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What is Aromatherapy?

A bit more about what this really is. It's not just pretty scented oils.


The practice of aromatherapy uses natural plant extracts, such as essential oils, hydrosols, and carrier oils, in a variety of ways to heal the body, mind and spirit. It is the promotion and harmonization of emotional, physical and spiritual health through the application of these extracts. Aromatherapy is described as both an art and a science because it takes the knowledge of the scientific aspects of the plants and oils and combines it with the art of producing a beneficial blend. Basically, a successful aromatherapy blend is a synergy of science, art, and the practitioner’s knowledge of both, and how to apply it. Aromatherapy can be used topically and via inhalation. 

Internal use of aromatherapy is essentially a branch of aromatic medicine and using aromatherapy this way is only advised by an experienced and qualified therapist, or by using products professionally formulated for internal use (e.g., capsules or tincture blends containing highly diluted essential oils).

Since time began, aromatic plants have been used in various ways to perfume and to heal. They have taken many forms such as infused oils, extracts, and distilled oils (although not necessarily in the way that we see essential oils distilled today). The ancient Egyptians revered scent in many forms, as a cosmetic, medicinal, and as part of their religious practice. The ancient Romans saw scent as a status symbol and much of Rome’s high society were known to use common plants such as lavender (Lavandula spp.) and rose (Rosa spp.) in everyday life. The Romans helped to spread the knowledge of aromatic plants throughout the Roman Empire to places such as Great Britain, which led to a wide use of aromatic plants during Medieval Europe.

However, the modern-day term of aromatherapy, or aromathérapie as it is known in French, was only devised by the French perfumer and chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé in 1937. Gattefossé is most well-known for the incident in which he accidently burned his hand in his laboratory and plunged it a vat of lavender. To his surprise, his hand healed and did not bear the scarring he feared, if the hand had been left untreated.

Today the practice of aromatherapy incorporates the use of essential oils, hydrosols, and carrier oils for holistic healing. Aromatic oils and water are used for their therapeutic properties to heal the mind, body and spirit, returning the body to a state of equilibrium.

Essential oils are, “highly aromatic substances made in plants by special cells but at this stage the material is not yet an essential oil, but is called an essence. It becomes an essential oil only after it has been extracted by distillation.”1

Essential oils embody the plants from which they are extracted from in a number of ways: Chemically, physically, aromatically, and spiritually. Let’s break down each of those concepts briefly:

  • Chemically: Essential oils are a complex make-up of volatile chemical components. These include, but are not limited to, phenols, alcohols, aldehydes, and esters. Each chemical component contributes to the overall therapeutic effect of the essential oil. An essential oil’s chemical make-up may vary from the plant from which it was extracted from due to its method of extraction; for example, distillation vs. carbon dioxide extraction vs. expression.

  • Physically: Factors such as environment, altitude at which the plant was grown at, geographical location, time and method of harvesting of the plant can alter the chemical components of the final essential oil.

  • Aromatically: The aroma of an essential oil may not resemble the aroma of the plant as closely as you think because of the influences mentioned above.  However, a true essential oil should be subtle in aroma (unlike its synthetic counterpart) and remind you in some part of the plant from which it was extracted from. Descriptors for aromas of essential oils are vast but include minty, citrus, floral, balsamic, green, earthy, and woody.

  • Spiritually: Ancient people, and through to Medieval times, believed in the spiritual power of plants, rather than just the chemical breakdown of its healing components. Each plant had a spiritual healing element. For example, the plant rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) was used in Medieval times to drive out evil spirits.2 A sprig of rosemary, and other such plants, were often hung or planted near the door of the home to protect its inhabitants.

Copyright © 2021 National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. All rights reserved.

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