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The practice that we now call “aromatherapy” began in ancient times. Though the exact origin isn’t clear, we know that the ancient Egyptians invented the first distillation machines for extracting the oils from certain plant species. They created oils from cloves, cedarwood, and cinnamon, which they used for embalming their dead. Obviously, this wasn’t exactly for therapeutic purposes; that practice is thought to have been rooted in Chinese tradition. The Chinese used infused aromatic oils to improve their moods. 

Greek history also makes mention of the use of essential oils in perfumes and Hippocrates, the “father of medicine” used fragrances in his healing practices. The Greek gods were said to have been gifted with the “knowledge of perfume and fragrance.” 

It wasn’t until 1937 that Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist, first used the term “aromatherapy.” Gattefosse became interested in the healing power of essential oils after receiving a burn and finding that lavender oil seemed to help heal his wound. After that, during World War II, Jean Valnet, a French surgeon, used essential oils in treating the wounds of soldiers. 

While there has only been limited research on the use of aromatherapy, there’s been an uptick in individuals interested in learning about the use of essential oils as a complement to traditional medical practices. Massage therapists frequently use essential oils in their massage oils for therapeutic benefit, and there has been an increasing market for diffusers and the oils themselves. 

While aromatherapy may not be right for everyone, those who practice aromatherapy find it therapeutic. The scents given off by essential oils can be inhaled, or the oils may be diluted by a carrier oil and applied to the skin. When inhaled, the scent molecules can affect the emotion centers of the brain in the limbic system, primarily the amygdala and hypothalamus. It is important to note that, just like with medications, people can have adverse reactions to essential oils, and not everyone is affected in the same manner by a particular essence. Many of them have the potential to irritate skin and cause allergic reactions, particularly if they are not diluted with a carrier oil such as coconut, olive, or jojoba oil. 

Despite the widespread use of diffusers, Harpreet Gujral, program director of integrative medicine at Sibley Memorial Hospital at Johns Hopkins, recommends avoiding diffusers in public areas of the home due to potential adverse reactions. She advises that individuals wishing to practice aromatherapy use the oils by diluting and massaging them into their skin. Or, if they wish, applying the oils to aromatherapy accessories such as keychains, bracelets, and necklaces made of absorbent materials that can be carried with you throughout the day, or using aroma sticks that can be capped to contain the scent.

Commonly used essential oils are:

  • Peppermint oil, which many use to relieve headaches through topical application. 
  • Lavender oil, which many find to have a relaxing scent. It can be used for stress and anxiety relief as well as promoting a good night’s sleep.
  • Many people find lemon oil’s citrusy scent to be a mood booster.
  • Tea Tree oil has been used to combat acne, bug bites, and athlete’s foot. 

There are a wide variety of essential oils out there and just as many potential uses, but it is vital to know what you’re purchasing. Do your homework and research the company before making a purchase. Read the labels. Quality essential oils should list the country of origin, information on the purity or other ingredients added, and the Latin name of the plant it is extracted from. Look for oils that are packaged in darker tinted glass bottles as the highly concentrated oils can dissolve plastic containers over time and taint the oil. Compare prices and avoid “fragrance oils” and perfumes for use in aromatherapy. Always consult your physician to ensure aromatherapy is right for you. 

If used appropriately, aromatherapy can provide therapeutic benefits for those looking for complementary approaches to traditional medical practices.