Kristyn Treloar (from left), office manager of Sunrose Aromatics in Belmont, pours ingredients into a graduated cylinder to make a specific oil blend, while the company's founder and owner, Rosanne O'Donnell, watches her work. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Breathe in the fresh scents of lavender, eucalyptus and peppermint. Let the pleasant aroma flow through your nasal passages and fill your lungs. What do you feel? Clarity? Calmness? Nothing at all?

Traditionally used to soothe and clear the respiratory system, these three essential oils make up “The Winter Sniffles,” a diffuser mix created by Sunrose Aromatics in Belmont, Maine.

“We know it works just from the feedback we get from customers,” said Rosanne O’Donnell, who founded the business 20 years ago.

Essential oils are concentrated extracts taken from roots, leaves, seeds and blossoms of plants, and they have been used for thousands of years for therapeutic uses. Nowadays, this practice is called aromatherapy, and from O’Donnell’s perspective, it’s gaining traction.

While most of what guides aromatherapy is anecdotal — based on historic uses and people’s personal experiences — more and more scientific research is being done to inspect the chemical compositions of essential oils and pinpoint active ingredients that may account for their effects on a person’s health and mental state.

For example, the results of a 2013 study by the Department of Basic Nursing Science at Korea University showed that the inhalation of clary sage oil reduces stress — and blood pressure — during uncomfortable medical exams. And a 2017 scientific review of 12 separate aromatherapy studies led researchers from Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University to conclude that aromatherapy with essential oils showed potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms in a wide variety of patients.

The art of aromatics

The Winter Sniffles blend is just one of many fragrant products offered by Sunrose Aromatics, which works with and sells more than 300 types of oils.

O’Donnell and her office manager and protégé, Kristyn Treloar, run the business out of an office in O’Donnell’s farmhouse, though much of the ingredients they use need to be stored out in the barn. There are simply too many glass bottles to fit on the shelves of the office. There’s blue tansy oil from Morocco, caraway seed oil from Hungary, jasmine oil from India, juniper berry oil from France, lemongrass oil from Sri Lanka and much, much more.

On a recent morning, Treloar poured frankincense oil slowly into a graduated cylinder, following a recipe laid out on the work table beside her. Imported from east Africa, the spicy-scented oil is just one of many components of Sunrose Aromatics Beautiful Baby Belly Oil, a blend O’Donnell formulated to reduce the itchiness and stretch marks that often accompany the growing belly during pregnancy.

“Everything is hand poured,” said O’Donnell. “We’re truly artisans, and that’s how I want to keep it.”

Blending these oils for specific purposes, creating what’s known as a “holistic synergy,” is one of the O’Donnell’s favorite things to do. Over the years, she’s developed synergies with various intended uses, from helping to ease headaches to treating foot fungus.

In addition to selling pre-made blends, she sells the individual, pure oils to companies and people who wish to use them in their pure form or make their own concoctions. Yet O’Donnell cautions that delving into aromatics requires some research.

“You want to make sure you at least have some knowledge, good knowledge, before playing around with this stuff,” she said. “If you just want it in your environment, as a room freshener, that’s fine. But if you want to place it on your skin, that’s different.”

Common mistakes with essential oils

The easiest and safest way to use essential oils is by simply breathing in the aroma rather than applying it to the skin. You can inhale the oils by simply holding a bottle under your nose or using an inhaler specifically made for aromatherapy. Or you can disperse the aroma throughout a room by using a diffuser, which can be as simple as a terracotta tray and as fancy as an electronic diffuser

However, the most common mistake people make with essential oils is diffusing too much at once.

“People oversaturate,” O’Donnell said. “You don’t need to run it all night long. The rule is to diffuse it 15 minutes before you go to bed, then turn it off. If not, you’re oversaturating your room.”

O’Donnell explained that this mistake stems from people thinking a scent has faded from a room when it really has not. This happens because of a phenomenon called olfactory adaptation, when a person’s odor receptors stop sending messages to the brain about a lasting odor after a few minutes. And O’Donnell said that while oversaturating a room with essential oils isn’t necessarily harmful, it’s certainly wasteful.

“The mantra is less is more,” she said.

What can be harmful is applying undiluted essential oils directly to the skin, O’Donnell said. This can cause itching, burning, rashes and allergic reactions. To prevent this, essential oils are diluted with carrier oils such as almond oil, apricot kernel oil and coconut oil, which are much gentler on the skin.

“I’m a big believer in carrier oils,” O’Donnell said. “Each does different things and has different properties.”

Rosehip oil, for instance, is often used to create facial oil blends because it’s said to be hydrating while reducing the appearance of dark spots, scars and fine lines.

And finally, O’Donnell said that essential oils should never be ingested without the guidance of a certified aromatherapist and consulting your doctor. Many oils, when ingested, can cause burning and inflammation to the sensitive mucous membranes throughout your digestive system.

‘Scent is very personal’

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, O’Donnell worked as a prison guard at Rikers Island for 20 years before she discovered her passion for essential oils.

“I was in Costco and I picked up this cute little book,” O’Donnell said. “And when I read it, it just made sense to me.”

The book was “Aromatherapy for Women: A Practical Guide to Essential Oils for Health and Beauty,” by Maggie Tisserand, and it would be the first of many books O’Donnell would read about the topic. That year, she took a course in aromatherapy at Purdue University, then another at Rutgers University, which she refers to as the “cradle of essential oil research.”

“I had really good teachers in the beginning that showed me the way,” she said. “And you know, you just join groups, you read. It was my mission.”

Though she is technically now a certified aromatherapist, according to standards set by the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, she prefers to call herself an “essential oil consultant,” since that is truly her area of expertise. Through Sunrose Aromatics, she helps people select the right oils for their needs, whether they’re massage therapists, perfumists, social workers or bodyworkers.

“I tell people, don’t ask me what my favorite scent is. It doesn’t matter. You might hate it,” O’Donnell said. “Scent is very personal.”

Looking for a change, she and her husband purchased a farm in Belmont in 2012, and soon after, she hired Treloar to help her with her business, and maybe someday, take it over entirely.

Sunrise Aromatics can be found at the United Farmers’ Market of Maine every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 18 Spring Street in Belfast. At the market, they sell some of their top products and welcome questions from customers about essential oils and all things aromatherapy. Their products can also be found at

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...