Add as bookmark

Aromatherapy - More than Essential Oils

by Jan Kusmirek(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 162 - September 2009

It is difficult to know why people start working with aromatherapy. I couldn't really explain this myself, but I suppose it is some sort of love affair with the idea of aroma or fragrance which does appeal to some old evolutionary and instinctual behaviour. It's hardly surprising then that the study of aromatherapy is mainly about essential oils, yet there is more to aromatherapy than these exciting substances.

If you look through the best professional catalogues for therapists, you will soon come across other ideas and materials that are used in therapy. Some of them are maybe initially in conflict with ideas put forward in primary education in aromatherapy, such as absolutes. Others at first glance may be quite meaningless, perhaps even sounding a long way from true aromatherapy such as bio-amino complexes. Yet all these different materials have come about through the development of aromatherapy, the needs of the therapists, the exploration of patient or client needs. Indeed there seems to be different forms of aromatherapy.

Infusion or Maceration
Infusion or Maceration

Hydrolats and Hydrosols – Aromatic Waters

So what are some of these practical and useful materials beyond essential oils? It is more than twenty years ago that I first said publicly in my lectures that hydrolats, or floral waters cum hydrosols, were at least as useful as essential oils and very under utilised. I have long promoted their use in skin care and have found them beneficial in every sort of skin condition.

My original thinking has not changed in that an essential oil is really an extract of the aromatic principals of the plant which arrives in two forms:
  1. The volatile essential oils;
  2. The distilled water used to extract the non water soluble components of the essential oil.
Collecting the Cypress Oil Alpes Maritime
Collecting the Cypress Oil Alpes Maritime

Some aromatic components of the plant are actually weak acids, and these of course dissolve into the distillation water or hydrolat. They are therefore by definition skin friendly and very useful. I have used them as sprays, as therapeutic baths, for foot care and so on. There is nothing nicer than when you have been really ill, being sponged down with genuine floral water geared to your condition. They are an education in themselves and becoming increasingly popular in the US.

These aromatic waters can be used in a variety of ways. For therapy additions to the bath, pads, mists and sprays are beneficial. In cosmetics and toiletries too these waters can replace the usual deionised industrial inert water. Recent changes to Organic certification and harmonization between European certifiers suggest that using floral waters of organic origin is an acceptable practice to boost the organic content of a product.

It is good to note that some 'floral' waters are reconstructions using alcohol as a solvent for essential oils which are included in the product. Others are sold as 'toners' but these are not the same as true hydrolats and can have negative effects such as skin irritations.

Case Study – The Builder with Psoriasis

You can of course look at these hydrolats in quite different ways. Those with a homoeopathic background would understand the concept of the memory of water. Water is an odd substance! My first encounter with the use of hydrolats many years ago was with a builder who suffered from psoriasis on the elbows. The site looked far too raw and inflamed to use essential oils, even if diluted in oil. The builder too was averse to using what he felt to be perfumes.

So we settled on bathing the area with a floral water or hydrolat of German Chamomile. Essential oils are themselves a concentration of the aromatic, volatile constituents. So a drop of oil actually represents a considerable weight of fresh herb, which should give pause for thought before application. The so called active constituent of this essential oil is azulene, a-by product of the distillation itself and fat soluble. Not so well known but probably more important as an actual active anti inflammatory constituent is bisabalol which does, being an alcohol, have the possibility of a hydrophilic effect, but not when bound into the essential oil.

The builder returned the following week with what was for him miraculous results, and over the next four weeks with the condition subsided and did not to my knowledge recur.

The recovery could be attributed to this 'memory' effect of water. The skin after all is a bundle of receptors open to the most minute exchange of information. Or it could simply have been the mild acidity restoring the skin acid mantle which maintained itself thereafter. Eczema and psoriasis sufferers often have a raised skin pH, and so redressing this with hydrolats makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately for the pocket, we do have to consider the 'quality' of what we use as hinted above. In one of my lectures I use the illustration of two German chamomiles: one organic and one industrial. There is a significant difference in the content of anti inflammatory chamazulene and bisabalol between the two. The chromatograph shows a higher proportion of irritant terpenes in the industrial compared to the more expensive organic distillation. This would equally apply to hydrolats.

Vegetable Oils in Practice

The uses for the humble vegetable oil has grown too. When I first started aromatherapy there was just vegetable oil, a massage medium. In my opinion, massage itself is very important in the aromatic experience, but the vegetable oil should not just be considered a slippage medium. Vegetable oils have many properties. One of my most popular lectures has been Vegetable Oils in Practice where we demonstrate the values of different vegetable oils, and discuss at length their uses. Macadamia oil, for example, if of the correct quality, contains a fatty acid that is exceptionally useful in skin care for those past the menopause. For years I promised a book on the subject but was beaten to it by Len Price along with Shirley and Ian Smith and their book Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage is a must but along side my own, which saw the light of day as Liquid Sunshine!

A good example of an exceptional oil is Tamanu. The best comes from the South Pacific and is superior to Madagascan output. It has a common name of 'tree of a thousand virtues' and medicinally all parts are used – roots, leaves and bark. The fixed or vegetable oil is obtained by the kernels being sun dried or desiccated for up to two months. During this time a green aromatic oil is formed. In the past this oil has been used to combat leprous conditions by increasing local blood supply and for its anti-bacterial content. Today it is still used for its anti-bacterial as well as analgesic properties and as a strong anti-inflammatory.

