Mere metres away, the Saturday shopping hoards are pounding the pavements of Regent Street, yet in a subterranean treatment room, slathered in fragrant oils and ensconced beneath a blanket as classical music quietly tinkles away in the background, all that couldn’t be more distant to me.
I’d come to the Steven Carey salon on New Burlington Street to experience my first ever aromatherapy massage. From Swedish to hot stone, I’ve had my fair share of massages over the years – including a rather harrowing session in Bangkok – but never tried the more holistic formula of aromatherapy. Technically an alternative medicine, the process uses aromatic essential oils to boost one’s mental and physical health.
“You could say it’s a double whammy,” my aromatherapist, Dee Stanford, explains. “You’ve got all the usual massage strokes coupled with the essential oils working on your organs and nervous system.”
Before Dee decides which oils to use in my treatment, she needs an overview of my lifestyle, any underlying health problems and current ailments. I divulge, between sniffs, that I’m currently suffering from what could either be the end of a lingering cold or have newly developed hayfever, and that due to watching a midnight screening of Harry Potter last night, I’m not feeling my most ebullient.
For my sleep-deprived, snuffly self, she prescribes a blend of calming lavender, uplifting bay and immunity-boosting eucalyptus, with a blend of rose and sandalwood on my face. “They’re all happy oils”, Dee says, a “fortifying combination” which should give me the requisite pick-me-up. The beauty of aromatherapy is that it’s totally tailored to the client’s disposition or needs on the day, whether that’s serene relaxation or an energy boost. It’s like seeing a doctor, dermatologist, masseuse and shaman all in one.
Dee started out in beauty therapy almost 30 years ago and in 1989 went to work for Micheline Arcier, the woman who’s credited with bringing aromatherapy to Britain. There she rose through the ranks over 16 years to become a senior therapist, responsible for mixing all their essential oil blends. The aroma face and body massage is her signature treatment, but she also practices reflexology, Swedish-style massage and Dermalogica facials.
The treatment begins with my back and legs, then a little reflexology on my feet, before I turn over and attention turns to my face and neck. She cleanses my skin with Dermalogica products, massages a few drops of eucalyptus oil into my scalp and applies an intensive facemask. While that seeps in and works its magic, bringing my pallid complexion back to life, Dee massages my stomach and shoulders, and then removes the mask with a warm flannel.
It’s so relaxing that I’m hovering on the edge of sleep for most of the hour-long session, however I will myself to stay awake in order to savour how wonderfully indulgent it all feels.
Of course, lying still for an hour while your aching muscles are rubbed and unwound is always going to make one feel unusually relaxed. Add a bespoke blend of aromatic oils, though, and it takes on an altogether more enveloping and multi-sensory element, the physical sensations melding with an ephemeral atmosphere of delicious scents.
Essential oils consist of base, middle and top notes, just like cosmetic fragrances, and blending them in the right quantities and combinations is a fine art. They are concentrates distilled from the volatile compounds found in plants, capturing the essence of anything from bergamot to jasmine in its purest, most pungent form. To ensure they’re spread evenly across the surface of the skin, these essences are diluted with a carrier oil – Dee uses apricot kernel – which also means you come away with silky-soft, moisturised skin.
Medical studies routinely show that they do have an impact on health, particularly stress-related disorders, muscular pain and respiratory problems. How exactly slathering on a little oil can have such benefits, one may well ask. So, here’s the science bit: the tiny molecular structure of the essential oils means that they can be absorbed through the skin’s pores and through to the blood stream by osmosis to circulate the body.
With all the talk of distillation, essences and the power of aroma, I was reminded of that apposite fragrance-themed novel, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. This beautifully evocative tome (also made into a movie starring Ben Whishaw) contemplates how finely intertwined instinct, memory and desire are with the most primitive of our senses, smell.
“Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally.”
Of course, Süskind leads us into darkness and taboo in his story of a murderer, but these few lines seemed to sum up what makes aromatherapy such a potent and effective complimentary therapy – one that in my case (almost immediately) cleared up that cold, gave me a week’s sounder sleep and sent me floating off through a rainy, congested central London afterwards, feeling uncharacteristically calm and benevolent.
Dee is offering Arbuturian readers a 20% discount on treatments. Please quote The Arbuturian when making a booking for the discount to be applied. To book a session, call Dee Stanford at the Steven Carey salon on 020 7437 5177.
Aromatherapy at the Steven Carey Salon, 2 New Burlington Street, Mayfair, London W1S 2JE. Tel: 020 7437 5177.