The Healing Power of Plants
Originally published January 16, 2009 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel
I’ve always associated the word “aromatherapy” with the fragrant booths at street fairs, displaying an array of scented soaps, candles, incense, potpourri or perfumes. When younger, my daughters would be drawn to these vendors, pressing the colorful products to their noses to determine their favorite scent. The sweet, pungent odors of coconut, gardenia, and pine were appealing, maybe even stimulating, but were they also therapeutic?
I’ve since learned that the source of these enticing aromas at street fairs was probably fragrance oils, which are not typically associated with aromatherapy. Aromatherapy makes use of essential oils, which are also fragrant, but used to treat a wide range of ailments, including migraines, PMS, hot flashes, arthritis, motion sickness, high blood pressure, A.D.D., asthma, depression, stress, and more.
Therefore, to understand the aims of aromatherapy—using plant oils for psychological and physical well-being—it’s helpful to know a little more about various oils.
- Essential oils are extracted from the leaves, stems, flowers, bark, roots, seeds, or other parts of a plant. They are thought to contain the true essence of the plant and its immune system, in a highly concentrated form. By inhaling or applying diluted essential oils to the skin, aromatherapy seeks to provide valuable psychological and physical therapeutic benefits.
Essential oils are generally more expensive than other oils due to varying production costs and yield requirements. For example, it takes 10,000 lbs. of rose petals picked optimally at sunrise, to make 1 lb. of essential oil, compared to lavender that only requires 150 lbs. for 1 lb. of oil. As a result, rose absolute essential oil can cost 10 to 20 times as much as lavender oil.
- Carrier oils are derived from the fatty portion of a plant, usually from the seeds, kernels or the nuts. Carrier oils are necessary to dilute essential oils prior to use. Some carrier oils are odorless, but generally speaking, most have a faintly sweet, nutty aroma. Commonly used carrier oils include olive oil, almond oil, grapeseed oil, and jojoba oil.
- Fragrance oils are made by synthetic means and/or with synthetic materials. Fragrance oils are typically used in perfumes, cosmetics, scented candles, soap and incense. They do not claim to offer the same therapeutic benefits as essential oils, and are usually less expensive.
At this juncture I should also add that there are important warnings and disclaimers typically associated with the use of essential oils. In their potent, concentrated form they can be harmful, and some even toxic, and therefore should never be ingested. For external use, they should always be diluted and tested on the skin for sensitivity. They should also be kept away from children, not be used near the eyes, and the dosage cut in half for use by young children and the elderly. Finally, essential oils are not a substitute for professional medical care.
If your approach to healthcare is more holistic, homeopathic or if you’d just rather see natural products in your skincare regime rather than a long list of unpronounceable synthetic additives, there are a lot of great books and websites that show you how to make your own bath and beauty products. You can use essential oils to make massage oils, lotions, mists, bath oils, bath bombs, liquid soap, and more. You can also simply add 6 to 12 drops of essentials oils to a warm bath.
One of my favorite books on making bath and body products is actually aimed at girls—“The Girls’ World Book of Bath & Beauty” by Allison Chandler Smith. One of its best features, besides lots of intriguing recipes, is a list of ingredients and where you will most likely find them (which can be challenging), be it a pharmacy, grocery store, craft store, health-food store or online. Although “The Girls’ World…” has its own recipe for bath bombs, I had more success with this one from one of my favorite DIY websites, www.instructables.com
What you need and where to find it
8 oz. Baking Soda
4 oz. Citric Acid (Seven Bridges Cooperative in Santa Cruz)
4 oz. Corn Starch
4 oz. Epsom Salts (drug store)
¾ tsp Water
15 drops* Essential oils (Elizabeth Van Buren or Monterey Bay Spice Company, both in Santa Cruz)
2 ½ Tbsp Light vegetable oil
2 drops Food Coloring
Whisk, bowl, jar, wax paper, cookie sheet, mold (opt.)
* Adjust essential oil quantity if using strong oils like geranium and be sure to avoid oils that are strong skin sensitizers like cinnamon (or be sure to only use a drop or two of such oils).
What you do
Blend the dry ingredients in a large glass bowl to a smooth consistency.
Blend wet ingredients in a small jar with a lid and shake to combine.
Slowly whisk small amounts of the liquid into the dry ingredients. If the mixture starts to foam, you are adding the liquid too quickly.
When all the liquid has been added, test to see if it clumps together like wet sand when you squeeze it. If not, add more wet ingredients, a tiny bit at a time.
Press the mixture into 4 to 5 round balls. You can also try using a mold such as a melon baller, candy or soap mold, or ice cube tray.
Let dry overnight, then store in an airtight container or Ziploc bag for storage up to 6 months.
When ready to use, drop in a warm bath and relax. The bomb will fizz slowly because of the combination of citric acid and baking soda, and the oils will disburse.
Suggested Essential Oils