The Definitive Guide To Aromatherapy


Aromatherapy and the brain

Aromatherapy has not yet undergone as much scientific scrutiny as other complementary therapies, but it may be effective in helping with some complaints.

In terms of aromatherapy and the brain, it is thought to have therapeutic effects by stimulating the olfactory system. This is the structure of the body responsible for our sense of smell. It begins in the nose, and there are millions of chemical receptors here that detect odours and send signals to olfactory bulbs. These signals are sent along olfactory tracts to the brain’s olfactory cortex. This is the temporal lobe of the brain where the processing of these aromas happen and is part of the limbic system.

This is the part of the brain which controls functions such as heart rate, breathing, memory, blood pressure, hormone balance, stress levels, survival instincts and the processing of our emotions. Hence, smells are processed and can influence behaviour and mood via several chemical processes.

History of aromatherapy

The history of aromatherapy begins over 3500 years BC when it was used for perfume, medicine and religious purposes. The term “aromatherapy” was invented in 1935 by French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, after a burn incident where he claimed he treated it effectively with lavender essential oil.

Plant and plant extracts have been used empirically for thousands of years, and evidence of this can be found in Iran, India, China, Pakistan, and Ancient Egypt. But it was not until 1830 in France, a city of perfume makers, that the study of essential oils came into being. Some of the leading scientists of the time, including Louis Pasteur, took an interest in it and as early as 1887, Pasteur’s assistant, Charles Chamberland began scientifically measuring the antiseptic effects of clove, oregano and cinnamon essential oils.

In 1910, chemical engineer René-Maurice Gattefossé discovered the therapeutic properties of pure lavender after an explosion in his laboratory. It left him with significant burns, and he treated them using lavender essential oil. He then founded the French Society of Aromatic Products and published works that are still considered references today. These works would give aromatherapy its very name, and he coined the term “aromatherapy” in 1935.

In 1929, pharmacist Sévelinge demonstrated the antibacterial efficacy of certain essential oils. In the 1950s, a military physician used them to treat injured soldiers in Indochina, and in 1975, aromatologist Pierre Franchomme proposed the concept of “chemotype”, listing the key aromatic compounds characterising each plant and how they affect its properties.

Today, aromatherapy is more frequently the focus of scientific studies and is recognised as a fully-fledged branch of medicine.

Aromatherapy benefits

Aromatherapy benefits are wide and varied and include:

  • General well being — because of how essential oils interact with the brain, they are known to enhance emotional and physical wellbeing.
  • Headaches and nausea — some essential oils can help manage and relieve headaches and nausea.
  • Gut health — some oils can help aid digestion.
  • Inflammation —other essential oils are beneficial in easing and reducing inflammation and boosting immunity.
  • Muscle and joint pain —many essential oils naturally have anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties.
  • Sleep and relaxation — a range of essential oils can promote relaxation and improve sleep.
    Mental health — a range of oils are known to reduce anxiety, stress and agitation and even help with depression.
  • Skincare — essential oils have a range of skin benefits, including balancing oils and treating acne to reduce wrinkles and dark circles. Some are also used to treat scarring, eczema, psoriasis and pigmentation.
  • Household cleaning — some essential oils can be used for cleaning because of their antiseptic, disinfecting, and deodorising properties.

Common aromatherapy oils

A few of the more common aromatherapy oils include:


This refreshing and citrusy-sweet essence provides an aroma similar to that of oranges, lemons and florals combined. Benefits include:

  • Reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, nervous tension and negative emotions.
  • Fighting infections and reducing fevers due to its antiseptic properties.
  • Stimulating the digestive system.
  • Soothing skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
  • Being an excellent deodoriser and insect repellent.


This essential oil comes from the wood of the Cedar tree. Its aroma is described as woodsy and slightly smoky. Benefits include:

  • Reducing pain and inflammation and treating inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and acne.
  • Helping with hair issues including hair loss and enhancing thicker, longer hair. Studies have also shown that it can be an effective treatment for alopecia areata, which is an autoimmune disease causing bald patches and potentially total baldness.
  • Improving concentration by helping your brain focus due to its sesquiterpenes, a hydrocarbon group found in essential oils and help improve the oxygenation of brain cells.
  • Assisting with sleep due to its sedative effects.

Chamomile oil

Chamomile oil has a soft, fresh, warm and fruity scent, and there are two different varieties of chamomile you may come across: Roman chamomile and German chamomile. The two plants are slightly different in appearance, and the chemical composition of their active ingredients also differs slightly. Benefits include:

  • Reducing digestive upsets like nausea, gas and indigestion.
  • Anxiety relief and promoting sleep.
  • Wound healing, including sores and ulcers.
  • Easing skin conditions like rashes and eczema.
  • Anti-inflammation and pain relief for conditions like neuralgia, arthritis and back pain.


