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Q: “I’m a massage therapist interested in adding aromatherapy to my practice, but I’m not sure how to get started. How do I learn what scents to use, and how to handle essential oils safely?”

Read a couple of good books and practice on yourself first – that’s the advice from two experts who have been aromatherapists for a combined 30 years. You don’t have to walk around like an encyclopedia, but you need to know when to look something up,” says Valerie Cooksley, R.N., co-owner of the Institute of Integrative Aromatherapy, based in Seattle, Washington, and author of Aromatherapy: A Lifetime Guide to Healing with Essential Oils. “Learn when to ask questions and what to ask; that’s most important.”

Cooksley recommends two well-respected starting references, The Practice of Aromatherapy, by French physician Jean Valnet and presently reprinted stateside under the title Medical Aromatics; and Shirley Price’s The Aromatherapy Workbook.

Marlene Ericksen is a massage therapist, clinical herbalist and aromatherapist who runs the Clinic of Herbal Medicine and Herbal Therapy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She suggests that interested therapists take a short aromatherapy course offered by a massage school.

“Focus on the needs of your clients and then buy your books and take your courses accordingly, then blend your knowledge slowly into your practice,” Ericksen says. Her book, Healing with Aromatherapy, is an overall guide that includes step-by-step directions, information about the chemistry of essential oils, and specific therapeutic uses and formulas.

Regarding the actual practice of aromatherapy and learning the effects of the essential oils, Cooksley says, “Don’t practice on your clients! Get to know lavender or eucalyptus, for example, on your own, on a personal level.”

Although a widely used oil like lavender is known for its relaxing properties, a client may have had very unpleasant experiences associated with that scent; therefore, assumptions cannot be made that all scents have predictable effects on all clients, Cooksley says. (Research: Aromatherapy’s Affects on Moods and Minds.)

“Remember, Hippocrates said, ‘First, do no harm,’ she says. “The sensory part of the brain that smells is closely related to our moods. You’ve got to know the effects of these oils on yourself before you use them on someone else.”

Cooksley and Ericksen also have advice on how to go about purchasing essential oils.

Cooksley suggests purchasing just a few, say, three to six, types of oil. “Dilute them in proper proportion for a massage or diffuse them into the air,” she says. “Safe starter oils would include chamomile, lavender or mandarin, as opposed to the stronger oils like sage or hyssop.” And, she says, blend the appropriate number of drops (which will depend on the potency of each oil) of the essential oil into a natural unscented massage lotion or oil.

Prices start around $7 (for a one-third ounce, or 10ml bottle of a citrus essence), and can go up to $70 per ml (for hard-to-distill oils like rose, jasmine or helichrysm). You can find essential oils in health-food stores, natural product stores, herb shops or online. (Learn how to make your own massage oils and lotions.)

Quality and purity are, of course, both important when purchasing natural products. Although all oils are available in a wide price range depending upon their origin (what part of the plant they come from, and where in the world they are shipped from), it is best to read the label. “You should not buy a bottle that just reads, lavender”, Cooksley says, as it could contain an artificial scent. “Make sure it reads that it is the actual authentic oil that comes from that plant.”

Both Cooksley and Ericksen agree there are many sound physiologic reasons to incorporate aromatherapy into a massage practice.

“Therapists find that essential oils can become a powerful tool in their practices because the medical benefits of the plant (botanical medicine) penetrate the skin during massage, affect the bodily systems and have an immediate effect on the nervous system and the psyche,” Ericksen says.

“Stress underlies many ailments,” Cooksley adds. “If we address stress [through the effective use of aromatherapy] we can help prevent imbalances on physiological, spiritual and emotional levels. The effect can be very pleasurable if the oils are used correctly.”

Ericksen suggests that before using any essential oil massage therapists question clients about skin allergies. She also says that clients with thyroid problems and hypertension should not be exposed to overly stimulating oil. In addition, anyone who’s taking constitutional homeopathic treatments should never use peppermint or eucalyptus, because both are very strong, high-energy, high-intensity oils that could negate the homeopathic treatment, Cooksley says. Also, women should not use any essential oils during the first trimester of pregnancy.

“Essential oils get into the bloodstream, so you don’t know how much of it gets to the baby.” Cooksley says, adding that because not enough research has been performed on the effect of essential oils on a developing fetus, it’s best to lean on the conservative side and simply not use any essential oils during the first trimester.

Essential oils are highly concentrated essences of natural substances, and must be handled safely.

“[Essential oils] need to be used only in small quantities, as directed,” Ericksen says. “Never use them neat (straight, undiluted). You’re better off starting with lower doses in carriers like vegetable oils.”

Cooksley adds, “Essential oils are 99 times more potent than the fresh or dried plant they come from. Keep them away from children.” If ingested straight, essential oils can cause serious side effects. They can also cause burns if applied directly to the skin.

For safe storage, keep essential oils in a medicine cabinet (oils kept in a cool, dark place like that will also last longer).

Charlotte Michael Versagi, L.M.T., N.C.T.M.B., is a journalist and a massage therapist who specializes in manual lymph drainage and work with clients with cancer.

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