The Nature of Aromatherapy

Essential Oils

When, from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered; taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

Marcel Proust
Remembrance of Things Past

Contrary to popular opinion, aromatherapy is not just about smelling things. The true definition of aromatherapy is much more specific: the use of essential oils for therapeutic or medical purposes. However, the way in which those essential oils are used is not specified. English aromatherapist Shirley Price defines aromatherapy as “the use of essential oils, all of which are derived from plants.” American aromatherapist Jeanne Rose classifies aromatherapy as “the healing of essential oils through the sense of smell by inhalation, and through other application of these therapeutic volatile substances.” An aromatherapy school in the United Kingdom defines aromatherapy as “a natural treatment which uses the concentrated essential oils from plants in association with massage, friction, inhalation, compresses and baths.” French physician Valnet writes that aromatherapy involves essences obtained from plants that are generally given “in the form of drops, or capsules.” 

There are four different types of aromatherapy: clinical, stress management, beauty therapy, and environmental fragrancing. British aromatherapy pioneer Robert Tisserand classifies them as psychotherapeutic, esthetic, holistic, and nursing and medical aromatherapy. 

Without doubt, “nice smells” added to a massage in a beauty salon are something akin to flowers on the table at a restaurant; they are not specific ingredients of the meal, but they certainly enhance it. This is a form of esthetic aromatherapy. Beauty therapists do not usually treat disease. However, at the other end of the aromatherapy spectrum, medical aromatherapy suggests that specific medical conditions can be treated with essential oils. French medical aromatherapists Franchomme, Penoel, Gattefosse, and Belaiche have each written books dedicated to this subject. These two types of aromatherapy—esthetic and medical— are very distinct. The misunderstandings that arise often concern the types of aromatherapy that fall in between and what they entail. 

Holistic aromatherapy suggests the therapist is involved with all parts of the patient—in other words, with mind, body, and spirit. Holistic aromatherapy involves “supporting” a patient; this is consistent with Tisserand’s diagrammatic outlines. It is a procedure often carried out by body workers who may or may not know much about the chemistry of the essential oils or the pathologic conditions for which they are appropriate. These therapists are not “treating” the patient so much as supporting other treatments the patient may be receiving, which can be either orthodox or alternative. 

Esthetic aromatherapy is about pleasure. Choosing a smell because it is pleasing is similar to studying a beautiful picture. The picture is treasured for the pleasure it gives, not for its intrinsic molecular structure. To put it another way, the use of perfumes, scented bath soaps, and incense sticks are the use of esthetic aromatherapy, and the world would be a sadder place without them. When patients are nearing the end of their lives, the focus is on keeping them comfortable, not prolonging life. At that stage, esthetic aromatherapy can give both pleasure and comfort. 

Psychoaromatherapy concerns the ways smells or odors affect our brains by influencing the production of endorphins and noradrenaline. Whether we realize it or not, our entire life is affected by smell. All forms of aromatherapy have been around for hundreds of years. They are definitely not “New Age.” Despite the explosion of products on the market that include the word aromatherapy on their labels, the use of essential oils in products is not new. Only the use of their synthetic copies is a recent development.