Also known as Cinnamon Bark essential oil, it has a spicy, sweet and somewhat musky aroma. Benefits include:

  • Energising and stimulating the mind.
  • Providing a pick-me-up for those experiencing feelings of weakness, exhaustion or depression.
  • Easing tender and sore areas and reducing inflammation when used in massage.
  • Being a natural remedy for various health concerns from constipation to colds and coughs.
  • Helping to clean floors and home surfaces by suppressing the growth of bacteria and fungi.

Clary sage

This essential oil smells earthy, herbaceous, floral and slightly fruity. Benefits include:

  • Stress reduction and enhanced feelings of calmness.
  • Antibacterial properties.
  • Helping to ease menopause symptoms and menstrual cramps.


Eucalyptus has a minty, camphorous scent. Benefits include:

  • Silencing a cough and clearing your chest.
  • Breaking up the mucus in your respiratory system, including in your sinuses and the back of your throat which can help reduce snoring.
  • Keeping mosquitoes and other biting insects at bay.
  • Disinfecting wounds.
  • Controlling blood sugar.
  • Soothing cold sores.
  • Freshening breath.
  • Easing joint pain.


Ginger essential oils carry an aroma that is refreshingly warm, earthy and somewhat spicy. Benefits include:

  • When combined with a carrier oil and applied topically, it can ease aching joints, muscles and arthritis.
  • Improving sluggish circulation.
  • Strengthening the immune system.
  • Easing nausea, travel sickness, headaches and migraines.

Juniper berry

This essential oil has a fresh yet warm, rich and somewhat balsamic pine needle aroma. Benefits include:

  • Soothing and strengthening the nerves.
  • Easing certain health complaints such as gout, rheumatism, kidney stones, arthritis, urine retention and urinary tract infections.
  • Assisting with unclogging pores and balancing oily skin types.
  • Being an effective natural remedy for dermatitis, dandruff, psoriasis and eczema.


Lavender oil has a sweet, floral and herbaceous aroma. Benefits include:

  • Assisting with anxiety, stress and sleep because of its sedative and anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) properties.
  • Enhancing calmness and relaxation due to nervous tension and irritability.
  • Assisting with respiratory problems.
  • Reducing pain.
  • Enhancing blood circulation.
  • Assisting with treating acne, scarring, wrinkles, psoriasis, and dry, sensitive, and irritated skin.


Has a refreshing, light and citrusy tang. Benefits include:

  • Treating oily skin because it reduces sebum production, so it is a great anti-acne aid because of its astringent properties.
  • Cleansing greasy hair and lifting dead skin cells to enhance volume and shine.
  • Assisting with treating cuts and wounds and easing painful insect bites and cold sores because of its powerful antiseptic properties.
  • Relieving and soothing headaches and migraines.
  • Clearing the mind, improving decision making and boosting mental alertness.
  • Acting as a natural degreaser because of its disinfecting properties so great for cleaning kitchens (particularly Lemon Myrtle essential oil).


This is extracted from the flowers of bitter orange trees. Benefits include:

  • Reducing anxiety and depression.
  • Lowering high blood pressure.
  • Helping with menopausal and PMS symptoms.
  • Reducing inflammation.


Orange oil smells sweet and citrus. Benefits include:

  • Reducing stress and lifting a person’s mood
  • Treating skin conditions such as acne.
  • Reducing pain or inflammation.
  • Reducing stomach upsets.
  • Adding a pleasant scent to a room and used as a natural household cleaner.


Peppermint essential oil has a uniquely fresh, sweet and incredibly minty aroma. Benefits include:

  • Alleviating headaches, migraines, hay fever, sinus congestion and cold and flu symptoms.
  • Soothing mental and emotional fatigue.
  • Soothing “brain fog” and enhancing focus and attentiveness.
  • Treating cuts, minor wounds, abrasions, and insect bites.
  • Helping with nausea, digestive issues, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Being a great multipurpose cleaner because of its disinfecting and antiseptic properties.
  • Being an excellent natural insect repellent and rodent deterrent, particularly with spiders, mice, wasps, bees and mosquitoes.


