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Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to Get Started

Do you want to learn about a more natural way to live a healthier life? If so, aromatherapy essential oils might be just what you’re looking for. Scientific studies continue to prove the many aromatherapy benefits you can take advantage of. But while these essential oils are popularly used nowadays, it’s a historic method of health and medicine. Egyptians might be the earliest recorded users of this healing practice. They had machines that extracted oils from plants, which they used to embalm the dead.

Today, you can reap numerous benefits for your mental and physical health easier than ever before. Let’s dive into this holistic healing method and find out what exactly it is, how it works to benefit you, and some key ways you can incorporate it into lifestyle.

What is Aromatherapy?

Vials of aromatherapy oil with an aromatherapy candle in the background
If you’ve ever been curious about aromatherapy essential oils, you’ll want to give them a try after discovering their benefits.

If you want to know more about aromatherapy and how it can benefit your body and mind, it’s important to first understand what exactly it is. Basically, aromatherapy is a practice that uses essential oils to heal ailments or create calming effects for the body and mind. But how does that happen?

Well, when the essential oils are inhaled, your smell receptors send signals through electrical impulses to your brain. The signals vary depending on the essential oil smell and how it impacts the brain and the memories stored there. But we’ll get more into that later.

Sometimes, it also incorporates touch or massage, with the oils rubbed on your skin. Both methods allow the aromatic essential oils to enter your body and work their magic. Now you know that this treatment involves oils and some kind of body work. Let’s dig a little deeper into those two topics to really understand how it works.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t replace any medical treatment with it before consulting your doctor. Aromatherapy can supplement treatment or be used for pleasure. It doesn’t have enough research to prove it’s a cure for anything — at least not yet!

What are essential oils?

Woman adding aromatherapy oil to a bowl of water with rose petals

Essential oils are a plant product that is so potent, you only need to use around 1-3 drops in aromatherapy. They are created by distilling plants and extracting the concentrated oils produced.[1] What you get in the end are aromatic oils that smell like the plant they came from, along with the plant benefits too.

You can use essential oils in so many aspects of your life, making it a sound investment. Here are a few examples of how you can use essential oils outside of aromatherapy.

In your DIY beauty products

Making your own essential oil products lets you control what goes on your skin and hair. You get a more natural and environmentally-friendly product, plus there are no added chemicals or preservatives on the ingredients list. Essential oils can be used to make homemade face masks, hair conditioners, and soaps, to name a few.

And if you’re worried that a natural product might spoil before you can finish it, don’t fret! One study showed that thyme, oregano, and clove essential oils have antifungal properties.[2] So just add a few drops of oregano essential oil to your next product to prevent any mold growth.

As a natural bug repellent

In the summer, you might find yourself slathering bug spray on your skin. In the winter, bugs may try to creep into your home through cracks and openings in the walls. They can even make their way into your bed to bite you! Unless you are a fan of these things, you might want to learn about the essential oils for natural bug repellents.

One test comparing six essential oils showed that citronella and eucalyptus oils can protect you from mosquito bites for at least three hours.[3] You can combine these oils with water and vinegar for a skin-safe bug repellent. For bugs inside the home, try tea tree oil. Specifically, tea tree oil can help prevent bug beds when a few drops are periodically added to your mattress. Plus, it smells great and won’t stain anything.

Remember: You shouldn’t ingest essential oils. Even though peppermint might smell delicious, it can be harmful if swallowed alone. Talk to a health professional first.

In homemade cleaning products

Cleaning products today contain many ingredients you probably don’t know about — let alone know how to pronounce! Do you really want those substances on your countertops, where both your hands and your food might later touch? You can create cleaning products that are safe for you and your family easily using essential oils like lemon, mint, and thyme.

These oils are antibacterial and anti-germ,[4] making for a home that is both sterile and smells fantastic. You can mix these oils together with water and vinegar to make a spray. Then, just wipe surfaces clean with a cloth. Add in orange essential oil too for some grease-fighting action.

