Aromatherapy inhalations - not just for colds!!

Aromatherapy inhalations - not just for colds!!

Steam inhalations have been used for hundreds of years to soothe respiratory problems such as coughs, colds, catarrh, sinusitis and sore throats. The traditional method involved placing medicinal plant material in near-boiling water, in order to inhale the therapeutic steam. Hundreds of different herbs and plants have been used for this purpose by many different cultures over a long period time.

Today, essential oils offer a simple and effective way of making a modern-day inhalation. In fact, a steam inhalation is considered one of the most efficient ways of getting therapeutic aromatherapy oils into the body. In keeping with tradition, steam inhalations are most commonly recommended for relieving respiratory congestion and infection, and for stimulating the immune system. This method of application however, is vastly under-utilised, as it can be used much more extensively, as we’ll explore below.

What can steam inhalations be used for?

Whilst essential oils are highly valued for their extraordinary medicinal antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-viral, decongestant and expectorant properties when it comes to congested infections, they are also extremely effective as mood enhancers, antidepressants, and relaxants. It is my suggestion therefore that steam inhalations should be used much more consistently to elevate the mood and to help you wind down at the end of a stressful or challenging day.

Obviously you can add essential oils to your bath, footbath, moisturising cream or you can vaporise them around the home - all of which are useful methods when it comes to lifting your emotions. Steam inhalations however offer a particularly quick and efficient way of getting the essential oils into your bloodstream, at the same time as stimulating the olfactory system (sense of smell) - which is why they are so useful as an emotional tonic.

By breathing in the therapeutic steam during an inhalation, the essential oil is absorbed directly into the blood stream, via the blood rich lining of the lungs, where it can reach the central nervous system (CNS) with relative ease. The warming nature of the steam is often extremely comforting when emotions are low, and the fact that you are breathing in steam can also encourage breathing rate to lengthen - some people breathe too quickly when stressed which then creates a CO2 and O2 imbalance which adds further to the problem.

Another useful aspect of steam inhalations is, of course, for facial treatments. Facial steaming helps improve the complexion by softening dead skin cells, releasing dirt, impurities and blockages (blackheads, whiteheads, spots) from the pores, promoting blood flow and stimulating the regeneration of healthy new skin cells.

To help you get the most out of steam inhalations I've put together some simple instructions and a range of useful blends for you to try.

How to create a steam inhalation

Boil the kettle and pour the hot water into a bowl or sink. Add your essential oils, then lean over the bowl or sink and place a towel over your head to seal in the steam. Keep your face approximately 30cm above the bowl / sink, then close your eyes and breathe deeply for at least 5 minutes. Breathe through the nose for nasal / sinus congestion and breathe through the mouth for other respiratory issues (coughs, bronchitis etc). If you're using for non-respiratory issues then breathe normally through the nose and mouth. 

You can buy electrical facial steamers or saunas which are equally useful for steam inhalations. You will need to add less essential oil to these electrical appliances as they use much less water.

After steaming, remember to splash your face with cold water to close the pores that will have been opened by the steam.

Tip: If you're looking for a quick inhalation that doesn't involve a full facial steam at the same time, you can use a mug or cup. Simply pop a couple of drops of essential oil into a cup of steaming hot water. Hold your nose about 6 inches above the cup and inhale for 5 minutes. You can also buy special Steam Inhaler Cups that come with nasal masks to aid inhalation.

Please see important safety notes below before doing a steam inhalation.

Facial Steaming

Do not use facial steaming if you have very sensitive skin or suffer with broken veins / thread veins.

  • For oily skin with blackheads add 4 drops Lavender, 3 drops Cypress and 3 drops Juniperberry. For very oily/congested skin gently exfoliate before steaming – this will remove the top layer of congestion and aid deep pore cleansing.
  • For combination skin with spots add 4 drops Geranium, 3 drops Tea Tree and 2 drops Cypress. Pop a drop of Tea Tree onto a cotton bud and dab on to the tip of spots before you start – this will help to draw out the infection. Avoid if your skin is sensitive.
  • For enlarged pores add 2 drops Rosemary, 2 Fennel, 2 Lemon and 4 Rosewood.
  • For dry/sensitive skin add 2 drops Geranium, 2 Neroli and 1 Rose.
  • For mature skin add 2 drops each of Benzoin, Frankincense and Geranium.

Remember to cleanse your skin thoroughly before facial steaming. Splash your face with cold water after steaming to close the pores and to further stimulate the skin. The warmth encourages blood flow to the surface and the cold stimulates the circulation further to give a wonderfully healthy glow!

Steam Inhalation for Anxiety

Try 5 drops Bergamot, 2 drops Neroli and 2 drops Benzoin.

Steam Inhalation for Stress/Depression

Try 3 drops Ylang Ylang, 4 drops Geranium and 2 drops Rose

Steam Inhalation for Coughs & Colds

Add 4 drops Tea Tree, 1 Eucalyptus and 2 Thyme. Remember to have a box of tissues handy for afterwards.

Steam Inhalation for Flu

Add 1 drop Thyme, 1 Clove, 2 Lavender and 2 Tea Tree 

Steam Inhalation for Sinusitis

Add 4 drops Lavender, 2 drops Thyme and 1 drop Eucalyptus.

Steam Inhalation for Catarrhal Congestion

Add 4 drops Tea Tree, 2 Lemon and 4 Frankincense.

Steam Inhalation for Sore Throat / Tonsilitis

Add 5 drops Sandalwood, 4 Pine and 2 Thyme.

Steam Inhalation for Headaches / Fatigue

Add 2 drops each of Peppermint, Spearmint and Lime (best for daytime use to help clear the head and boost energy levels - also useful for hangovers).

Steam Inhalation to Re-energise

Add 4 drops Rosemary, 2 Black Pepper and 2 Peppermint.

Steam Inhalation for Sleep / Insomnia

Add 4 drops Red Mandarin, 2 Roman Chamomile and 2 Vetivert.

Safety Advice

  • Please take care with the hot water to avoid any scalds/burns. Do not use with or around very small children.
  • Older children or the elderly should be supervised at all times during inhalations.
  • If you’re using a bowl of water, place it on a mat or towel to ensure it doesn’t mark any surfaces.
  • If at any time during the inhalation you feel it gets too much, lift the towel up slightly and take a few breaths of fresh air before continuing the treatment. Discontinue if you feel uncomfortable.
  • Use steam inhalations with extreme care if suffering with asthma, hay fever or other allergies. When first trying an inhalation, you should only inhale the steam for 30 seconds in order to gauge your reaction. If there are no adverse reactions you can repeat a few hours later and increase the time to 1 minute, gradually increasing the inhalation time up to 3 to 5 minutes maximum.
  • Do not use steam inhalations if you have broken veins / thread veins on the face.


Joannah Metcalfe
Consultant Aromatherapist

Disclaimer & Safety Advice

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