There are a variety of rose oils used in aromatherapy, including:

Rose Geranium Cape Essential Oil

This oil has an incredibly balanced aroma that is musky and floral. Benefits include:

  • Helping ease anxiety, stress and depression whilst encouraging balance, calmness, and uplifted spirits.
  • Assisting with balancing hormones, including easing the symptoms of PMS.
  • Helping ease fluid retention, haemorrhoids, and breast engorgement.
  • Healing burns, ulcers, and wounds.
  • Balancing oily and dry skin.
  • Easing skin complaints like eczema and shingles.

Rosehip Oil

Rosehip oil is the preferred carrier oil for diluting essential oils. Benefits include:

  • Treating scars, dry skin, burns, wrinkles, inflamed skin conditions and stretch marks due to its healing and regenerating properties.
  • Reducing itchy, dry and irritated skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis because of its anti-inflammatory properties.


Rosemary is similarly scented to pine with its strong, woody, mint-like smell. Benefits include:

  • Improving brain function, memory, thinking and concentration.
  • Stimulating hair growth and treating alopecia.
  • Relieving pain, easing stress, and increasing circulation.
  • Reducing joint inflammation and helping with muscular pains.


Sandalwood is a deep, woody scent and often smells like a mix of floral, rich, balsamic, soft and sweet accents. Benefits include:

  • Assisting with anxiety, nervous tension and depression
  • Decreasing inflammation in skin disorders like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.
  • Healing wounds and assisting with liver, gallbladder and digestive problems.

Tea tree

Tea tree oil has an incredibly fresh, earthy and pleasantly “clean” aroma and has been medicinally used by Indigenous Australians for millennia. Benefits include:

  • Helping heal wounds and ease inflammation, particularly when used in personal care products such as washes, lotions, creams, gels, shampoos and cosmetic products.
  • Assisting with acne, burns, sunburn, insect bites, chickenpox, blisters, cold sores, eczema and athlete’s foot.
  • Helping with head lice and dandruff.
  • Boosting respiratory function, including sinusitis, asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough.
  • Being a great bathroom and kitchen cleaner due to its anti-fungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties.


Valerian has a strong, earthy odour. Benefits include:

  • With its calming, sedative effect, it can assist with anxiety, relaxation, tension relief, and to promote sleep.


Also known as khus oil, vetiver has a dry, earthy, woody, leathery and smoky smell. Benefits include:

  • Enhancing alertness and helping with mental fatigue.
  • Reducing anxiety.
  • Helping improve breathing patterns during sleep.
  • Having antioxidant properties.

Ylang ylang

Has an incredible floral and sweet aroma with an intriguing hint of spice. Benefits include:

  • Reducing anxiousness and stress due to its calming and balancing properties, often producing a sense of euphoria.
  • Assisting with sleep as it is believed to soothe and quieten the brain and central nervous system.
  • Relieving extreme mood swings.

The best Aromatherapy books

Here are some of the best aromatherapy books on the market, including those by Australian aromatherapist, Salvatore Battaglia.

  • Aromatherapy and Chakras: Fg. Author: Salvatore Battaglia.
  • Aromatree: A Holistic Guide To Understanding And Using Aromatherapy. Author: Salvatore Battaglia
  • The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy Third Edition Vol 1 – Foundations & Materia Medica. Author: Salvatore Battaglia
  • The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy Third Edition Vol 2 – Science & Therapeutics. Author: Salvatore Battaglia
  • The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy Third Edition Vol 3 – Psyche & Subtle. Author: Salvatore Battaglia
  • 500 Formulas for Aromatherapy. Author: Carol & David Schiller
  • The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Author: Julia Lawless
  • 600 Aromatherapy Recipes for Beauty, Health & Home. Author: Beth Jones

Safety considerations for essential oils

Aromatic plant oils are very potent and should never be swallowed, applied undiluted to the skin or used in any orifices. People with asthma and those prone to nosebleeds should use caution when inhaling vaporising oils. Some aromatic plant oils are toxic and should never be used at all – for example, camphor, pennyroyal and wintergreen.

Some essential oils for sleep, like cedarwood and bergamot may increase sensitivity to sunlight. Always check whether an oil is considered phototoxic before applying it to your skin. If you plan to add oils to a diffuser, make sure those oils are safe for children, partners, and pets.

Read up on an essential oil before you make your purchase. If you have sensitive skin, allergies, or underlying health conditions, you may want to talk with your doctor before trying essential oils. There may be an allergic reaction, such as a skin rash in susceptible people in some cases. Some of the oils that may cause problems include:

    • Eucalyptus
    • Ginger (carbon dioxide extracted)
    • Thyme
    • Black pepper
    • Cinnamon
    • Clove
    • Oregano
    • Lemongrass
    • Basil
    • Some citrus oils

Aromatherapy and pregnancy safety

In terms of aromatherapy and pregnancy safety, anything you take into your body may reach your baby, and it’s possible that traces of the oils can cross the placenta. That’s why it’s best to be cautious and talk to your doctor or midwife before using essential oils.

