Lavender

Botanical Nomenclature: Lavandula angustifolia
Extraction Method: Distillation

Ah, lavender essential oil. In many ways, there would be no aromatherapy without lavender. Not only is it by far the most popular of all the essential oils; it’s also the first to be documented therapeutically. You see, back in the late 1920s, a French chemist named Rene Gattefosse coined the phrase “aromatherapy” after using lavender to heal a serious burn.

In a story that’s been told and re-told throughout the decades, Gattefosse burned his hand during a laboratory experiment. Nearly hysterical with pain, he plunged his wounded fist into the nearest open container of liquid—a vat of pure lavender oil. As the legend goes, Gattefosse was so impressed with the immediate pain relief (and the eventual complete healing of such a serious burn) that he devoted the rest of his life to the study of volatile botanical oils.

But lavender oil is more than just aromatherapy’s firstborn. It’s also immensely popular in the perfume, food and home fragrance industries. Today lavender flavors pastries, scents cleaning products and is the most popular scent in “natural” cosmetics and toiletries.

The genus Lavandula is made up of at least 30 species but it’s oil distilled from the leaves and flowers of Lavandula angustifolia that aromatherapists considered the one true lavender. This species was previously known as L. officinalis and it’s still sold under that label occasionally.

Characteristics of Lavender Oil

True lavender oils should come only from L. angustifolia but because lavender essential oil is often distilled from any of the other species—and is sometimes a blend of several species—lavender oil will vary somewhat in its scent. But all lavender should have a herbaceous and almost medicinal scent with balsamic undertones and the faintest hints of floral. Any lavender oil should be thin and nearly colorless.

Unfortunately, its popularity makes lavender one of the most adulterated oils in the world. Lavender can be adulterated with other species of lavender, related species and even chemical “duplicates”. To get true, pure lavender oil, buy only from a reputable dealer and purchase only those brands you know you can trust.

Psychological Aromatherapy

Lavender is best known for its alleged relaxing and calming actions. It’s widely used in de-stressing blends for this reason.

Lavender is also considered a “balanced” or “gender neutral” oil and appeals equally well to both men and women. Lavender people are considered well-adjusted people who are in tune with themselves and considered and patient with others.

Traditional Uses for Lavender Essential Oil

Lavender is sometimes called the “mother” of essential oils and has been used over the years for a variety of reasons. It’s a popular oil to have on hand during childbirth and was once used extensively for reproductive health issues.

Lavender’s antimicrobial properties also make it a popular oil for sickrooms. Some stories claim that towns that grew lavender commercially during outbreaks of the plague were spared the worst of the infections. True or not, lavender is widely considered in aromatherapy to be a first-line oil during cold and flu season.

Lavender is also highly prized for its alleged healing properties. It’s a popular oil to dab onto minor cuts, scrapes, bug bites and minor burns. There is some evidence that lavender was once used as a disinfectant when battlefield supplies of medicinal disinfectants ran out.

Author and aromatherapy expert Salvatore Battaglia assigns these therapeutic actions to lavender essential oil:

  • Analgesic
  • Anticonvulsive & Antispasmodic
  • Antidepressant
  • Antispasmodic
  • Antimicrobial
  • Carminative
  • Decongestant
  • Deodorant
  • Diuretic
  • Emmenagogue
  • Hypotensive
  • Nervine
  • Sedative

Serious Medical Studies on Lavender Oil

Given lavender’s incredible popularity in aromatherapy, it’s surprising to learn that only a few dozen studies on L. angustifolia have been published in medical journals.

Behavioral Problems

One of the problems facing caregivers of dementia patients is agitation and, unfortunately, the risks and side effects of mainstream pharmaceuticals often outweigh the potential benefits. But a 2007 Chinese study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that lavender essential oil, diffused into the air, effectively calmed elderly dementia patients while presenting no documented side effects.

Fungal Infections

Lavender has long been prized for its believed antimicrobial actions. A 2005 Italian study is just one of several that found lavender oil effective against the common fungal infection Candida albicans.

Stress

Aromatherapy most often uses lavender for stress reduction and a number of studies have focused on the calming effects of the oil. A 2007 study on gerbils found that exposure to the scent of lavender essential oil reduced noticeable stress responses in laboratory animals during maze tests.

Safety Issues

Most of the popular aromatherapy books rave about lavender’s safety and mildness. Unfortunately, this exuberance seems to be a bit premature. Contrary to widely held beliefs, allergies to lavender do occur—and just among professionals who work with the oils, as some aromatherapy authors have claimed.

