The rebirth of aromatherapy and its role in wellness

The detox retreats and DNA profiling services that promise to cure us of ailments and defend from modern day stressors are pretty much inaccessible to the average salon client. Many of the more in-depth solutions offered up by the wellness industry can only be embarked upon by those with the luxury of time and money. But there is an efficacious yet costfriendly therapy for clients wanting to address wellbeing issues in a more accessible way.

While aromatherapy has been used in salons for decades, a new wave of products is now hitting the market, promising easier access to its powers via both portable formats such as rollerballs and balms, and consumerfriendly formulas with relatable names such as “sleep” or “focus”.

Elemis launched its Life Elixirs range in 2017, comprising rollerballs, shower oils and other products to offer an easy way to fit essential oils into their busy lifestyles; while major UK distributor Gerrard International took on the Scentered brand last year, offering its accounts an easy way to add its balms and candles into both treatments and retail offerings.

Meanwhile Aromatherapy Associates chief executive Tracey Woodward recently outlined the brand’s new focus on gifting in a bid to introduce aromatherapy to a wider range of consumers who could, ultimately, become devotees and regular spa-goers.

“People have been practising aromatherapy for more than 2,000 years, just by rubbing a piece of rosemary or lavender between the fingers,” says Lara Morgan, co-founder of portable aromatherapy brand Scentered. “Your hypothalamus – the area of the brain that controls physiological functions in the body – understands that inhalation and your body is influenced by that breath. The very nature of enhancing the breath through aroma means that you get a positive release of general wellbeing.”

Morgan understands the age-old therapy as simply “making a conscious choice to breathe better. It’s the idea that you actually stop and consider your need to have some time out and slow down,” she says.

Aromatherapy experienced its first modern wave of popularity in the ’80s, when people were looking to take care of themselves in natural ways, explains aromatherapist Anne Murray: “It has stood the test of time. A new generation of users are rediscovering it and finding that it really does work.” She says consumers are gradually latching on to the many studies that show certain compounds in essential oils can activate calming or stimulating senses in the brain.

There has also been research into the use of essential oils for quite serious illnesses, and while manufacturers aren’t allowed to claim that their products have a medical effect, Murray says that these studies are being talked about and increasing the popularity of aromatherapy.

“Awareness of it has filtered down so people are interested in using oils to maintain general health as well,” she adds. But, unlike 30 years ago, the types of health concerns consumers in 2018 are trying to cure tend to be symptoms of a fast-paced lifestyle that allows for very little downtime.

Conditions like stress, anxiety, depression and sleeplessness are all known to be impacted by lifestyle, and Morgan blames the “digital brutality” of the world we live in for plaguing so many people with these issues. However, she believes the same epidemic has caused “a community to build around nature”, adding “Aromatherapy is at the heart of that. Essential oils provide the underpinning of how any product impacts you in terms of the scent.”

Good old days

“I think more people are veering towards homeopathic remedies now because of NHS cutbacks and greater awareness of the need to take care of themselves,” says Carol Dawson, head of spa development at Crystal Clear, which recently launched new brand Quartz Spa, a range that uses crystals and aromatherapy to care for clients on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. “We’re contending with so much more in modern life now and people just don’t have the time to rebalance. Essential oils are an ideal support because they get into the body and help regulate wherever they’re needed,” she says.

The increasing attention on complementary therapies in the beauty space may also come from a yearning for the human connection clients used to get from traditional, hands-on treatments. The past few years have seen treatments begin to rely on advanced technologies focused on achieving fast results. Now, it seems, the industry is beginning to move back towards a holistic approach.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve seen treatment trends veer towards being strictly results-focused,” says Matt Taylor, brand and education manager for aromatherapy skincare and spa brand Eve Taylor. “We’re all becoming more aware of sleep deprivation and the impact of stress levels and all those grinds of daily life, so we’re looking back to the good old ingredients we used in the past.”

Aromatherapy, he says, is an easily implementable tool to help us address our wellbeing. In terms of treatments, the key is delivering an experience that stays with the client and equips them with the means to revisit that moment. Eve Taylor is currently working on new signature treatments, which will focus on this. Quartz Spa rituals also aim to address clients’ internal needs and leave them feeling cared for. 

