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Making Scents: Aromatherapy in the Northwest

In 1910, while working in a parfumerie, French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé suffered a terrible burn on his arm and made a stunning discovery. After immersing his arm in the nearest liquid — which happened to be lavender oil — he found that his burn healed remarkably well. Gattefossé went on to research and publish his findings in the book Aromatherapie, and thus the term aromatherapy was coined.

Of course, the therapeutic use of essential oils is hardly a modern phenomenon: Humans have explored the complex effects of plant-based aromas on the body and brain for millennia. But the field of aromatherapy has certainly enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, and today, the term is used to cover a vast array of applications, from the therapeutic use of pure essential oils to mass-manufactured candles and even dish soap.

Here in the Northwest, where we're known for our love of nature and its gifts, aromatherapy is particularly popular. From fields of lavender that yield products for headache relief to rejuvenating marionberry essential oils, the Northwest is a promising field for aromatherapy options.

For Cheryl Young, RN, LMP, owner of Northwest Essence in Lakebay, Washington, it is necessary to distinguish between true aromatherapy, as "the skilled and purposeful use of botanical extracts, called essential oils, for their healing properties," and the mass-merchandise definition, which seems to encompass "anything that smells good." The essential oils needed for authentic aromatherapy are labor-intensive, and Young warns that such quality does not come cheaply. While some essential oils, such as eucalyptus, may be more affordable than others, they are still considerably more expensive than oils that are diluted, adulterated, or synthetic.

Annette Draper of The Spa at Club Northwest in Grants Pass agrees that quality, essential oils are utterly necessary, which is why she uses only pure-grade essential oils in her spa and in her own home. Indeed, she considers the use of essential oils so key to health that before every service at the spa, clients are taken on an "aromatherapy journey." In this process, clients choose which oil they prefer without knowing its name or seeing the bottle, and yet many clients report that the qualities of particular oil are exactly what their psyche craved. "The body knows and responds to what it needs," marvels Draper.

For those who would like to experience aromatherapy without the therapeutic goals or the spa experience, there are many high-quality commercial products available. Laura Buchkoski, team leader at The Aveda Experience in Portland, reports that lavender, sandalwood, bergamot, and rose are particularly popular essential oils at the store. And Buchkoski, who has worked in several Aveda stores, says customers in the Northwest — trail blazers that we are — particularly like to buy the scents for making their own perfumes. Also using essential oils to evoke the essence of the Northwest is the Portland-based company Charmed Naturally, which makes a line of lotions and soy-wax candles called Uniquely Northwest using only essential oils. With names like Western Huckleberry, Spokane Lilac, Portland Rose, and Seattle Coffee, using their products could be a novel way to experience an olfactory tour of the Pacific Northwest.

The following are some of the more popular and pervasive scents and the qualities with which they're associated. Do be careful about using essential oils directly on the skin. According to Young, some oils can be irritating if used undiluted. To be safe, test a small amount on a hidden piece of skin first. To dilute your oil, use any high-quality vegetable oil such as almond, apricot, hazelnut, olive, macadamia, kukui, wheat germ, rapeseed or sesame. A safe and effective dilution for most aromatherapy applications is 2 percent (2 drops of essential oil per 100 drops of vegetable oil). And remember, this information should never substitute for your health care provider's diagnosis or treatment.

Lavender: Popular in the Northwest, lavender has long been treasured for its calming qualities and is often useful for treating insomnia. In addition, it's thought to have antiseptic and analgesic properties, and has been used to aid healing in cuts and burns.

Grapefruit: This energetic scent helps with concentration, well-being, and confidence. Young calls it "a great morning oil."

Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus is a stimulating scent that is helpful in maintaining concentration and alertness. It is often used to help with difficult breathing.

Sandalwood: A rich, evocative scent, sandalwood relaxes and soothes. Be careful: its heady scent is thought to have aphrodisiacal qualities.

Chamomile: Avid tea drinkers will attest to the relaxing effects of chamomile. It's delicate and soothing, and wonderfully dissipates the day's tensions.

Pine: As anybody fond of hiking in the Northwest knows, the scent of pine is powerfully relaxing. But if you decide to take a real hike instead, turn to tea tree oil, which, in addition to its cleansing properties, makes an effective insect repellent!

Whether your goal is therapy, relaxation, or rejuvenation, aromatherapy — whether from an aromatherapist, a spa, or the trace of an evocative oil in the air — can help.

Making Scents: Aromatherapy in the Northwest