As long as your pregnancy is going well, it may be fine for you to use:

  • German and Roman chamomile
  • Common lavender
  • Mandarin or tangerine
  • Neroli
  • Peppermint
  • Ylang ylang

Don’t use the following essential oils while you’re pregnant:

  • Angelica
  • Aniseed
  • Basil
  • Camphor
  • Cinnamon leaf
  • Citronella
  • Clary sage
  • Cumin
  • Juniper
  • Laurel
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

In some circumstances, it’s best not to use essential oils at all. Don’t use any oils if you:

  • Have a history of miscarriage
  • Have had any vaginal bleeding in pregnancy
  • Have epilepsy
  • Have heart problems
  • Have diabetes, blood clotting problems, or thyroid, liver or kidney disease
  • Are taking antibiotics or antihistamines because the oils may interfere with the way the medicines work

How to choose an aromatherapist

Here are some guidelines to follow when choosing an aromatherapist.

  • Qualifications: An aromatherapist will have a specific aromatherapy qualification encompassing literally hundreds of hours of tuition, study and supervised clinical practice before becoming qualified. Professional Aromatherapy training will cover a whole range of topics, including aromatherapy history, the production of essential oils, essential oil safety, botany, chemistry, human anatomy and physiology, pathology, as well as the study of different methods of use and the in-depth study of an extensive range of individual essential oils.
  • Current knowledge: Check whether your aromatherapist is up to date with current research, including the latest practices and techniques. They should also undergo continuing education to keep their expertise up to date and relevant.
  • Expertise relevant to your condition: Some aromatherapists will complete an assessment with you before applying any treatment. This will ensure that they target and address the specific problem quickly.
  • Cleanliness: Ensure your aromatherapist’s treatment room is clean and professionally presented.

Questions to ask your aromatherapist

Once you’ve found a potential aromatherapist, it’s worth asking them the following questions to ensure they are credible and suitable for you.

  • Are you currently registered with a professional association? Once qualified, aromatherapists must meet ongoing requirements to maintain their professional standing and membership of professional bodies. The peak body for aromatherapy in Australia is IAAMA (The International Aromatherapy & Aromatic Medicine Association) The Australian Natural Therapist’s Association (ANTA) requires aromatherapists to have completed studies in the Diploma of Clinical Aromatherapy (HLT52315) with a Registered Training Organisation that has been recognised by ANTA to practice as an aromatherapist.
  • What is the level of your training? Professional aromatherapists will have the required level of theoretical training and clinical practice before they are qualified to treat members of the public.
  • How long did you study for? The average length of training is 16 months – (https://www.myskills.gov.au.) An aromatherapist should inform you beforehand if they have less than a year’s experience or are still a student. Most qualified therapists will have their qualifications viewable in their treatment areas.
  • Do you have insurance? ANTA Aromatherapists will have professional indemnity insurance and First Aid qualifications.

What to expect from your first aromatherapy appointment

If you’ve dabbled with essential oils at home but want to use them more extensively, then you may want to consider booking a consultation with an aromatherapy practitioner, who can discuss your specific needs and requirements and devise an appropriate treatment plan.

Consultation is an important aspect of aromatherapy, enabling the therapist to complete a needs assessment and develop a treatment strategy for you. They will typically gather information relating to your general health, diet, medical history, lifestyle, the reason for treatment and even your scent preferences.

While your appointment may involve a full or partial body massage, it is only one of the ways aromatherapy can be used. These include compresses, bathing and inhalation. For example, if you are experiencing stress, they may develop a treatment plan that involves both a professional massage and a bathing product to use at home. If you are suffering from sinusitis, the therapist may make up a product for you to inhale via a burner or diffuser. If you are experiencing muscle tightness or tension, they may provide a blended essential oil product to use in a therapeutic ointment or hot or cold compress.

At your follow-up consultation, the therapist will typically undertake a short assessment with you to determine whether there have been any changes to your general health, medical history, general health, lifestyle and diet. This ensures that the oils best suited for your individual needs were selected or whether they need to change.

In terms of a treatment plan, they will probably advise you to rest and relax after treatment and stay hydrated in the short term. In the long-term, they may give you a product to use or, if qualified to do so, give you some exercises to do to help, for example, to ease tension in tight muscles. They may also refer you to your General Practitioner for more specific advice if they think it is appropriate to do so.