THE 1970s. A time – in many memories at least – of endless summers, of heatwaves. And, for Rebecca O’Connor, running barefoot across her mother’s chamomile lawn, sowing the seeds for a fragrant future career in aromatherapy.
Now aged 40 and based in Gullane, East Lothian (“we always wanted to live by the sea”), O’Connor was the youngest of four children and paints an idyllic picture of her Bedford childhood. “My mum’s always been a keen gardener and my dad grew vegetables and I had lovely, dreamy days helping them out with herbs in the 1970s.
“One year Mum laid this beautiful chamomile lawn. We’d run up and down it and it would release this beautiful fragrance. I just remember thinking my feet felt so soft.”
Her mother also suffered from eczema and became an avid fan of herbal remedies, tracking them down in mail order catalogues. “I loved seeing her lotions and potions arrive through the post and my interest started to grow,” recalls O’Connor. “I could see the difference in her skin and how she felt about herself.”
But it was winning a facial as a prize in the tennis club raffle at the age of 14 that set her firmly on the path to a career in beauty therapy. “I just loved it, the whole feeling, the fact that you could meet so many different people. And, if I’m honest, there was also the attraction of going to college in London.”
She secured a coveted place to study at London College of Fashion, followed by a diploma with Aromatherapy Associates, which qualified her to make her own blends of oils.
“I could see such a big difference with people having the aromatherapy,” she says. “You could see how the oils were helping with muscular aches and pains, or helping with relaxation. That, for me, was the most rewarding thing.”
And so, in between the manicures and underarm waxing, the studying continued, this time for a degree in bioscience and health and Leeds Metropolitan University. “I did my dissertation on people with multiple sclerosis and aromatherapy,” she explains. “My study compared the effects of plain massage and massage with lavender. Anxiety levels were much lower when you used the lavender oils, which signified that aromatherapy was more effective. It’s working on all sorts of levels because aromatherapy encourages you to take deeper breaths and slow your breathing. Then you have all the antiseptic properties, the antiviral properties ... there’s a lot more research being done.
“Aromatherapy is now being used in palliative care in the Marie Curie centres and Maggie’s,” she adds. “It’s beneficial for relaxation and general wellbeing – we now know stress contributes to a lot of complaints, such as irritable bowel syndrome and skin conditions. In those dealing with divorce or bereavement, aromatherapy can help improve state of mind and that, I think, is hugely undervalued.”
Eight years ago, she and her now husband left London for Scotland. “It was a lifestyle thing,” she says. “My husband, though he’s half-Danish, grew up in Scotland. The people are friendlier – I feel so much more at home here – and so supportive. The Scottish business community is something special.”
From their seaside base in East Lothian, and now with two boys – Jamie, four, and Harry, seven – last year she launched Beatitude, a range of bath oils made to her own formulas. There’s Patience, for aches and pains, which contains rosemary, ginger and juniper berry; Peace, for relaxation, featuring lavender, ylang ylang and cedarwood; and Joy, an uplifting blend rich in orange, mandarin, grapefruit and bergamot. They won the title of Best Beauty Buy of the Year in The Telegraph Magazine, and praise from beauty writer Jo Fairley, co-author of the highly respected Beauty Bible.
She has just added a facial oil called Skin Salvation. “There are a lot of facial oils on the market that contain essential oils but with a very cheap carrier oil. Oat derivatives, though, have an anti-inflammatory quality on the skin – they’re used a lot with burns victims because they’re so soothing and healing. I’ve also packed it with rosehip oil, which is full of vitamin C, black cumin seed oil, which has been used to regenerate the skin from Egyptian times, camellia oil ...”
Next she’d like to develop a cleanser, then a whole aromatherapy collection. Who knows, if she finds time, she might even plant another chamomile lawn for her own children.
Skin Salvation, £36 (www.beatitudeproducts.co.uk)