It is an ideal and unusual material to use as a healing balm. However whilst aromatic it is not what most would call pleasant smelling, hence blending an essential oil such as Niaouli into it is a good idea . Niaouli has complementary properties. Tamanu oil has not been exploited in Europe as much as it could be, compared to analgesics based around salicylates.


This brings us to the subject of bases. Practitioners and their clients or patients alike want or need to send them home with something to apply to themselves. Many practitioners build their own skin care ranges or design a custom programme for a specific client. In medical practice, some do not want to use an oil, or it may simply be inconvenient to use an oil. For example when wearing long sleeved blouses, shirts etc. applying oil to the wrists is plainly inconvenient.

Aromatherapy has therefore developed its own range of bases, usually divided into creams, milks or lotions and gels. As with anything else, quality varies. A little tip to watch out for is to be wary of brands that consistently tell you what they don't contain rather than emphasizing what they do contain! Also look out for products that make miracle claims such as "our cream contains no preservative and doesn't go off"! Natural always goes off. It is part of nature's way of breaking things down and recycling. Examine claims carefully – often there are hidden preservatives such as alcohol or urea. Bases can be very useful, and those that are flexible enough to be mixed with each other or take 20% plus volume are not only versatile, but enable the therapist to create texture, touch and performance equal to the very best that can be found in the market.

One of the more exciting developments has been the use of natural polysaccharides that have exceptional gelling and thickening properties. I use one based on a fermentation of sclerotium gum, and when enriched with glucose, yields by fermentation a gel-like substance that then gives a soft texture with tremendous water-binding and oil-retaining properties. It is easy to form a gel cream for example mixing say a hydrolat of German Chamomile together with Tamanu oil and Niaouli. The resulting viscosity is up to the therapist, but the cooling effect and properties of the material make for a genuine therapeutic material. Such a blend would be easy to apply and have a uniquely non oily touch, unlike a petrolatum or vegetable butter base with an inherent greasy feel.

You do not need a laboratory to make such products, just a properly cleansed work top and stainless stirrers and clean containers. If you work in skincare, the term polysaccharide is found on labels of the best gel creams and with practice, any practitioner can emulate these items found in stores. Therapists have usually taken time learning how to make cold cream using beeswax and other fillers. Rarely are such home made blends anything to shout about, often sweating and separating after a short while. Ready-made bases are the ideal and economic way of making custom blends for patient or client in usable formats. Bottles of massage oils are rarely used.

If aromatherapy is anything, it is supposed to be a natural therapy. I define it as being based upon aromatic plants – to me the plant is king or queen, the plant is everything. So I am very happy to use aromatic principles from the plant in many forms. For example the vegetable oils we spoke of earlier are excellent at extracting aromatic components And other important fat soluble natural chemicals with therapeutic properties from the plants. Oil and water do not mix, yet the Aromatherapist, if trained properly, uses materials and bases to make a variety of lotions and potions easily and effectively. 

Herbal Oils

Whilst many hi-tec extracts might be out of the reach of therapists, simple yet useful materials do exist that qualify as 'aromatherapy'. Herbal oils are a good example. A true herbal oil is a maceration, and the process technology or the extraction process plays a big part in the activity of the eventual oil. The commonest herbal oil available is St John's Wort, renowned for its wound healing properties. But calendula, or pot marigold, is just as interesting and exceptionally soothing. Yes, they do have to be made properly and it does take time and they are relatively expensive. Cheap versions are made by screw expellers, with very little actives and poor performance, so can be disappointing. If you do not afford the best (and if you don't you may question ethically why, especially in medicine), then why not make your own. It's perfectly possible to do over the summer time by packing the jars with herbs in good quality oil.

Macerated oils are fun to make, but the quality you make at home can often beat the professionals! Not so for specialist supplies like Monoi or Vanilla from Tahiti. Here the number of flowers and the length of time of the maceration determine the quality, the price and the activity. The volatile fragrances are captured in refined or crude coconut. Unfortunately cheap Monoi is little more than perfumed coconut oil. Try to make sure you obtain a maceration and not a reproduction!

Put essential oils, water and vegetable oil together and you have a powerful therapy. But how best to apply these materials? Massage of course, burners and fragrancers but have you ever considered a nebulizing diffuser which pumps essential oils in a micronised form into the atmosphere, ionising the essential oils molecule and so making for a fresher feel and therapeutic effect. This is as close to natural dispersion as is possible and such nebulizing diffusers have very beneficial results if used correctly.

Other Areas and Materials

These are just some of the more common reminders about the wide variety of materials to be used in aromatherapy. We haven't touched on aromatic vinegars, we haven't discussed aromatic honeys or such exciting materials such as propolis. After all propolis is perhaps the most natural of aromatherapy products going, collected by bees, using the aromatic resins of trees for disinfecting and protecting the hive. What could be better? And yes, what about absolutes, so useful in psychotherapeutic work if not in body work. And then there are plant milks, and then there are ..........

So much to learn but very enjoyable and beneficial. Education and knowledge are the key, so look out for those courses and companies who are able to take you further and broaden your horizons, empowering the therapist to not only help their clients and patients but to make a decent living as well.


  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About Jan Kusmirek

Jan Kusmirek is qualified in Aromatherapy and is a director of the specialist company Fragrant Earth as well as several essential oil and extract companies. He is an international lecturer and writer and is legal and parliamentary secretary for the AOC [Aromatherapy Organization Council] and ATC [Aromatherapy Trade Council]. He may be contacted via


    Aromatherapy creams & candles. Heal naturally No side effects. Holistic treatments, powerful courses

top of the page