Do essential oils work? Are they safe? What even is aromatherapy? We asked aromatherapist Adora Winquist all this and more.
Adora Winquist is an alchemist. She’s spent more than two decades helping people find physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual healing. One of the keys to her work lies in aromatherapy. An often controversial healing method, namely due to the multi-level marketing attached to it, aromatherapy does offer some benefits.
There are studies that support the use of aromatherapy. A 2013 study showed decreased signs of anxiety related to aromatherapy use; a 2016 study found the use of some essential oils, like lavender, can help to reduce chronic back pain. For Winquist, it goes much deeper than that though. Ethos caught up with Winquist about her thoughts on the age-old practice of aromatherapy and why she’s such a fan.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Ethos: In a nutshell, how does aromatherapy work? We smell things and it heals the body?
Adora Winquist: Essential oils have a beautiful affinity to address our health, holistically. As we continue on the path of betterment from a personal and planetary perspective, there is an inner calling to bring wholeness into our lives.
Uniquely, in part due to their molecular size, essential oils pass through the blood-brain barrier, providing important phyto-nutrients throughout our body. This aspect, along with their vibrational nature, allow us to clear old dysfunctional patterns and re-program healthier new ones. This is a complete game-changer in the world of wellness.
More than ever, we are being pulled in multiple directions at once, through our digital devices and platforms, juggling work, school from home, family, and more. How do we find time to breathe deeply and source more control over our thoughts and feelings? How do we find our center? The ability to shift how we feel, reposition the trajectory of our emotional response and how we relate to ourselves and everything and everyone around us is at our fingertips. We can align the presence of mind and power of intention with appropriate application to create these new benevolent habit patterns and shift!
The fastest and easiest way to experience this is to apply one drop of your diluted essential oil, or synergy, into the palms of your hands and breathe in deeply for about 30 seconds. Combine your intention to amplify the benefits!
Ethos: Any history lesson you can share on essential oils? How did this practice come to be? Where does it originate?
AW: Aromatics have been prized for centuries for their therapeutic, spiritual and aesthetic benefits. The Egyptians, in particular, used aromatic herbs and infused oils such as myrrh and cinnamon for mummification, specifically for their antibacterial, antiviral, and antiseptic properties. One blend called Kyphi was formulated with more than 15 different aromatics including frankincense, juniper, and cardamom. This blend was used medicinally, ceremonially and as perfume. The Greek philosopher Plutarch had this to say about Kyphi, “Its aromatic substances lull to sleep, allay anxieties, and brighten dreams. It is made of things that delight most in the night”(Shimek & Winquist 71).In Mathew 2:11, the Bible reflects upon the gifts of the Magi to infant Jesus: “gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity and myrrh for suffering”. To note that aromatics were traded for gold indicates how highly esteemed these botanicals were.
The term ‘Aromatherapy’ itself was not coined until 1937 by the French chemist and perfumer Rene Maurice Gattefosse. Many are familiar with the popular story in which Gattefosse burned his hands and scalp in a laboratory explosion and found that lavender oil facilitated a rapid recovery. This experience led him to expound on the benefits of using essential oils, particularly medicinally. Dr. Jean Valnet, an army surgeon in the 1940’s worked with essential oils and war wounds with great efficacy. It was not until the 1950s that Aromatherapy took another shift in its meaning when the French biochemist Marguerite Maury began to study and apply the use of essential oils and cosmetology. Maury also advocated for a holistic approach to well-being, postulating that, “for each individual there is an individual remedy.”
Aromatherapy is the art and science of using pure extracts from aromatic plant materials, termed essential oils, to address a specific layer of the trinity of existence. Utilizing a holistic framework, we search for balance of our physiology, psychology (including our emotions) and spirituality. To individuate further, Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) is often mentioned for its ability to soothe many of the bodily systems (i.e. digestive, muscular, respiratory), calm the mind, and has an affinity for all of the energy centers communicating between the physical and non-physical bodies (chakra). Aromatherapy, in its truest form, is the practice of blending on an individual specific basis, facilitating the body to activate its own innate healing ability.