How do aromatherapy essential oils work?

Three colorful vials of aromatherapy oils each with a different scent.

Now that you know more about essential oils and their many uses, let’s talk about using them in aromatherapy. When essential oils are inhaled or put on your skin, thousands of your olfactory sensors (smell senses) send signals to your brain. These signals go to your limbic system, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory, pleasure, and emotions.[5]

The effects that come next happen pretty fast as your smell sensors are directly related to the limbic part of the brain. Other senses like touch and taste are not quite as fast as this. So after the limbic system is hit with the essential oil signals, brain-affecting chemicals are released. One of these chemicals, encephalin, can reduce pain and create a general sense of well being.[6]

You can do aromatherapy alone or with an aromatherapist. An aromatherapist can be useful as they will walk you through which essential oils are best for your specific needs. Sessions with an aromatherapist can include meditation or massage with oils. So these practitioners aren’t only there for advice.

What Are Some Key Aromatherapy Benefits for Health?

Bottles of aromatherapy oils in a massage studio with a woman getting a massage with them in the background.
An aromatherapy oil massage is both relaxing and beneficial for your health.

Aromatherapy can benefit both your physical and mental health. The different essential oils used will have unique health effects depending on their properties. Let’s check out a few interesting aromatherapy benefits.

1. Improves headaches

Woman holding her temples due to a painful headache

We can all use a little less stress in our life. Sometimes too much stress can even cause migraines, which are amongst the most painful headaches. Stress and headaches are usually linked to tension in the brain.

Aromatherapy can combat headache tension as it sends signals for the body to relax and decompress. A blind trial showed that aromatherapy reduced stress in students who wore an aromatherapy necklace, and in turn lowered their blood pressure too.[7] That’s great news for you busy bees out there because, let’s be honest, stress can sometimes be unavoidable.

2. Relieves congestion and asthma

Essential oils that reduce inflammation are ideal if you have a cough, or suffer from asthma. Eucalyptus essential oil is great to use in aromatherapy as it is anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial.[8] The best way to use it when you’re sick is to pour hot water into a bowl and add in a few drops of oils. Then, hold a towel over your head and the bowl to inhale the steam for about 15 minutes.

3. Improves digestion

Woman making a heart shape with her hands on her stomach

This aromatherapy benefit is a definite drawcard for those looking to improve their digestive health. Especially as sometimes, you might get a little “backed up” without knowing why. It might be because of your liver, which plays a huge role during digestion.

Try massaging a few drops of liver cleansing oil like lemon and chamomile oils, along with a carrier oil onto your liver. This can help improve the situation and encourage movement again plus detoxification.[9]

4. Combats insomnia

There’s really nothing worse than feeling tired but not sleeping. A lack of sleep can throw off your entire next day. When you don’t sleep enough, your creativity is reduced. You may even feel more emotional too.[10] But inhaling some calming aromatherapy essential oils before bed could be your saving grace.

Lavender oil is specifically known for aiding in relaxation. One study on women showed that inhaling lavender essential oil for 20 minutes two times per week improved sleep quality.[11] If you want to double your chances for relaxation, go ahead and give yourself a nice shoulder and neck massage before bed with lavender essential oils in the lotion. This way you’ll continue getting the aroma of lavender all night long.

5. Reduces pain from menstrual cramps

Woman lying on the couch holding her stomach in pain due to period pain

If you’re like most women, you have experienced some pain from your menstrual cycle. Maybe it was so bad that it made you want to curl up in bed all day and watch Netflix.

