Aromatherapy can be a little overwhelming to a beginner. Not only are there hundreds of unique plant oils and essences – there’s also some new vocabulary to learn before aromatherapist lingo will make sense. Below are the most common terms and definitions that come into use in aromatherapy and most other healing techniques that employ aromas, fragrances or essential oils.
For a guide on starting out with essential oils, see also Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils :
The Vocabulary of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy – the practice of using essential oils for their healing properties. The term may be applied to pure medicinal essential oils, adulterated essential oils used in the beauty and fragrance industries, certain massage modalities with scented oils, or even scented candles and other home décor which do not involve real essential oils but which capitalize on aromatherapy’s trendiness. The term “aromatherapy” may or may not be accurate for many healers who use essential oils, since it implies that the oils are used exclusively for their smell and by inhalation, which is not the case: see also Internal and Topical. The concept of aromatherapy as inhalation alone is based on the British model of aromatherapy.
Aromatology – the practice of using essential oils whether by inhalation, ingestion, and/or topical application (only safe to do with therapeutic-grade, organic essential oils). Based on the French model of aromatherapy.
Blend – a combination of essential oils in synergistic combination, often in a carrier oil base. Creating essential oil blends is an art and a science, taking into account the fragrances of each of the oils as well as how the chemical components will interact. Blends can be more effective than single oils for treatment of emotional and psychological issues.
Carrier – a fatty oil (such as almond, jojoba, avocado or olive oil) which is used to disperse and dilute an essential oil or oil blend before application.
Diffuser/diffusion – a method of dispersing essential oils into the air for inhalation, very effective for treatment of respiratory and emotional symptoms. The best diffusers mist oils into the air using pressure and cold air, not by heating or burning the oil. A cold air diffuser is a small machine which forces essential oils through a fragile-looking glass nebulizer, dispersing them into the room. Candle diffusers or those which use heat can destroy the effective medicinal properties in the oil and may make them toxic.
Dilution – water does not dilute or weaken essential oils: in fact, it makes them stronger! If you experience an adverse reaction to an essential oil, it must be diluted with a natural, non-synthetic fat like olive oil or butter (see carrier, above). Water will worsen most skin reactions and is not an effective way to remove essential oils from skin.
Distillation – the preferred method of creating an essential oil, involving mastication of the plants, steam at the lowest possible temperatures, slow processing and, ideally, no solvents.
Essential Oil – a liquid pressed or distilled from a plant, usually with a strong fragrance. If cleanly derived from organic, wild-crafted plants, an essential oil will possess healing properties. Essential oils are not oily or greasy, and will evaporate quickly if left open to air because of their volatile chemistry.
Hydrolat – French term for “an aromatic, medicated water” (Price, Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, 1995) created as a by-product of distilling an essential oil. It contains the water-soluble components which separate from the lipid-soluble essential oil. Also known as a floral water or essential water, a hydrolat is much more mild than an essential oil and is safe to use in almost all situations.
Hydrosol – a solution made using essential oils dispersed in water; often used as a spray or to mist oils for inhalation. Sometimes called a “prepared aromatic water.” (Price, 1995)
Infused Oil – a carrier or base (fatty) oil with aromatic essential oils dispersed in it.
Inhalation – one of the primary methods of application of essential oils. Essential oils are effective by the sense of smell alone because aromas trigger the areas in the brain that handle emotions, memory, and repressed memory or trauma. Inhalation is also the only method of use for the impure essential oils used in conventional “aromatherapy.” If someone tells you that the only safe way to use essential oils is for their aroma, you can be fairly sure that they were trained with poor quality oils.
Internal – the most controversial approach, essential oils may be applied directly on the tongue, ingested in capsules or with food. Only safe under the supervision of a trained aromatologist employing pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils.
Neat – use of an essential oil without dilution in a carrier oil or other fatty base.
Perfume – until the last century, all perfumes were made from pure essential oils combined in unique and alluring ways. Today, however, most perfumes are made using synthetic ingredients and oils that have been denatured to achieve higher yields or particular aromatic flavors, robbing them of their therapeutic properties. These altered oils and synthetic chemicals often contribute to skin and respiratory reactions. Most of today’s essential oils are perfume-grade, good only for their aroma.
Pure – Most essential oil bottles claim to be “100% pure,” but regulations enforce that only a minimun of 1% of the contents of a bottle must contain “100% pure organic essential oil” for the bottle to be labeled as such. What about the other 99%? It’s often carrier oils or synthesized ingredients.
Reflexology points – points on the soles of the feet that correspond to every part of the body, making the feet an ideal place to apply essential oils.
Solvents – the toxic chemicals used in the distillation and pressing of most commercial essential oils, which make them unsafe to use internally or on bare skin. See also Perfume.
Therapeutic-grade – oils which are pure, organically grown, pressed without solvents and bottled without additives or chemicals. These oils should be safe for ingestion and topical application on the body. However, the term “therapeutic grade” is not regulated, so some labeling may contain false claims. (This is when it comes in handy to have an aromatherapist who has a good source for certified therapeutic-grade oils.)
Topical – application of essential oils on the body or the skin directly, whether neat or in dilution. Only the best oils are safe to use this way; others may contain chemical additives that cause skin outbreaks or other reactions.