Each starts with a “holistic” questionnaire, and the brand’s three essential oil blends lend themselves particularly well to certain treatments. The Lifestyle Ritual, for example, is designed to heal and relax the body and mind and goes hand in hand with the Hope blend; with vanilla, geranium, ylang ylang, petitgrain, sweet orange and spearmint, which Dawson says was developed for “people who are feeling low or have lots going on in their lives”.

Meanwhile, the Jet Lag Reviver aims to increase circulation and reset the body clock after travelling. The stimulating grapefruit, bay laurel, juniper, lemon and clary sage infusion of the Energise blend would be an obvious choice for clients booking in for this treatment.


In practice

Salons and spas wanting to start using aromatherapy more thoroughly could adopt this approach, having a closer look at existing treatment protocols to see where a perfect essential oil match could be made. Alternatively, let clients take the lead by encouraging them to really think about how they’re feeling, and give them the opportunity to experience the aroma.

“We’ve developed a sort of tester tray for nail service areas, with each of the balms sitting in it and a card behind that asks, ‘how do you want to feel?” explains Morgan. “When the client sits for their mani or pedi, the therapist asks how they’re feeling but lets the client gravitate to the fragrance they need at that time. You can boost their mood during a service that isn’t typically indulgent and they have time to experience and enjoy before they buy it,” she says.

Murray agrees that it’s important to introduce clients to different blends and let them make the decision of which oils are used during treatment. “If you’re using oils or blends one to one, a scent test is crucial,” she says. “Because the link between smell and memory is so strong, if you introduce a scent that triggers the association of a bad memory you’ve blown the whole treatment because the client won’t enjoy it. They’ll feel negative about it but might not even know why,” she says.

Starting out

Those who are just dipping their toe into aromatherapy could start by investing in a couple of high-quality aroma diffusers to subtly percolate scent throughout the salon or treatment rooms. “As soon as clients walk through the door they’ll immediately associate the aroma with their previous experience. Used this way, scent creates a connection between people visiting you and feeling at home as soon as they come in,” says Murray.

She advises beginners start by vaporising citrus blends, as they are “very safe and well tolerated. If you started diffusing cinnamon you’d soon have people’s eyes streaming because it’s so powerful,” she adds. She recommends that salons or spas looking to create their own signature blends find a local aromatherapist, unless they have staff who are experienced and thoroughly educated in aromatherapy. “Essential oils are natural but that doesn’t mean they’re risk-free,” she adds.

Power of nature

Taylor agrees that therapists should exercise caution when using oils. “Essential oils are very powerful and should never be applied directly to the skin. We also have to be very careful if clients are taking certain medications or have medical conditions,” he says. If a client has low blood pressure, for example, lavender shouldn’t be used because it has a relaxing, sedative effect. Clients with other conditions may be contraindicated to certain oils, so Taylor stresses the importance of “having prior knowledge of your clients and the medication they’re taking, because there are so many medicines and so many essential oils.”

He advises therapists to ask clients during the initial booking process whether they’re taking any medication. “That way, the therapist can do a little bit of research before the client arrives and know what they should be using,” he says, adding: “If in doubt, always go with a more simplistic, widely used blend.”

Hydrolats are a good option for therapists who want to err on the side of caution. A byproduct of the essential oil extraction process, hydrolats are water based but retain many of the elements of the oil, without the strong sensory effects. “So even if a client is contraindicated to that oil – for example, if they are pregnant – you could use the hydrolat in treatment without any of the potential negative effects,” Taylor explains.

“They can be applied directly to the skin, or spritzed around the room or onto linens and couches, and you can also add them to steaming devices,” he says. Eve Taylor is launching three new hydrolats this month to join the existing lavender and rose scents, and Taylor says they’ll soon be available for clients to purchase at retail.

Scentered is developing three treatments designed to teach breathing techniques using aromatherapy, and one of the brand’s US spa accounts is already leading the charge, as Morgan explains: “The spa has private meditation booths, so clients can choose their candle scent and have time to themselves, even just for a nail service or maintenance treatment, in silence and while performing breathing exercises,” she says. “We don’t want the client to go away just having had a treatment, but with a new skill that lets them take themselves back to that moment when they need to go there.”

Read more about the link between skincare and emotions and how salons can treat these internal issues.