it can be decanted into a spritzer and needs to be kept refrigerated. This simple method also works well with lemon, lavender or mint.
How to Create Home-Made Solutions
There are many other tricks to try, too. Put a couple of capfuls of vanilla extract into a mug and bake it on a high heat in the oven. Or fragrance as you clean; heat up white vinegar and top up a jar half-filled with citrus peels and some herbs, then seal the pot and let it sit for 24-hours. Strain out the peels and herbs and, diluted to one part vinegar and two parts water, what you have is a good smelling and effective DIY cleaning spray.
It’s also way more planet-friendly than all of those saturated chemical alternatives.
Even more mundane products can be replaced. Take half a cup of baking soda, add two teaspoons of finely chopped rosemary and some lavender essential oil, mix it up in a food processor and store in a zip-lock bag. Hey presto, you’ve got a carpet or rug freshener. Sprinkle liberally, leave it for around 15 minutes and vacuum up.
Baking soda is particularly effective at absorbing stains and unwanted smells, so it powers up the process.
I hope you enjoyed my post on essential oils to relieve stress and as always, please consult your doctor before making any lifestyle changes. If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please leave them below, and I will get back to you as soon as possible.