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.
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 are wide and varied and include:
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:
This essential oil comes from the wood of the Cedar tree. Its aroma is described as woodsy and slightly smoky. Benefits include:
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:
Also known as Cinnamon Bark essential oil, it has a spicy, sweet and somewhat musky aroma. Benefits include:
This essential oil smells earthy, herbaceous, floral and slightly fruity. Benefits include:
Eucalyptus has a minty, camphorous scent. Benefits include:
Ginger essential oils carry an aroma that is refreshingly warm, earthy and somewhat spicy. Benefits include:
This essential oil has a fresh yet warm, rich and somewhat balsamic pine needle aroma. Benefits include:
Lavender oil has a sweet, floral and herbaceous aroma. Benefits include:
Has a refreshing, light and citrusy tang. Benefits include:
This is extracted from the flowers of bitter orange trees. Benefits include:
Orange oil smells sweet and citrus. Benefits include:
Peppermint essential oil has a uniquely fresh, sweet and incredibly minty aroma. Benefits include:
There are a variety of rose oils used in aromatherapy, including:
This oil has an incredibly balanced aroma that is musky and floral. Benefits include:
Rosehip oil is the preferred carrier oil for diluting essential oils. Benefits include:
Rosemary is similarly scented to pine with its strong, woody, mint-like smell. Benefits include:
Sandalwood is a deep, woody scent and often smells like a mix of floral, rich, balsamic, soft and sweet accents. Benefits include:
Tea tree oil has an incredibly fresh, earthy and pleasantly “clean” aroma and has been medicinally used by Indigenous Australians for millennia. Benefits include:
Valerian has a strong, earthy odour. Benefits include:
Also known as khus oil, vetiver has a dry, earthy, woody, leathery and smoky smell. Benefits include:
Has an incredible floral and sweet aroma with an intriguing hint of spice. Benefits include:
Here are some of the best aromatherapy books on the market, including those by Australian aromatherapist, Salvatore Battaglia.
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:
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:
Don’t use the following essential oils while you’re pregnant:
In some circumstances, it’s best not to use essential oils at all. Don’t use any oils if you:
Here are some guidelines to follow when choosing an 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.
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.