There is also some evidence that the linalool content of lavender oil may be cytotoxic to human skin cells. In laboratory tests concentrations of 0.25% proved cytotoxic to all cell types tested in this experiment.

References:

Battaglia, S. (2005). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy

Lin, P., et al. (2007). Efficacy of aromatherapy (Lavandula angustifolia) as an intervention for agitated behaviours in Chinese older persons with dementia: a cross-over randomized trial.

Bradley, B., et al. (2007). Anxiolytic effects of Lavandula angustifolia odour on the Mongolian gerbil elevated plus maze.

D’Auria, F., et al. (2005). Antifungal activity of Lavandula angustifolia essential oil against Candida albicans yeast and mycelial form.

Prashar, A. (2004). Cytotoxicity of lavender oil and its major components to human skin cells.

Eucalyptus essential oil Review

Botanical Nomenclature: Eucalyptus globulus
Extraction Method: Distillation

Eucalyptus essential oil is arguably one of the most important botanicals ever discovered. Botanists tell us that over 800 species make up the genus Eucalyptus and those species range in size from small shrubs to large trees. If that’s not confusing enough, there are also nearly 20 species commercially used in the production of essential oil. Essential oils distilled from the bark, leaves and roots of various eucalyptus plants vary greatly in chemical makeup, color and scent.

The good news is that most eucalyptus oil marketed today is distilled from the leaves of E. globulus and this is the species most often referred to simply as “eucalyptus”. It’s the most readily available in the U.S. and is the species most often discussed in popular aromatherapy texts.

Characteristics of Eucalyptus Oil

Eucalyptus made from E. globulus can range from pale yellow to nearly colorless. It should have a definite “eucalyptus” scent. Eucalyptus can feel very cool and wet in the nose and have a marked “medicinal” aspect to its scent.

Psychological Aromatherapy

Eucalyptus is rarely used in psychological aromatherapy, mostly because of its off-putting, medicinal scent. At least one popular aromatherapist uses it to “dispel melancholy” but, usually, eucalyptus is regarded as a “medicinal” oil.

Traditional Uses for Eucalyptus Oil

The practice of distilling eucalyptus essential oil dates back only to 1853 or 1854 but the use of other eucalyptus preparations almost certainly goes back much further.

Author Salvatore Battaglia assigns the following actions to eucalyptus oil:

  • Analgesic
  • Anti-microbial
  • Antiseptic
  • Antispasmodic Astringent
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Decongestant
  • Deodorant
  • Diuretic
  • Expectorant
  • Vermifuge
  • Vulnerary

Scientific Studies on Eucalyptus Oil

Given the attention that “natural” medicine gives eucalyptus, it’s not surprising that dozens of scientific studies have focused on the potential health benefits of this oil.

Anti-Microbial Activities

Eucalyptus is one of the best-known anti-microbial essential oils and a 2007 study published in the journal Current Microbiology found that an essential oil made from E. globulus demonstrated anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity against more than 100 strains of strep, 20 strains associated with pneumonia, two influenza viruses and other microbes.

This was an in vitro study but was done on specimens taken from human patients who had been previously diagnosed with respiratory tract infections.

Analgesic & Anti-Inflammatory Properties

At least one peer-reviewed study has supported the folk use of various eucalyptus oils for their anti-inflammatory and pain relieving potential. In the Journal of Pharmacology, a 2003 study evaluated various eucalyptus essential oils and produced such positive results that the researchers called for, in their words, “development of new classes of analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs” based on the “active” chemical components of eucalyptus essential oil.

Safety Issues

Eucalyptus essential oil is recognized as a poison in Australia and poisonings from both topical and oral use have been reported. In fact, in one 9-month period, the Victorian Poisons Information Centre logged over 100 phone calls involving eucalyptus oil poisonings in preschool-aged children. While more recent studies have suggested that eucalyptus oil may be less poisonous than previously thought, there’s no question that this essential oil can cause serious side effects, especially if ingested.

References:

Battaglia, S. (2005). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy

Darben, T., et al. (1998). Topical eucalyptus oil poisoning.

Day, L., et al. (1997). Eucalyptus oil poisoning among young children: mechanisms of access and the potential for prevention.

Cermelli, C., et al. (2007). Effect of Eucalyptus Essential Oil on Respiratory Bacteria and Viruses.

Sliva, J., et al. (2003). Analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects of essential oils of Eucalyptus.

Bay Laurel Essential Oil Review

Botanical Nomenclature: Laurus nobilis
Extraction Method: Distillation

Bay laurel essential oil isn’t an oil that is terribly common in aromatherapy but new research may soon push this oil into the spotlight it deserves. A number of bays exist in aromatherapy but the culinary species Laurus nobilis is the one used to make bay laurel essential oil.

