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Essential oils, in aromatherapy use. work in a number of ways; the main way in which aromatherapy works is through access to the body by inhalation, olfaction, skin absorption or ingestion.

Aromatherapy and Smell

Although there is little scientific proof, many aromatherapists widely believe that the main way in which aromatherapy works is through the inhalation of essential oils into the lungs.  Methods of inhalation include tissues, hands, baths, sprays, diffusers and vaporizers.  The nose inhales the essential oil aroma and then the aroma passes through the respiratory system.  Finally a gaseous exchange takes place in the lungs, which diffuses the essential oils.

Scientists know that smell is the only sense which has a direct link to the brain.  Therefore, the nose is capable of chemically converting the essential oil aroma and relaying the information to the brain.  Electrochemical messages are sent to the appropriate part of the brain, triggering the release of neuro-chemicals and causing subsequent effects.

Aromatherapy Through the Skin

There is dispute in the scientific world over whether it is possible to absorb essential oils through the skin.  However, a study carried out by Jager et al (1992) states that when applied in a base oil, essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream.  Some essential oils, with very small molecules, may directly penetrate the skin and  pass through sweat glands and hair follicles to reach the uppermost layer of skin and capillary circulation.  They are then absorbed into the blood stream.

The skin is a poor barrier to fat-soluble substances allowing essential oils in a carrier oil to be applied to the skin and absorbed into the blood stream by a process of simple diffusion.  Fat-soluble particles of essential oils dissolve in a oily sebum, produced by sebaceous glands, and pass into the deeper, second layer of the skin.  They are then carried by the blood and lymph vessels into the main blood stream.

Top note essential oils, such as lemon and orange, are absorbed more quickly into the skin as they have smaller, lighter molecules.  Base note essential oils, such as rose and patchouli, take longer, as they have heavier molecules.  Absorption rates may also be affected by heat, massage, condition of the skin and breathing rate.  Methods of application include compresses, sprays, baths and topical application such as massage.

Aromatherapy Through Ingestion

Although ingestion is a very common method of using essential oils in France, by both aromatologists and doctors, it is not a method that is widely used elsewhere in the world.  Research carried out by medical aromatologists in France shows that every drop of the essential oil reaches the systems of the body.

It is extremely important to have knowledge of essential oil constituents when using this method and it is not recommended for use in the United States.  Knowledge needed includes the longevity of time over which the essential oil should be taken, concentration strength of the essential oil and the characteristics of any diluent used.  There is the potential for toxicity if not used correctly.

How Aromatherapy Accesses the Body

Essential oils, in aromatherapy use, enter the body in a number of ways and the effectiveness and validity of each method is often disputed by scientists.  New research emerges all the time on how aromatherapy works, so it is wise to check latest scientific studies for new information on essential oils and aromatherapy.


Price, Shirley, Price, Len 1999 Aromatherapy for Health Professionals Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone

This article was written by Sharon Falsetto and appeared in its original format on Suite101 as How Essential Oils Access the Body

It is expressively prohibited to copy or use this article in any way unless written permission is given by the author Sharon Falsetto.  If it is discovered that copyright laws have not been complied with, legal action will be pursued by the author Sharon Falsetto.

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