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Aromatherapy in Bloom: How to Shop for the Essentials

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Now more than ever, New Yorkers are trading in venti frappuccinos for cold-pressed juice, hitting the gym (at whatever the price), and clearing out their medicine cabinets of synthetic-made remedies to create room for all-natural, alternative health treatments. The thought: why pop a pill you can barely pronounce to ease stress when you can roll on some lavender oil—right?

Aromatherapy is one of those therapies, and arguably the most popular, in part due to its convenience and accessibility. It's a form of alternative medicine that uses volatile plant materials known as essential oils to treat and manage ailments. In short, essential oils are the essence of aromatherapy, but finding the right one isn't as simple as picking up an over-the-counter painkiller at Duane Reade. Read on for what you need to know before you shop.

As the popularity of the therapy increases, so do instances of cheaper, easier to produce synthetics seeping into mass-produced products with the claim 'aromatherapy' slapped on their glossy labels. "Synthetically created aroma is not an essential oil." explains Amy Galper, the founder and executive director of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy. Authentic and genuine essential oils are either steam distilled, cold expressed, or extracted using carbon dioxide. "Any other method of extracting an odoriferous substance from plant material is not considered an essential oil," she adds.

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So what do you do after a stressful day at work if that lavender lotion you grabbed from your local chain drugstore won't do the trick? That's where Joe Richkus, an aromatherapy instructor at the West Village boutique EnFleurage comes in. He's explained the intricacies of essential oils to customers new to the therapy and how theses oils can effectively treat conditions ranging from insomnia to eczema.

"You can't just grab something off the shelf. Not at a convenience store, not here," Richkus explains. "The first thing you need to do is educate yourself on the essentials, as in the oils."

Aromatherapy's Fragrant Foundation

Before we dip into the oils though, it helps to know a thing or two about the background of aromatherapy and the methods of application: inhalation and topical.

Inhalation is when the essential oils are vaporized via a diffuser. Molecules from the oils are inhaled along with fresh oxygen and absorbed into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, a signal is sent to the brain's limbic system where all emotions take shape, in turn affecting your mood.

Topical is when the essential oils are applied to the skin and, since they're soluble with the fat (lipids) in the skin, they seep through the layers until absorbed into the bloodstream and ultimately influencing the limbic system. This method also allows for treatment of muscular and skin conditions. Massage is the most effective form of topical application, as it's believed to stimulate the skin, muscles, nerves, and glands.

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The medicinal use of plant oils dates back to 4000 B.C., and it wasn't until the Eleventh Century that essential oils really took shape, with the philosopher and medieval medicine man Avicenna being the first to isolate them via steam distillation. In 1928 that the medicinal use of these oils finally got its name—aromatherapy, which was coined by French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse.

For the next 50 years or so the practice of aromatherapy remained pretty low key. In 1977, Robert B. Tisserand brought the therapy into the mainstream with the publication of his book The Art of Aromatherapy.

The Essentials, The Oils

Essential oils are made in small artisan batches by obtaining extracts from flowers, plants, seeds, leaves, stems, bark, roots of herbs, bushes, shrubs and trees. The thing is, it typically takes a whole lot of these to create a single drop.

"Not every batch is the same," explains Richkus. "It's like wine: there are a lot of variables involved that are going to alter the percentages of the compound, which, when you think about it, isn't always helpful to a company's bottom line, especially when they're trying to put out a uniform product with a solid shelf life. So in come the synthetics."

Even though batches are small, the oils are seriously concentrated so in reality, the only thing they should be mixed with is a carrier oil like jojoba or almond, and range from 1%-%5 concentration.

According to Galper, some of the most popular oils include peppermint (good for headache, digestion, and pain relief); orange (used for detoxifying thanks to its antiseptic and antibacterial qualities); rosemary (used for calming respiratory conditions, clarifying thought, and stimulating memory); and lavender (a stress-reliever that's used for relaxing an overactive mind and soothing inflammation, among other things).

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But Really: How Beneficial are They?

Even though aromatherapy is a self-regulated field—represented by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA)—researchers are beginning to direct their attention to the medicinal benefits of the therapy.

A recent study conducted at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found the inhalation of heliotropin significantly reduces anxiety, while a study at Connecticut's Wesleyan University found lavender to help increase deep, restful sleep. Additional studies, such as one conducted in Scotland, found a combination of cedarwood, lavender, rosemary, and thyme oils to improve instances of alopecia when applied topically.

Since topical application is the most effective and versatile, Richkus recommends getting started with easy-to-use essential oil roll-ons, which EnFleurage has produced quite the line of. Theirs are a concoction of essential oil house blends and jojoba oil. One of them, Sanctuary, was designed just after 9/11 as an anti-anxiety blend to help customers restore their sense of security. Its Roman chamomile, clary sage, black pepper, and patchouli essential oils are thought to boost serotonin and dopamine levels.

Richkus, also recommends picking up Salvatore Battaglia's The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. Let's just say it's a must have textbook for beginners; complete with aromatherapy history, essential oil breakdowns, and solid recipes that target all the body systems with in depth explanations.

Image via EnFleurage

A Slippery Risk

As with any type of treatment, there are risks and side effects—and aromatherapy has a few of its own. First off, women who are pregnant or breast feeding should not dabble in aromatherapy, no matter the mode of application. Individuals with allergies should be especially careful when choosing oils. For instance, if you have a strawberry food allergy, chances are you'll be allergic to strawberry oils, whether inhaled or applied topically.

"You have to be careful—these are powerful substances," says Richkus. "Using more of a good thing doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work better. A lot of times with some of these oils, less is better. They are powerful and you could actually have an adverse effect if you use too much."

Take wintergreen for example: once this essential oil is distilled it becomes 90% methyl salicylate, the active ingredient in aspirin. A 10ml bottle of it will be equivalent to about 33 tablets of aspirin, so if you slather too much of it all over your body, you'll experience effects similar to overdosing on aspirin. But on the other hand, using just a small amount can do a lot for pain relief.

Additional side effects include increased sensitivity to the sun and interactions with over the country and prescription medications. You'll want to always give your oils a patch test before using, even those you regularly use, because remember: not every batch will be the same. All you need is a half teaspoon of carrier oil and a drop of essential oil. Test the mixture on your inner arm and give it a few hours to see if any redness appears.

And finally, check with doctor before cleaning out your medicine cabinet. While aromatherapy may be beneficial for many chronic conditions—psoriasis, acne, arthritis, depression, smoking cessation—you'll need to consider how it really measures up for you.—By Ellen Thompson