If you haven’t figured out how to best manage your pain, or you’re looking for a natural source of relief, look no further than this aromatherapy benefit. A comparative study showed that women who massaged their abdomen with essential oils had a decrease in menstrual pain level. While those who had no essential oils experienced no change.[12]

6. Improves symptoms of depression and anxiety

If you suffer from depression or anxiety, you’re not alone. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S. Major depressive disorder is the most common disability for people in the U.S between ages 14 and 44.[13] Aromatherapy doesn’t cure these disorders. However, it offers some relief by improving mood and symptoms. According to one study, an aromatherapy massage every two weeks improved patients symptoms suffering from depression and anxiety.[14]

7. Helps cardiovascular disease symptoms

Doctor taking a female patient's blood pressure

Inhaling essential oils can help reduce heart rate and improve symptoms of cardiovascular disease.[15] Aromatherapy oils send signals to the brain. These signals are then processed and sent out to the rest of the body, even the heart. Inhalation, combined with the reassuring smell and touch of aromatherapy, produces a calming effect that helps patients.[16]

Again, this is something you can do on your own to help yourself if you suffer from cardiovascular disease. Aromatherapy is great because you can do treatment in your own home and on your own time.

5 Aromatherapy Essential Oils to Try

Bottles of homemade aromatherapy oils with flowers inside.
There are many different types of aromatherapy oils to try, each boasting different draw cards.

1. Tea tree

A plate featuring tea tree aromatherapy oil bottles of different sizes with aromatherapy creams and candles in the background

This all-in-one oil is great if you’re new to essential oils. Maybe you just want something that can be used for multiple purposes. Tea tree oil is anti-bacterial and great to use in aromatherapy massages. It can help your body feel refreshed.

This is because it has a natural cooling sensation.[17],[18] If you have acne, you will definitely want to add some tea tree essential oils to your stash. It’s great for fighting acne when used topically or diffused near your face.[19] But remember to always use a carrier oil or lotion if putting an essential on directly on your skin.

2. Lavender

A bottle of lavender aromatherapy oil with springs of fresh lavender beside it

Lavender is commonly used in aromatherapy to de-stress and relax patients. Many commercial products contain lavender for this reason as well, such as scented heating pads and eye masks. Lavender oil is great to inhale as a sedative before bedtime, and as a mood booster to combat depression.[20] Try it out the next time you feel your senses heightened to an uncomfortable level, whether from anxiety or stress.

However, it’s important to note that lavender is so relaxing that it might be a bad choice to use if you need to stay alert. Researches showed that lavender essential oil can decrease your working memory and even impair your reaction time for attention-based tasks.[21] This isn’t something to worry about. It just means that your body is transitioning into a state of calmness where these functions aren’t as needed.

3. Eucalyptus

A bottle of eucalyptus oil with a sprig of fresh eucalyptus beside it

This essential oil smells strongly of menthol, like the cough cream you rub on your chest when you’re sick. It’s great to inhale for nervous system issues and headache relief too. When used in an aromatherapy massage, it can relieve muscle tension from its anti-inflammatory properties.[22]

In recent studies, it’s also being tested for its ability to activate your cell-mediated immune response.[23] Our cell immune response can be activated naturally or by some kind of stimulant, in this case, eucalyptus oil. This means that when your body isn’t reacting properly to something (such as tumor creation) it can kick-start your cells to fight back.

However, there’s currently limited research about just how impactful this oil is in this regard. It’s also important to remember to never orally ingest eucalyptus oil. It’s extremely toxic to consume in that case as reported.[24]

4. Lemon

A bottle of lemon aromatherapy oil with a pile of fresh lemons in the background

If you’re pregnant, you may want to keep lemon aromatherapy in mind for both your morning sickness and your birth process. It’s been proven to help alleviate the first stages of labor pains.[25] But that’s not all, lemon oil can also help if you’re feeling nauseous.

One study proved that by inhaling lemon essential oil as soon as you feel like vomiting you can reduce your chance to lose your breakfast. Plus, it will alleviate the sick feeling in your stomach that might otherwise carry on throughout the day.[26]

5. Ylang Ylang

Fresh ylang ylang in the wild

Ylang ylang is another oil to consider using if you suffer from anxiety or panic disorder. It can lower your heart rate and have calming breathing effects. It’s anti-depressive and can even trigger euphoric sensations.[27] One review of aromatherapy essential oils found ylang ylang great if used after a traumatic incident, as it can give off a feeling of wellness.[28]

It’s frequently used in perfumes and fragrances, as its flower origins give it a slightly fruity and floral aroma. Additionally, it can increase alertness when inhaled while still allowing users to feel well and clear-headed.
[29] This is directly related to your pulse, as when it slows down from being escalated, you can feel more in tune with your surroundings. Ylang ylang is also rumored to be one of the strongest essential oil aphrodisiacs, but there is not much scientific evidence to support this claim.[30] Give it a try for yourself to find out!

