What is Aromatherapy?


The question is an interesting one because individual essential oil enthusiasts, practitioners, experts, scholars and lay people will have their own interpretation of what aromatherapy is.


While the use of essential oils for wellness is centuries old, the term ‘aromatherapy’ is a fairly new phenomenon. A term first heard in a book entitled ‘Aromathérapie: Les Hormones Végétales by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé published in 1937.


Many have offered definitions of Aromatherapy; notably Robert Tisserand, renowned international aromatherapy consultant and educator, and a man widely regarded as being instrumental in bringing widespread recognition of essential oil benefits to the modern world offers this succinct definition:


 “Aromatherapy can be defined as the diligent use of essential oils to promote or improve human health, hygiene and wellbeing”. He elaborates: “Having “aromatic oils” in the definition of aromatherapy helps...it avoids the problem of including absolutes, which are made by solvent extraction, not distillation. And some absolutes, notably rose and jasmine, are widely used in aromatherapy.” (Tisserand 2015).


The definition given by Penny Price (1993): ‘Aromatherapy is the controlled use of natural essential oils to achieve balance and harmony of the individual (mind, body & spirit).


Another definition offered by International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (2018) is “Aromatherapy uses the volatile aromatic plant essences, known as essential oils, to treat ill-health and help maintain good health”


Aromatherapy for me is a wonderful array of medicines from the earth, which when harnessed and used with care, knowledge, confidence, and interpretation of the person as a whole, is a truly holistic way in which to achieve wellness in mind, body & spirit for myself and others, and very often a truly viable and preferable alternative to pharmaceutical treatments.


There is some discussion in the media relating to different ‘schools’ of aromatherapy. Notably ‘The French Method’ in comparison to ‘The English Method’ with distinctions  being drawn between internal ‘medicinal’ use of essential oils and topical / inhalation methods of application. Some companies and individuals seek to perpetuate and exploit this notion of different models, and even quote that they follow a certain ‘school’ therefore inferring superiority.


Allusions to different schools may have stemmed from the works of Gattefosse and Vanet, Belaiche, Franchomme (all French Drs) focusing on ‘aromatic medicine’ (and often using essential oils internally) being compared with the work of Marguerite Maury who primarily taught topical application of essential oils. Maury, an Austrian born biochemist (who was taught in France and followed the works of Gattefosse), developed her own eminent research into topical application of essential oil.


Maury’s focus was however, perhaps due to the fact that the law in France restricts the application of essential oils to only those individuals with a medical qualification. In addition to this, Maury taught beauty therapy and massage using essential oils in a London based school, (as well as in other countries) hence the notion of differing models of use.


Debate on the safety and efficacy of internal versus external use, and the existence of English and French ‘models’ will continue:  However, in reality, depending on  need, there are only three ‘methods’ of using essential oils in use:  external, internal, and environmental, each having their own merits.


In my opinion, all methods should only be used for treating medical conditions with appropriate underpinning knowledge of physiology and anatomy and how bodily systems work. Also with knowledge of how each essential oil can affect these systems in healthy, as well as compromised individuals. This combined with some knowledge of drug interactions and essential oils is fundamentally necessary to ensure selection of appropriate treatment, and the safety of the individual.  


For common ailments, essential oils are hugely valuable and often enjoyable resource for all. With a little knowledge, it is quite possible to safely create effective home remedies for many complaints thus often avoiding the need for pharmaceutical intervention. However without in depth knowledge of essential oils, I would not recommend internal use for anyone.... I would leave this to qualified clinical aromatherapists.


Aromatherapy is used and interpreted in different ways all over the world. Expanding research, newly discovered essential oils and treatments mean that interest in aromatherapy continues to grow.  This evolution, combined with shifts in how we approach self care will continue to shape the way in which people perceive aromatherapy and therefore how it is used and defined.

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