When I was a kid, my grandmother had a home remedy for just about everything. Some of them were less than appealing – like cabbage water to clear up blemished skin. But others were comforting and effective. Vicks® Vaporub (a commercial concoction featuring menthol and camphor in a petrolatum base) was a staple in her house. Whenever one of us had a cough or cold, she would coat our throat and chest with it, then pin a cloth around our neck and chest to hold the vapors in.

Cider vinegar was the wonder cure for sunburn (I swear it works). More than once I tried to get a whole summer’s tan in one day. Each time I would end up standing in the shower pouring cider vinegar straight from the bottle all over my body. Sure, I would come out smelling like a pickle, but the sting from the sunburn would be almost gone.

Grandma was also big on lavender. She grew it in her garden and used it generously. She would rub it on burns and bug bites and put it in my pillowcase when I was too wound up to sleep.

It seems the more I learn about health maintenance, the more I realize that Grandma knew what she was talking about. Granted, she didn’t know why her home remedies worked; she just knew they did. Well, now she has been vindicated by modern science.

We now know that plants are the key to many medical breakthroughs. The chemical compounds found in plants are the basis for a variety of medicines that can cure or control ailments and ease pain and discomforts.

Aromatherapy is somewhat of a misnomer. The term sounds as though it applies only to the scent properties of plants, while in reality, it is the therapeutic use of the chemical properties derived from plants, both inhaled and absorbed through the skin. In the same way, many medicines, such as nicotine-patches and birth control-patches, are absorbed through the skin.

Throughout the world, aromatherapy is used in some form or another. Many of us first learned of aromatherapy as an accepted medical treatment when we heard that Princess Diana was a regular practitioner. In fact, according to local certified aromatherapist Lyn Belisle, aromatherapy is covered by health insurance in England.

While the United States may not be that far along, we nonetheless have opportunities to use aromatherapy to improve our health and well-being. Most spas offer a variety of aromatherapy treatments to renew and rejuvenate, soothe and relax or work on specifics such as improved circulation.

Massage therapists routinely use essential oils to enhance the therapeutic benefits of massage. For relieving everyday stress, a relaxing health massage with cedarwood, clary-sage, geranium or lavender, singly or as a blend, will help the mind and body feel calm and rejuvenated. A deep-tissue massage with eucalyptus, rosemary, chamomile or juniper will help relieve muscle aches and pains.

According to Laurie Bourne at Jeanette’s Spa and Salon, aromatherapy is used for both aesthetic and therapeutic purposes. “Our Royal Body Treatment features a blend of chamomile, sandalwood and lavender to invigorate the skin and improve elasticity. These oils also remineralize and rehydrate, nourishing the skin and revealing a healthy glow.”

Bourne says that essential oils are diffused during all therapies. “It’s really amazing what they can do,” she says. “Essential oils help the mind, body and spirit in so many ways that it’s difficult to list them all.”The therapists at Jeanette’s Spa and Salon routinely customize essential oils for each client, depending on the special needs. “Spirolina and eucalyptus pull toxins out of the skin, and the eucalyptus works wonders for anyone suffering from seasonal allergies,” says Bourne.

You can even do your own spa treatments using essential oils at home, according to Lyn Belisle. Start with unperfumed, lanolin-free bubble baths, shower gels, shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and cleansers, available at Sun Harvest and Central Market and on the Internet from the sources listed below. Try a few of the recipes below:
Therapeutic bath salts
Add about 20 drops of an essential oil, or blend of oils, to Epsom salts.

Toner for problem skin:
Sandalwood, 4 drops Bergamot, 8 drops Lavender, 3 drops 40ml (1.3 fl oz) unscented tonerCools and calms the skin. Also helps reduce the inflammation and infection associated with acne.

Bergamot, 5 drops Lavender, 10 drops Cedarwood, 4 drops 50 g (1.8 oz) moisturizerSoothes sunburn and moisturizes sun-dried skin. Also reduces dry, scaly patches.

Muscle spasm reliever:
Chamomile, 1 drop Lavender, 2 drops Marjoram, 3 drops Rosemary, 3 drops 20ml (0.6 fl oz) jojoba oilEases muscle spasms. Especially good for stiff neck and shoulders. Warms, soothes and reduces inflammation.