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Historical Use of Aromatherapy in Skincare

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better."
Albert Einstein

Aromatherapy skincare began thousands of years ago.  The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used some form of aromatherapy in their every day lives, although it might not have been in the way that we utilize aromatherapy today.  Fragrant herbs were often used in ancient daily rituals.  Papyrus manuscripts have been found that record the use of various plants, herbs, oils and perfumes.  Fast forward through history, and you can see that the Greeks and Romans were avid users of natural ingredients in their daily lives too.  In fact, the Romans were famous for using lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) whilst bathing.  Today lavender is still a popular ingredient of commercial bath products, although rarely is it true lavender oil but a synthetic hybrid.

Use of Aromatherapy in Ancient Pompeii

The ancient city of Pompeii in Italy lay undisturbed, from 79 A.D. until the 1700’s, under the volcanic ash and lava of the eruption of Vesuvius, preserving many centuries of secrets.  Archeologists discovered in the course of excavations that Pompeiians actually used a variety of plants and flowers, which were abundant in gardens and the surrounding countryside, in similar ways in which we do today.  Common plants such as rose (Rosa x damascena), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), lily (Lilium), laurel (Laurus nobilis) and myrtle (Myrtus communis) were in common usage for both culinary and beauty purposes.  Ancient Pompeiian women had similar beauty regimes to the modern woman of today.  Classical authors record that women were obsessive about their toilette.

Aromatherapy Skincare in France

Marie Antoinette of France (1755 - 1793) is famous for her extravagant lifestyle of riches, dresses and scents and it is said that whilst preparing to flee France, her departure was delayed by her insistence on preparing and taking with her a full toilette of scents and lotions, a fact that may have cost her life.  The preparations aroused suspicions amongst those no longer loyal to the Queen and eventually led to her capture and subsequent guillotine.

Research on Skincare Products

"Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought."
  Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Hungarian Biochemist, 1937 Nobel Prize for Medicine


If you’re like me, you’ve probably been using the same old beauty routine for years.  But have you really stopped and thought about what you are actually putting on your face or skin every day?

Here’s an example.  Before discovering aromatherapy, I used a well known brand of baby lotion on my face for years.  I figured if it was gentle enough for baby’s bum, it was gentle enough for me!  However, I discovered a report on www.cosmeticdatabase.com that analyzed this  particular baby lotion as a "high hazard" and the ingredients were linked to cancer and allergies, amongst other things. 

There are a number of scientific reports, some available on www.safecosmetics.org, which highlight potential hazards, including carcinogenic chemicals, in a lot of our beauty products such as shampoo, lip gloss, fragrances and lotions.  For example, it is reported that the levels of lead in lipstick are higher than they should be; a lot of well known lip gloss brands are amongst these (report: A Poison Kiss: The problem of lead in lipstick October 2007 campaign for Safer Cosmetics).  Another example cited is that of independent laboratory testing that finds phthalates in more than 70% of beauty and health products tested.  Phthalates, a group of chemical compounds used in plastics and many health and beauty products, have been known to cause liver or kidney damage and disrupt the endocrine system.

Natural skincare is an alternative to some of our better known high street brands.  However, some natural products also contain some of these chemicals, including some commercialized "aromatherapy" brands.  Therefore, if you are using aromatherapy products for skin care, it is essential to know what is actually in the product. 

Using Aromatherapy for Skincare

Today aromatherapy skin care products carry some of the same ingredients that our ancestor’s "lotions and potions" did.  In contrast to synthetic substitutes and modern-day branding by large cosmetic companies, true aromatherapy skin care products do not contain any artificial ingredients that may damage your skin.

Aromatherapy essential oils  are absorbed by the skin; essential oils are made up of small molecules that are capable of passing through the skin’s layers to cells, lymph ducts and capillaries. The essential oils absorbed by the skin do not normally pose a risk to a person, as the amount absorbed is minute. 

Everyone’s skin type is different, depending on age and medical conditions, so the following list of essential oils and their suitability for different skin types is only a guideline.  As always, consult a qualified aromatherapist (or skin care specialist) for further advice on the use of aromatherapy products.

How to Use Aromatherapy for Skincare

You can apply essential oils in a number of ways; blend them together in a base lotion or oil and apply to the skin, or use in spritzer sprays, bubble baths or shower gels.  Carrier oils themselves carry many therapeutic properties which can be used for different types of skin as well, so combining the "right" carrier oil with the "right" essential oil for your skin type can prove invaluable.  Some essential oils can be used neat if you are experienced in doing so and know what you are doing with a particular oil.

However, some essential oils are more volatile than others as they are made up of more volatile chemicals (such as aldehydes) and may cause skin sensitization in some individuals.  Diluting an essential oil in a carrier base usually minimizes such risks.  Examples of more volatile essential oils include lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and red thyme (Thymus vulgaris). 

Also note, other factors such as environment, stress, exercise, diet and lifestyle all play a part in our skin’s condition and overall health.  Using aromatherapy for skin care can only be beneficial if the other areas of our lives maintain a healthy balance too.

Aromatherapy for Dry Skin

Moisturizing is the key to reliving dry skin.  Gentle essential oils are recommended for dry skin, as there may be some sensitivity with dry skin too.  Essential oils for dry skin include rose (Rosa x damascena), Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), and sandalwood (Santalum album).  If you are using a base oil to blend the essential oils in, carrier oils such as evening primrose, hazelnut and avocado are good nourishing, hydrating bases.

Aromatherapy for Mature Skin

Although everyone tries to slow down the aging process, it is an inevitable fact of life!  For natural solutions in helping to stimulate cell growth and to help reduce wrinkles, try the essential oils of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), neroli (Citrus aurantium var amara), frankincense (Boswellia carteri), palmarosa (Cymbopogon martinii), and clary sage (Salvia sclarea).  Vitamin E bases are beneficial for mature skin, including borage and wheatgerm.

Aromatherapy for Oily Skin

Spots, congestion and other nuances are often the result of oily skin.  To help balance the natural PH of oily skin, try using essential oils with antiseptic and astringent properties such as tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), lemon (Citrus limon), and Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica).  Use light and easily absorbed base oils such as apricot kernel and jojoba for blending.

This is by no means a complete listing of all the essential oils that are useful in skin care.  Other essential oils for skincare  include petitgrain, myrrh, fennel, ylang ylang, rosemary, and thyme.


True Aromatherapy for Skincare

"One day our descendents will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex beings."
Franklin Thomas

There are hundreds of businesses selling aromatherapy skin care products today so it is essential to know your true aromatherapy ingredients of essential oils and carriers before buying to ensure you are, in fact, buying the "real" thing.  It is also relatively easy to make your own skin care products for aromatherapy.  If in doubt, consult a certified aromatherapist.


Copyright © Sharon Falsetto 2008 All rights reserved


References:

Davis, Patricia (2005) Aromatherapy An A-Z Vermilion London UK

Giordano Carlo, Casale Angelandrea (1992) Perfumes, ungents and hairstyles in Pompeii (Profumi, ungenti e acconciature in pompei antica’) 2nd edition bardi editore Roma, Italia

Price, Shirley (2000) Aromatherapy Workbook Thorsons London UK
"The beauty of a woman is like the beauty of flowers. There are many kinds, and yet each has unique beauty to offer."
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By Sharon Falsetto
Aromatherapy and Skincare