Fun Fact: Essential oils require a ton of plants. To make one pound of rose essential oil, nearly 4,000 pounds of Bulgarian Rose are needed. That’s also why some essential oils are so expensive[31]

How Can I Start Using Aromatherapy Oils?

Woman getting a massage with aromatherapy oils and candles
You can either use aromatherapy oils at home, or with a professional.

Don’t be afraid to start using aromatherapy in your daily life. You can take it slow, with a few sessions a month inhaling certain oils that suit you. From there, you might find yourself reaching for these essential oils and adding them to lotions for self-care massages after work. Aromatherapy can relieve many symptoms of diseases. It shouldn’t be overlooked as a resource for those wanting to improve their mental health either. Here are some easy ways you can include it in your routine.

Aromatherapy Diffuser

An wooden aromatherapy diffuser with potted plants in the background

If you want to fill your room with the calming smells of lavender oil as you sleep, an automatic diffuser can be great for you. Diffusers evaporate the essential oil of your choice into the air, creating a wafting scent that lasts as long as the oils and the diffuser are working.

There are a few different types of diffusers, but nebulizers might be the best for aromatherapy use. This kind of diffuser breaks down the oils into smaller molecules before dispersing them throughout the air, leaving the oils in a pure form easy to be inhaled.

Aromatherapy Necklace

An aromatherapy necklace is perfect for you on-the-go gals. They typically have a medallion made of clay, metal, or glass that will hold whatever drops you put on it for the day. This way, you can get a quick whiff anywhere you are.

Aromatherapy Candles

A display of aromatherapy tea candles with a bigger aromatherapy candle in the background and a bowl of aromatherapy oil

Don’t confuse aromatherapy candles with regular ones. Look for essential oil ingredients on aromatherapy candles. These candles will release them into the air as the candle burns. A regular candle might smell like lemon or cinnamon, but not contain the essential oils that will give you great health benefits.

Aromatherapy Inhaler

If you want to use essential oils throughout your busy day, but you want something a bit more discreet than a necklace, try an aromatherapy inhaler. It’s about the same size as a regular inhaler might be and can fit inside your purse. You can use it by dropping some essential oils on the cotton wick inside of it at the start of your day. Then, pop open the cap and raise it to your nose and inhale deeply once or twice before stowing it away again.

Safety Tips to Keep in Mind

If you want to add in aromatherapy to a specific treatment plan, talk to your doctor first and consult an aromatherapist. While aromatherapy and essential oils can have amazing effects, they also have risks if not used properly, so talking to a specialist is a great place to start.

Here are some important safety tips to remember when practicing aromatherapy.

  • Mix oils with a carrier oil
    Anytime you apply essential oils to your skin, you should always mix the essential oil with a carrier oil first. A few carrier oil examples are coconut, almond, argon, or avocado oil. This ensures that the solution is not too potent and doesn’t dry out or react badly with your skin.
  • Don’t digest them without medical guidance
    You shouldn’t swallow essential oils without first checking the label on the product and talking to your doctor.
  • Be careful using essential oils around your pets
    Essential oils are great for humans, but some can actually hurt your pets. Dogs and cats can be sensitive to diffused oils so make sure to check out which oils are not safe for your furry family members.


Aromatherapy is a great natural way to use the potent benefits of plant oils to increase mood and relieve tension. Whether you choose to practice with an aromatherapist or just by yourself, aromatherapy benefits can have a lasting impact. With countless essential oil options to work with, there is something for all your needs.

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