Aromatherapy has, for better or worse, gotten increasingly popular over the years, going from a niche hippie thing to a buzzy multi-million dollar industry. As someone with head-to-toe stress levels and a mild case of hyperosmia (fancy word for having a hypersensitive nose), I was curious to test the effects of aromatherapy for myself.
What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is a form of homeopathic therapy that uses plant extracts to balance your mind, body, and spirit. The most popular aromatherapy practice uses essential oils, which are highly concentrated liquids distilled from the fragrant leaves, flowers, roots, and other parts of plants. Essential oils can be applied topically, be absorbed through skin contact, or inhaled.
Methods of aromatherapy
You can enjoy aromatherapy in many forms: room sprays, skin and hair products, bath bombs, and so much more. The easiest and most user-friendly method I discovered is using a diffuser, which works by combining a few drops of essential oil in water. The diffuser then disperses a fine mist, which is inhaled and absorbed by the body.
A word of caution
Just keep in mind that you should never apply pure essential oil straight onto your skin, since certain oils, like cinnamon or oregano, can burn and irritate your skin barrier. You'll have to follow recommended instructions to properly dilute these oils.
Young children and animals are particularly susceptible to scents, and certain ones can cause respiratory issues or skin irritation, so make sure you check the labels and find a kid- and pet-friendly blend. Cat owners, however, should avoid diffusers altogether—cats lack a metabolizing enzyme in their liver, so essential oils can be fatal for them.
The 7-day experiment begins
For this challenge, I’ll be running a diffuser twice a day to determine whether essential oils are nature’s gift to the world or well-scented snake oil.
I don’t have the disposable income, patience, or nasal strength to sniff through hundreds of different scents, so I picked up a sampler set of pure, undiluted oils and decide to follow a commonly used beginner’s rubric: citrus for energy boosts, woody scents for sleep therapy, and herbaceous scents for stress. Following the guidelines of the Tisserand Institute, an organization that researches aromatherapy, I plan to diffuse in 30 to 60 minute intervals.
I receive my package after I get home from work and immediately am relieved. It was a long day, and there’s nothing I want more than to veg out and relax. My expectations may be too high.
I decide to christen my diffuser with cedarwood atlas oil since I tend to prefer woodier scents. One of the oldest scents (even used by the Egyptians as an embalming oil), cedarwood is described as a warm, grounding scent that calms negativity and chaos.
Immediately, I realize I’ve smelled this before, but it’s not what I expect cedar to smell like. To me, it smells less like a forest or trees and more like a clean-burning stick of incense. It’s pleasant, and I actually do feel a bit sleepy. I initially plan to run the diffuser for an hour but, 45 minutes in, I’m starting to feel oIfactory fatigue.
At work, I set up my diffuser near my station. Since I don’t want to overstimulate myself, I decide to wait until the early afternoon to whirl the machine. I’m used to taking an afternoon coffee break to shake off the post-lunch doldrums, so I add a few drops of rosemary oil, which is supposed to help with concentration and cognitive speed. Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs, and the scent itself hits the spot just as well. While it doesn't give me the same caffeine rush an Americano would, it is a pleasant little break.
I finally crack open the lavender, the golden child of the aromatherapy world and seen as a cure for everything. Despite popular belief, lavender actually isn’t a sedative (although it does improve sleep quality), but it has calming properties that can supposedly alleviate anxiety.
My sister is intrigued by my little experiment and decides she wants to test this out as well. She opens my starter kit and immediately tells me that it smells like a Chinese apothecary.
I mix in two drops of cedarwood atlas and two drops of sweet orange. The result may be one of my favorites: the freshness of the orange perks up the heaviness of the cedarwood, like a finishing squeeze of lemon.
Everyone in my office has become accustomed to my trusty little diffuser, which I now run intermittently throughout the work day. Today, I’m feeling a little congested, so I add two drops of eucalyptus. Eucalyptus was actually one of the first essential oils I had heard about, when a herb shop assistant in Portland recommended I inhale it for my allergies. Eucalyptus oil is commonly found in topical cough suppressant ointments and is frequently used in aromatherapy for clear breathing.
The pungent, herbaceous smell hits my nose and instantaneously reminds me of Asian medical balms. There is something very familiar about it, but because of how medicinal it smells, I feel like it would be too polarizing to use it by itself or as an everyday scent.
I wake up crabby with a pounding headache. My nose is stuffed, and I feel like I barely got any sleep. On the bright side, my skin has been pretty clear and feels hydrated. I do think that the diffuser’s built-in humidifier has been helpful with the dry winter winds, so that’s a plus.
I’m not feeling adventurous today, so I use the tried and true rosemary and keep the diffuser on for a few hours, making sure to let it rest every hour or so. I do feel a bit better once afternoon rolls through, but I still feel exhausted after clearing my inbox.
I end up skipping the diffuser at night because I don’t want to risk a migraine. I realize I prefer diffusing in larger, more ventilated spaces, like my office or my living room, since the scent is less concentrated and generally makes me feel less claustrophobic.
I wasn’t in the office today, so I skipped my afternoon ritual of diffusing. I found a few dilution charts and recipes online, so I decide to break out of my shell and whip something new to give my nose a change. I mix equal parts cedarwood, sweet orange, and lavender—a mix of grounding, uplifting, and relaxing scents—and it smells divine. The lavender gives it a nice floral note, and the mix reminds me of an expensive candle.
I wake up with a clear nose and feel surprisingly refreshed. I think yesterday's mix of cedarwood, sweet orange, and lavender will become my go-to sleepytime blend.
My work diffuser continues puttering away, hissing out citrus-tinged herbal puffs the entire office has gotten used to. I unplug my little diffuser, about to literally wrap up the events of this week, and it’s a little bittersweet. Before I go, my boss comes over and casually suggests that I can leave it here, if I want to.
Final thoughts about aromatherapy
For the most part, I enjoyed how meditative the process of diffusing was: the nightly ritual of setting up literally made me stop, breathe, and relax. I did enjoy being surrounded by pleasant smells and would consider four out of the six nights a good night’s sleep, but I’m not completely sure I would use it every day.
I do understand why practitioners consider it an art—a lot of research goes into it, and finding out what works for you is deeply personal. Even though I haven’t become an EO fanatic, I still have my trusty little friend at work, and it’s good to know it’ll always be there when I need a little pick-me-up.