This species of bay is widely planted as a hedge or topiary plant in temperate regions of the world and its leaves are extensively used in French, Spanish and Italian cooking. It’s also a popular culinary herb in Creole recipes.

Characteristics of Bay Laurel Oil

Bay laurel should have a strong, medicinal scent with hints of spicy sweetness. Bay oil should be light yellow or light green in color.

Psychological Aromatherapy

In psychological aromatherapy, bay is believed to impart self-confidence and self-esteem. Bay is diffused into the air to support intelligent expression, increase courage and support intuition and and confidence.

Traditional Uses for Bay Laurel

Perhaps bay laurel is best known as a folk remedy believed to hasten the contractions of childbirth. Salvatore Battaglia, one of the foremost authorities on aromatherapy, also assigns the following therapeutic properties to bay laurel oil:

  • Antiseptic
  • Antibacterial
  • Carminative
  • Expectorant
  • Digestive
  • Tonic

Serious Medical Studies on Bay Laurel Oil

Wound Healing

In a 2007 study of extracts of several different botanicals, bay laurel oil made from Laurus nobilis place third. In this animal study, mice were intentionally wounded then studied for 16 days before being killed and examined.

Anti-Fungal Activities

A 2004 study of various essential oils and their anti-fungal responses to 17 micromycetes found the 1.8-cineole in bay laurel oil an effective fungicide. While bay laurel didn’t perform as well as other essential oils, this study suggests that bay laurel may have some use as an natural anti-fungal remedy.

Analgesic & Anti-Inflammatory Properties

A 2003 animal study of bay laurel oil found the oil as effective an analgesic as morphine. Bay laurel oil also demonstrated noticeable anti-inflammatory properties in this study.

Safety Issues

Most aromatherapy books list bay laurel oil as safe but skin contact can result in allergic contact dermatitis. It’s important to remember that this effect can be seen even when the essential oil is properly diluted for massage.

Bay laurel is also an old folk remedy for speeding childbirth and may be contraindicated during pregnancy. In preparation for this article, though, we could find no scientific studies confirming bay laurel’s safety or danger for pregnant women.

References:

Battaglia, S. (2005). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy.

Khalil, E., et al. (2007). Evaluation of the wound healing effect of some Jordanian traditional medicinal plants formulated in Pluronic F127 using mice (Mus musculus).

Simic, A., et al. (2004). The chemical composition of some Lauraceae essential oils and their antifungal activities.

Sayyah, M., et al. (2003). Analgesic and anti-inflammatory activity of the leaf essential oil of Laurus nobilis Linn.

Basil Essential Oil Review

Botanical Nomenclature: Ocimum basilicum
Extraction Method: Distillation

Basil essential oil made from Ocimum basilicum is called “holy basil” in India and this is due to the fact that basil is enormously important to the Hindu faith and is dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi. Also known as tulsi, basil, which is native to tropical Asia, is now cultivated around the world.

Characteristics of Basil Oil

A good basil oil will be thin and nearly clear. Basil has a slightly sweet and grassy scent with just a hint of licorice in it. Basil should always smell fresh and not musty.

Psychological Aromatherapy

Aromatherapists write that basil is a warm essential oil that improves mood and revives the fatigued mind. Basil oil is diffused to ease depression, stimulate thinking and banish melancholy.

Traditional Uses for Basil

Basil was once believed to ward off evil spirits. But basil had medicinal uses, too. It is a popular home remedy for digestive conditions, nervous disorders and to expel parasites. Aromatherapist Salvatore Battaglia assigns the following therapeutic properties to basil oil:

  • Analgesic
  • Antidepressant
  • Antiseptic
  • Antispasmodic
  • Carminative
  • Digestive
  • Expectorant
  • Nervine

Serious Medical Studies Of Basil Oil

Parasites

Basil has become a favorite folk remedy for various parasites in recent years and this use has at least some basis in science. A 2007 study confirmed that basil essential oil is effective against Giardia lamblia, a protozoan parasite that can infect humans, pets and lifestock. This study looked at the effects of adding basil oil to drinking water.

Fungal Infections
Basil has been used for centuries to treat fungal infections. A 2003 study showed that basil could effectively inhibit the growth of fungi on fruit. This backed up findings from a 2002 study which found basil oil effective against 13 fungal species, including some that infect humans.

Ear Infections

When compared to a placebo in a 2005 study, basil essential oil, in the words of researchers, “cured or healed” the majority of inner ear infections in laboratory animals. In this test, animals were intentionally infected then treated with basil oil dropped into their ear canals.

