The facts

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from flowers, herbs, or trees to enhance wellness. Plant and flower essences have been used as healing agents since the Middle Ages, but a 20th century French biochemist used the word aromatherapie to describe the practice.

Oils are extracted from many different types of plants - some of the most common include chamomile, lavender, tea tree, lemon, bergamot, geranium, and cedarwood. Each type of oil has particular properties believed to be beneficial to certain states of health.

An aromatherapy practitioner would interview a person to decide which oils would be most helpful. Practitioners often combine the use of essential oils with other natural or alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture, and naturopathy.

The extracted plant essence can be highly concentrated, volatile, and quickly evaporated when in contact with the air. Because of the strength of the oils, they are often diluted by being mixed with a type of "carrier oil." The oils are then either inhaled or massaged into the skin. Oils are sometimes added to vaporizers, diffusers, compresses, or to bath water.

While strong evidence is still lacking, it is theorized that scents from essential oils may trigger chemical messages between the nose and the mood and emotion centres of the brain. Some studies have linked certain types of oil to antibacterial, calming, or energizing effects.

A word of caution

The Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists certifies practitioners within Canada, so you can enquire about this before making an appointment.

While safety testing has turned up few side effects, aromatherapy oils may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or sensitivity to sun exposure. Oils should never be used near the eyes.

Be sure to tell your health care providers about any aromatherapy essential oils you have used or treatments you have undergone. Women who are pregnant or those with health conditions may be advised against the use of essential oils.