Ethos: What are some practical uses for aromatherapy?
AW: Spray mists and diffusers are great ways to incorporate inhalation into your daily routine.
In addition to massage oils, you can create your own intentional perfumed oils, balms, salves, serums, and body mists for topical use.
I am also an enormous advocate for the health benefits of hydrotherapy and take an aromatic bath once (sometimes twice) a day. The warm water increases the skin absorption of the essential oils. Adding epsoms salt provides another element of soothing and restoration. To avoid potential skin irritation, blend the oils in coconut oil or other carrier before adding to the bath. Generally speaking, 7-10 drops of an essential oil or synergy is effective for your aromatic bath.
The concept of synergy is paramount in essential oil blending. It is where the sum of the parts or ingredients are more effective than the singular aspect, or isolate. This concept has evolved from my perspective and practice over time. In a synergy, each plant or essential oil lends its energetic configuration, medicine, and “quintessence” until all ingredients sing in unison and in harmony.
Ethos: Are there any multipurpose essential oils? If so, which ones?
AW: Yes indeed, in essence, all essential oils are multipurpose in nature. I find this to be a wonderful affirmation from Mother Nature herself on the incredible versatility of healing potential found within each and every plant. Here is a list of 4 essential oils for every home “aromatic arsenal ” with a few blends to tantalize your DIY, and impress your family and friends with your essential oil savvy. Making your own medicine is an incredibly fulfilling experience.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lemon (Citrus limon)
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
Ethos: How can these oils be used personally for physical, mental, and even spiritual wellbeing?
AW: Aromatherapy and the use of essential oils offer one of the most effective ways to manage stress. It provides the user with a gentle treatment and a feeling of control over their own well-being. The available methods vary, ranging from bath products, body oils, room sprays, creams, and diffusers.
After over twenty years in this field, I believe the art and science of using essential oils offers a lifelong study and practice. I continually find new levels of inspiration and application for their potent alchemy. They are a bridge to the best versions of ourselves and our unification as a species.
Ethos: What benefits do the oils have?
AW: Biochemically active, essential oils contain sometimes hundreds of chemical constituents that contribute to their aromatic profile as well as their physiological benefits. For example, one of the main chemical constituents of lavender, linalool, contribute to the nervine nature of this tremendously versatile and calming oil. From an alchemical perspective, aromatics represent the spirit, or the “quintessence” of the plant. Their energetic nature offers us a profound ability to open, access, and actualize our highest nature and potential for a vibrant life rich in all facets of health and harmony.
Expectorant – aids in the removal of excess mucus or phlegm, usually stimulating or relaxing. i.e. Eucalyptus globulus (also a strong anti-viral)
Nervine – Strengthen and tone nervous system i.e. Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender)
Stimulant – stimulating different systems within the body i.e Citrus limon (Lemon)- stimulating to lymphatic and digestive systems.
Sedative – calming and soothing i.e. Boswellia carterii (Frankincense)
Antiphlogistic – reduces inflammation i.e. Anthemis nobilis (Roman chamomile)
Antiseptic – destroys/ prevents development of microbes i.e. Cymbopogon citratus (Lemongrass)
Tonic – increases vigor and liveliness in body system i.e. Zingiber officinale (Ginger)
Ethos: Is there any redeeming quality in conventional fragrances? What about those like Le Labo that really target the naturally-minded consumer?
AW: I recall walking past a Le Labo shoppe in London and thinking about what a beautiful aesthetic it had. There was a time when I loved conventional fragrance. I still like to layer my Coco Chanel with my favorite essential oils once in a while. I also notice a strong allergic response to many synthetic fragrances, and I am not alone. Ultimately, I feel we are being called back to nature. The natural world offers a wealth and range of holistic interventions that can enhance our wellbeing and create greater harmony in every aspect of our lives.
Ethos: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about essential oils?
