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How to use aromatherapy

Aromatherapy can be a safe and effective way to take care of yourself.

mother and daughter inhaling essential oils

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils that come from plants. Clinical aromatherapy is the use of these oils to alleviate symptoms and promote wellbeing. You might find aromatherapy helpful to manage pain, nausea, anxiety, and insomnia and to promote a general sense of wellbeing. But it is not a cure or treatment for disease. It is a good idea to involve your healthcare team in discussions around how you plan to use aromatherapy. 

How to use essential oils

In the United States, you can safely use essential oils in two ways: inhalation and topical application.

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    Breathing essential oils is a powerful way to send messages right to the brain. When you inhale an essential oil, the active chemicals in the oil go directly to the part of your brain that controls your emotions and hormonal responses.

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    Inhalation is considered the safest and most effective way to use most essential oils. However avoid inhaling essential oils if you are experiencing respiratory distress or reactive airway disease. And just  inhale them intermittently--not around the clock. Try inhaling them for an hour and then taking a break. It’s okay to fall asleep with some essential oils in the bedroom as long as there is good ventilation.

    Note that if you plan to inhale the essential oils, you do not need to dilute them.

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    Topical application

    topical application. of massage oilsPutting essential oils on the skin where they are absorbed is another way to experience their beneficial effects. Certain oils may irritate the skin, so it is important to know some basic information to safely use essential oils in this way.

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    Topical application

    If you plan to apply essential oils to your skin, it is best to purchase a prediluted formulation, or follow these guidelines for diluting them yourself. However, we don’t recommend that you mix different types of essential oils yourself, as it is more effective to purchase blends created by an experienced aromatherapist. 

    Start with a small area the first time and choose a less-sensitive area of skin. The outside of the forearm is a good place to test how your body reacts to an essential oil.

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    What to avoid with topical application
    • Avoid applying essential oils to rashes, wounds, or non-intact skin. 
    • Don’t get the oils in or near the eyes, nose, or mouth. The face, skin folds, and genitals are all considered sensitive areas that should typically be avoided.
    • Avoid dressings, bandages, central lines, or other adhesives. The oils may loosen or prevent a dressing from sticking securely to your skin.
    • Use the oils with caution if you have a history of sensitive skin, skin reactions, or if you are on medications that may increase skin sensitivity such as topical steroids, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy drugs.
    • If you have a history of graft vs host disease (GvHD) of the skin, you should speak to a member of your healthcare team before using topical essential oils. 
    • Similarly, if you have a cancer diagnosis that specifically impacts your skin, you should also talk to your team first.
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    Cautions continued

    If you begin to notice signs of redness, itching, or irritation, wash the area with soap and water, pat dry, and leave open to air. Once you know you are not sensitive to an oil, you may use it  cautiously on the face, but continue to avoid the eyes, nose, or mouth.

    Rarely, an essential oil may be aggravating. Make sure to use the oils in a way that allows you to quickly clear the area if this happens. Remember, applying essential oils topically will always result in some amount of inhalation of the oils.

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    Important caution

    In some countries, people swallow essential oils. This is not a common practice in the United States. We don’t know much about the safety of ingesting essential oils.

    Scientists do know that they are powerful, concentrated substances that act like a medication in the body. They break down in complex ways, which makes it difficult to measure them in the blood and identify all the ways they may be impacting the organs.

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    Adverse effects

    When people swallow essential oils they can cause harm to the body. A few of the documented examples of adverse effects include:

    • Damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach tissues
    • Stress and strain on the liver as it works to metabolize the oil
    • Competition with medications for receptor sites and enzymes needed to process them
    • Interactions with medications

How to store essential oils

In general, most essential oils are good for one year after they are opened if they are stored properly. Always note any manufacturer expiration dates.  

  • Store essential oils safely in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight or heat.  
  • Ensure the containers are tightly sealed and kept upright. 
  • Be sure to keep them away from small children and pets.
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    How to dilute essential oils

    If you plan to use essential oils topically, you’ll need to purchase pre-diluted essential oils or learn how to dilute them yourself. If you buy full-strength oils, you can dilute them in any neutral carrier oil, such as jojoba or fractionated coconut oil.

    You can also dilute essential oils in mineral salts and use them in the bath for a fun way to get both inhalation and topical benefits. Essential oils can be effective at very low concentrations in topical applications. Click through these slides to see the dilution ratios.

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    Massage Oil

    For children (older than 2 years old)

    • 0.5% concentration = 1 drop of essential oil in 10 milliliters of a carrier
    • 1% concentration = 1 drop of essential oil in 5 milliliters (1 measured teaspoon) of a carrier
    • 2% concentration = 2 drops of essential oil in 5 milliliters of a carrier

    For adults:

    • 3% concentration = 3 drops of essential oil in 5 milliliters of a carrier
    • 4% concentration = 4 drops of essential oil in 5 milliliters of a carrier
    • 5% concentration = 5 drops of essential oil in 5 milliliters of a carrier
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    Bath salts

    If you are blending your own bath salts, use plain mineral salt. Make sure the blend is mixed in the water well and break apart any salt clumps. To prevent oils from disappearing too quickly, pour the salt mixture into your bath water just before entering the tub. Soak for 10-15 minutes in warm water. 

    What to avoid:

    • Many bath salts are pre-mixed with essential oils. Do not add more. 
    • Never put essential oils directly into bath water. 
    • Avoid using essential oils that may burn the eyes, nose, mouth, or throat in the bath (peppermint, rosemary, tea tree oil, for example.)
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    Bath salts

    For children:

    • Use 2-5 drops of essential oils into 1/3 cup of mineral salt

    For adults:

    • Use 6-12 drops of essential oils in 1/2 cup of mineral salt
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