Safety Issues

Basil oil may be as much as 85% methyl chavicol, a suspected carcinogen. As such, basil is often listed as contra-indicated during pregnancy. Basil may be also be a skin irritant.

References:

Battaglia, S. (2005). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy.

de Almeida, I., et al. (2007). Antigiardial activity of Ocimum basilicum essential oil.

Kristinsson, K., et al. (2005). Effective treatment of experimental acute otitis media by application of volatile fluids into the ear canal.

Edris, A., et al. (2003). Antifungal activity of peppermint and sweet basil essential oils and their major aroma constituents on some plant pathogenic fungi from the vapor phase.

Sokovic, M., et al. (2002). Antifungal activities of selected aromatic plants growing wild in Greece.

Frankincense Essential Oil Reviews

Botanical Nomenclature: Boswelli frererana
Extraction Method: Distillation

Frankincense essential oil has few rivals among aromatherapy oils when it comes to the sheer number of major religions that have incorporated it into their most sacred rituals. The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans all used frankincense in their practices. And, of course, frankincense continues to be used in Christian worship, as well.

Today, five species of Boswelli, or frankincense, are widely available for aromatherapy use. These are:

  • B. carteri
  • B. frereana
  • B. papyifera
  • B. sacra
  • B. serrata

The most common essential oil found in North American aromatherapy is probably B. frereana while the most-studied form of frankincense in laboratory tests is probably B. serrata. Regardless of its botanical origin, all frankincense essential oil is made in the same way. Workers make wounds in the bark of the tree then collect the milky liquid that “bleeds” from the incision. This sap is allowed to dry into an amber-colored crystals called “tears” and then the tears are distilled.

Additionally, an absolute, made through solvent extraction of the tears can also be made. This resinoid product is not often use in aromatherapy; it is most often produced for the perfume industry.

Characteristics of Frankincense Essential Oil

Frankincense essential oil should be yellow in color and quite thin in texture. Frankincense is one of those essential oils that changes with age but all frankincense should have a strong, full scent. Frankincense will be less “woody” than other wood oils and should have fresh, spicy undertones.

Psychological Aromatherapy

Spiritual aromatherapists tell us that frankincense lovers are deeply spiritual people who may seem a bit aloof or secretive. They tend to be mature, rational thinkers rooted in a deep understanding of nature.

Aromatherapists will diffuse frankincense into a room to dispel evil, deepen concentration, enhance contemplative prayer and meditation and to maximize psychological maturity.

Traditional Uses for Frankincense

As important as frankincense is to the world’s major religions, it is also extremely important in the world of cosmetics and toiletries. It is widely regarded as anti-inflammatory and healing. It is a common ingredient in “natural” cosmetics, especially those marketed for wounded, extremely dry or “mature” skin.

Salvatore Battaglia also assigns these therapeutic actions to frankincense:

  • Astringent
  • Antiseptic
  • Aphrodisiac
  • Carminative
  • Diuretic
  • Expectorant
  • Sedative
  • Uterine

Scientific Studies on Frankincense Oil

While frankincense (and extracts made from it) have seen fairly extensive testing for its potential health benefits, the essential oils themselves have not. Unless specifically noted, the scientific studies discussed in this section may have used preparations other than the essential oils in their tests.

Frankincense & Immune Support

Avicenna recommended frankincense preparations for fever and now we know that he was right. A 2003 study from Egypt identified chemical properties in frankincense essential oil that potentially make frankincense a powerful immune support.

Collagenous Colitis

A small study of colitis patients found that when given a 6-week regimen of boswellia extract, 5 of 7 patients experienced a complete remission of their condition. This study, done in Germany, involved 3 daily doses of 400 mg of boswellia extract taken orally. These findings support previous studies which also found boswellia better than placebo in laboratory tests.

Anti-Cancer Potential

A 2007 study published in the journal Apoptosis found that a chemical isolated from B. serrata induced apoptosis in human leukemia cells. What, if anything, this means for cancer sufferers remains to be seen.

Safety Issues

Frankincense, like most other essential oils, has not been extensively tested for safety in humans. In popular aromatherapy texts, frankincense is listed as non-toxic, non-sensitizing and non-irritating.

References:

Battaglia, S. (2005). The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy

Mikhaeil, B., et al. (2003). Chemistry and immunomodulatory activity of frankincense oil.

Midisch, A., et al. (2007). Boswellia serrata extract for the treatment of collagenous colitis. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial.

Bhushan, S., et al. (2007). A triterpenediol from Boswellia serrata induces apoptosis through both the intrinsic and extrinsic apoptotic pathways in human leukemia HL-60 cells.