AW: All essential oils are not created equally. As we are moving into a greater understanding of our health and wellbeing, there is an enormous lift in essential oil sales worldwide. Their growth and bounty are dependent on Mother Nature herself. From weather, blights, and other natural variants, oil yields differ from year to year and ultimately there is only so much plant material grown and harvested globally. This is where “knowing your source,” becomes critical.
Let’s call point “A” where the plant material is grown, harvested, and distilled (although there are many other permutations to this process). Before it makes it to point “B” and becomes a product on the shelf, your favorite spa, health food store or boutique, the essential oils will move through many different hands, and more often than not become adulterated in the process. The science of adulteration is itself a mega industry with essential oils for the wellness market competing with the heavy demand in the flavor and fragrance industry. The source, the species, and the knowledge of your desired aromatic profile are key in unlocking the full expanse of empowering medicine in these oils. Creating your own lexicon for quality aromatics takes time, but is well worth it. Using your organoleptic senses of sight, touch, and most importantly, smell of varying essential oils will help you build this “muscle” of discernment. Inviting the intimacy of relationship with the oils, and your openness to listen to the wisdom that they have to impart, will illuminate you in a myriad of unexpected ways.
Natural, doesn’t always mean it is safe. Context is key. Safety in usage and blending is a voluminous topic. Here are a few key points:
Standard considerations- Keep out of reach of children and pets. Consult a trained practitioner before using with children under 3, if pregnant, or under the care of a physician for epilepsy. Do not use oils internally. Dilute with a carrier oil for use on the skin. Do your research. Check to see what oils may be skin irritants. Do not use citrus oils topically before sun exposure. In this form of plant medicine, less is, more often than not, best. Store your oils in a cool, dark area.
Adora Winquist’s aromatherapy recipes
4 drops of organic Carrot Seed (Daucus carota) essential oil
3 drops of organic Ginger (Zingiber officinale) essential oil
3 drops of organic Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil
Blend essential oils in a carrier, add 3 cups of epsom salt and soak for at least 20 minutes while enjoying your favorite cup of tea.
Sweet Dreams Sleep Spray
7 drops organic Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil
2 drops organic Ginger (Zingiber officinale) essential oil
5 drops organic Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil
Blend into 1 oz distilled water and mist pillows, sheets and bedroom prior to sleep.
Essential oils are not water soluble. When making room sprays without an emulsifier, you will need to shake well to blend before misting in your personal space.
Energizing Foot Massage Oil
7 drops organic Lemon (Citrus limon) essential oil
5 drops organic Ginger (Zingiber officinale) essential oil
2 drops organic Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil
Blend into 1 ounce of your favorite carrier oil, shake well and massage a quarter size amount into the feet while envisioning yourself filled with renewable energy throughout the day.
Lavender is one of the most versatile essential oils to have in your home. In addition to the relaxing and nervine benefits discussed in this article, it is also an oil of amplification. It harmonizes and elevates the other ingredients to harmonize the overall synergistic intention of your formula.
Aromatic massage is an effective method when working through the skin and because it increases circulation, essential oils are absorbed more readily into the skin. Aromatic massage offers more than a general sense of well-being by toning, detoxifying and balancing much of the body (i.e. lymphatic, circulatory systems, muscles, organs).
When making your massage oils, these recipes use a standard therapeutic dilution of 2.5 percent. Organic jojoba is my carrier oil of choice because of its stable nature. Due to its chemical composition, jojoba is easily absorbed into the skin, offering its moisturizing benefits as it delivers the essential oils into the bloodstream. You can also use coconut oil, almond, grapeseed, or even olive oil.
Immune Support Diffuser Blend
30 drops organic Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil
60 drops organic Lemon (Citrus limon) essential oil
30 drops organic Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil
60 drops organic Ginger (Zingiber officinale) essential oil
Blend your oils in a glass bottle with an integral dropper top and shake well. Add to your diffuser as desired.
For your diffuser blend, I recommend using a nebulising diffuser with a timer feature. Ten minutes on and then thirty minutes off, as to not overexpose your nervous system.