WHEN aromatherapist Geraldine Howard was diagnosed with cancer she turned to the power of essential oils to get her through the darkest days
The bath is where many of us head for some quality “me” time. It is here – often enveloped in bubbles, with the only light provided by a few flickering candles – that we ruminate on the day’s events, or simply let our minds drift. Very few of us, however, start multimillion-pound businesses from the confines of the tub.
Yet this is exactly where Geraldine Howard began Aromatherapy Associates. Now a beauty brand sold in 45 countries and stocked in the hallowed halls of Liberty and Selfridges, it’s funny to imagine that one of today’s biggest names in aromatherapy started in a bath rather than a boardroom.
But whilst she became famous for discreetly treating the who’s who of London – including Princess Diana – Geraldine is proud of the brand’s simple beginnings. “I would sit there and just add drops of different essential oils to the water to see how they affected me psychologically,” says the 60-year-old. “Smell is such an overlooked sense, yet it is our most primitive. We instinctively react to things based on how they smell, but so many of us don’t harness its benefits – I am a real believer that we should pay more attention to how they can affect our mental state.”
The first blend that she created – and went on to sell when the company was formally established with her business partner, Sue Beechey (who has now retired), in 1985 – was called Deep Relax. It is still their number-one seller today.
When we meet at Archerfield Links Golf Estate’s prized Fletcher’s Cottage Spa, however, Geraldine is here to talk about her latest bath and shower oil. Just launched, it’s the tenth in a series of blends that forms the core of a product range that now extends to bath and body treats as well as skincare.
It’s called Inner Strength – named for the very fact that this was what Geraldine needed on the day she created it. Rather like an aromatic shot of Dutch courage, it packs a powerful punch with notes of frankincense – “a breath of fresh air through the brain” – fortifying cardamom and rosemary, all embraced in a big healing rose “hug”.
The formula was created a year ago when she was left reeling from the news that she had a rare form of eye cancer. Within days of the diagnosis doctors removed her right eye to get rid of the tumour and she was fitted with a prosthetic. But while she was discharged quickly after the operation, Geraldine had to face the long-term challenge of adjusting to life with one eye. “Pouring tea is still very difficult,” she jokes as she kindly pours for me. “If I don’t focus I miss the cup.”
Although technically cancer-free, Geraldine had more bad news yet to come. Her tests showed that the level of malignant cells in her body was so high that, unless she had further treatment, there would be a great risk the cancer would return. As chemotherapy was not an option, she signed up to participate in a new cancer vaccine trial to prevent the disease coming back.
“The treatment saps you,” she says. “When your energy levels are that low it can be hard to find the mental strength to keep going. I needed a kick up the backside.” So, sitting up in bed wearing her dressing gown, she did what she does best – opened the wooden box containing her brown vials of essentials oils and started to blend.
The potent cocktail lifted her out of the black hole she was in. Today – while she’s happy to recount events in a manner borne of someone well-versed at answering personal questions – rather than dwelling on what has been, she’s brimming over with enthusiasm for what’s ahead. “When I was told that my life expectancy might only be five years – tops – people started asking me ‘what do you want to do’?’ There are so many more things I want to make, I just want to speed up the rate at which I can make them,” she says.
It’s not the first time that Geraldine’s talent for blending therapeutic oils has changed her life. Suffering from insomnia as a child, she became addicted to her valium prescription in her twenties.
Enrolled on the London School of Fashion’s cosmetic science and beauty therapy course at the time, she met aromatherapy pioneer Micheline Arcier. She went on to work for her in her Knightsbridge clinic in the early Seventies. “I’ll never forget the feeling of walking into her treatment rooms and being hit by the smell of bay,” recalls Geraldine. “It enveloped my whole body and put me in the kind of relaxed state that I hadn’t experienced before without taking a pill.”
At the time aromatherapy was a bit of a dark art. “There were only two or three places in the UK who offered it,” she says. “I was fascinated by how beautiful Micheline’s skin was and loved the idea of using natural ingredients [unlike the medication she had been taking they had no listed side effects]. Suddenly I was seeing how these essential oils transformed people and I wanted the world to know about it.”
As most of the text books at the time were in French, Geraldine honed her craft in the bath. “I knew I had to replicate that feeling of walking into her treatment rooms,” she says. She did it and the valium was flushed down the toilet.
Whilst Deep Relax is a potent blend born out of a personal desperation for sleep, all of the other oils have a similarly interesting story. De-Stress Mind Oil was made for a prominent journalist who’d turn up at her clinic feeling super stressed. “I realised you couldn’t just have one relaxing oil,” says Geraldine. “She had to de-stress but needed clarity of mind to get her work done.”
When she was tired of living in London, in the late Seventies, Geraldine took two years out to work in a local old people’s home in her home county of Hertfordshire.
The De-Stress Muscle Oil was her answer to the problem of how to keep her patients’ joints moving.
“I like honest products that work on people,” she says. “Unfortunately we live in a world where what’s in the packaging so often disappoints our expectations. I want to deliver something that exceeds them.”
The secret to her success is, she believes, a commitment to quality and concentration – the essential oils are still blended in a lab in her office and her products still contain 30 per cent pure essential oil. By comparison, a lot of high-street brands, she says, might only contain a single digit of the important ingredient.
So, what’s next? Geraldine might still find it too tricky to navigate busy city streets unaided – “people are very rude when I bump into them,” she says – but she is pushing ahead with a series of new skincare lines.
“My purpose hasn’t changed since the day I started,” she says. “In your twenties you want to change the world without necessarily realising how difficult it might be, but my mission to help people – and get people to help themselves – through the power of essential oils is the same.”
• Aromatherapy Associates Inner Strength Bath & Shower Oil (£39.99) is available from www.aroma therapyassociates.com; 10 per cent of the proceeds will be donated to the Defence Against Cancer Foundation (www.defenceagainstcancer.com), a charity pioneering a new cancer vaccine treatment.