An aromatherapy guide to essential oils

Is the chaos of commuting getting you down? A little aromatherapy could be just what the doctor ordered.

Understanding how aromatherapy works is key to unlocking its potential, and according to Geraldine Howard, co-founder of Aromatherapy Associates, it's all to do with our basic instincts.

"The sense of smell is the most primitive of our senses," points out Geraldine.

"It's linked to the deepest parts of the brain which govern basic instincts, memories and emotions. When we smell an aroma it triggers both an emotional and physiological response and is capable of improving our general state of health and wellbeing."

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Indeed, the fact that our sense of smell is also linked to other faculties, such as memory, is precisely why certain scents can do so much more than simply relaxing us or making us feel more alert.

Fragrances can, for example, affect our mood simply by reminding us of a certain moment in time.

"Mainstream psychology emphasises how odour associations are conditioned and learned during childhood development," points out Dr Stephen Warrenburg, a research scientist at IFF, which specialises in the creation of fragrances for cosmetic products.

In these cases, the amount of essential oils often becomes less important and synthetic fragrances are relied upon. This could well explain the growing popularity of products designed to appeal to our emotions due to the situations we might associate the fragrance with.

Philosophy's Cinnamon Buns Shampoo, Shower Gel and Bubble Bath and Lush's Grass Shower Gel and are just two examples of this type of product.

However, while these products are a relatively simple way to spice up our bath time, essential oil-based products are the only real option for those demanding more specific results from their scented beauty products, and when it comes to relaxation a little bit of flower power should never be underestimated.

Ylang-ylang essential oil, which comes from the flower of the Madagascan cananga tree, is known for its calming properties, as is lavender. Petit grain, an essential oil extracted from twigs of the orange plant, is known for its ability to relax both the body and mind. Vetivert (known as the "oil of tranquillity") is used to promote sleep, with many believing it to be more effective in this respect than lavender.

When choosing aromatherapy products which contain essential oils, avoid products which contain mineral or sulphonated oils - these can block the performance of the essential oils.

If you're making your own, you'll need a carrier or base oil to dilute the essential oils you're planning to use. This is because pure essential oils are too concentrated and can irritate skin.

There are several types of base oil available, but two of the most common are grape seed oil and sweet almond oil. How the oil was processed, where it came from and whether it's organic or not can all affect the price of the oil.

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But a word of warning: "If the quantity of essential oil isn't great enough within the formulation, they will provide little in the way of real therapy," cautions Geraldine. For example, if you're making a massage oil, essential oils should only form around three per cent of the of the total blend, while it's even less for products which will be used on sensitive areas such as the face.

If you're adding undiluted essential oils to a bath, you'll only need to add around five drops, while in pre-brought bathing or shower oil-based products, the percentage of essential oils will usually be around 30 per cent.

If you're a regular visitor to spas, you'll probably have experienced a treatment where the therapist asks you to sniff a selection of scented oils and indicate which one you're drawn to.

This is because it's widely thought that our bodies need different things at different times, whether we're craving relaxation or feeling sluggish and looking for a boost. For this reason, we're more likely to be drawn to different aromas at different times of the year.

"It's not that the scents necessary work better, but it's what the mind and body need, which is often different depending on the seasons," points out Geraldine Howard.

"For example, throughout the winter months our bodies need more comforting blends, such as Lavender, Petit grain and ylang-ylang whereas in the warmer months, although we naturally have more energy, we often long for a zesty, more citrus-based blend scent."

Geraldine's top tip: "Pure Essential Oil of Frankincense is a real favourite of mine and provides a grounding and supportive effect to aid stressful times - I recommend it to anyone who leads a busy stressful life," she reveals.

Product recommendations:

Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax Bath and Shower Oil, £37, Feel Unique

Neal's Yard Remedies to Roll - night time, £5.80, Feel Unique

Molton Brown limited edition Global Heroes collection, £16, Molton Brown

ESPA Soothing Body Oil, £30.00, nationwide