Aromatherapy Explained

You may have heard the word “aromatherapy” tossed around when searching for essential oils or diffusers, but not actually know what it means. It’s actually quite intuitive: therapy using aromas. Aromatherapy is the practice of using the natural oils that can be extracted from flowers, bark, stems, leaves, roots and other parts of a plant to help improve and balance you both emotionally and physically. In addition to essential oils, aromatherapy encourages the use of other complementary natural substances such as vegetable oils, waxes, herbs, salts, sugars and muds. Synthetic substances such as fragrance oils are not the same as essential oils and do not provide any therapeutic benefits.

Aromatherapy assists the body’s natural ability to balance, regulate, heal and maintain itself, making it an excellent complementary therapy that treats the whole person rather than just the symptom or disease. Aromatherapy treatments are offered in practices such as massage centers, yoga studios, spas, hospice care, medical offices and many more, and can also be safely practiced as self-administered care at home.

The History of Aromatherapy

The term aromatherapy is credited to René Gattefossé, a nineteenth century French chemist and perfumist who studied essential oils. He badly burned his hand during an experiment and plunged it into the nearest tub of liquid which happened to be lavender essential oil. Amazed by how quickly his burn healed as a result of treatment with he began a deep study into essential oils and the treatment of wounds, skin cancer, ulcers, gangrene and spider bites. He titled his book “Aromatherapy” and thus the term was born.

However, aromatherapy has been a trusted practice among cultures spanning the globe for over 5,000 years before the term was coined. Ancient Egyptians are credited to have developed the first distillation machines to extract oils from certain plants. The practice of using infused aromatic oils as a mood enhancer is thought to have roots in China. The Greeks believed that the gods were gifted with the knowledge of perfume and fragrance, and practiced aromatherapy as a healing medicine.

Essential Oils

Plants contain beneficial chemicals they use as a means of protecting themselves from predators such as insects and rodents, and to defend against fungus, bacteria and viruses. When a plant is distilled, these active ingredients are extracted with the oils and are preserved with alcohol. The result is a highly concentrated oily formula that allows people to harness the defensive and healing properties of plants. Because of their high concentration, essential oils used in aromatherapy practices are usually combined with a carrier oil or diluted in water before being applied to the skin. Essential oils can also be carefully blended together for a specific therapeutic purpose, creating a more complex aroma. This essential oil synergy is considered to be greater than each oil working independently. The key to aromatherapy is to use pure, therapeutic grade oils rather than those with synthetic ingredients.


The effects of essential oils can be experienced through the sense of smell which is linked to the deepest parts of the brain, governing basic instincts, thoughts and emotions, or physically to manage pain, inflammation, infection and disease.

Aromatically: Any essential oils can be used aromatically through the use of a diffuser, inhaling directly from a cloth or the bottle, or through the use of aromatherapy candles. Many studies have investigated the effects of aroma on improving mood, alleviating stress and reducing anxious feelings.

Topically: Essential oils can also be used topically, applying the oils directly to your skin, to help with skin irritations, blemishes, pain, inflammation and more. Essential oils should always be diluted before being applied to the skin. Aromatherapy is administered topically through massage, water baths, mud baths, steam rooms and more.

Internally: The internal use of essential oils is the perfect solution to target the immune or digestive system. Make sure only to ingest oils with extreme caution and under the guidance of an aromatherapy professional. Internal applications of essential oils include swallowing as part of health capsules, used in enhancing beverages or within cooking recipes.

As with any substance, precautions must be taken before use. Depending on a person’s medical history, they may have allergies or sensitivities to certain oils. Many oils should be avoided for use around infants, children and pets, as well as when pregnant or breast-feeding. In general, only use oils if you know for sure they are completely pure and always start with the lowest dose possible. It is best to consult with a professional before beginning any type of aromatherapy.

Professionals & Experts

Today there are a number of organizations that train and certify professional aromatherapists. Certification usually involves completing a number of hours of training, passing an exam, and supervised hours working with patients.

Aromatherapists are typically trained in

  • History of aromatherapy
  • Essential oil profiles
  • Ensuring quality of essential oils
  • Physiology of aromatherapy
  • Treating medical conditions
  • Contraindications and safety concerns

You can visit the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy to find a therapist in your area

An aromatherapist takes into account a person’s medical history, emotional state, health and lifestyle before planning a course of treatment. This holistic approach has been hugely successful because it treats the whole person and not just the symptoms of an illness. For example, many physical symptoms such as backaches, headaches or irritable bowel syndrome are often the result of stress rather than a physical problem. By looking at the causes of the stress, the aromatherapist can provide treatments to alleviate the condition in a much more efficient and long-term manner.

Aromatherapy can also be practiced safely through self-care in your own home using aromatic methods such as diffusion (though it is best to consult a professional before using essential oils topically or internally). Through research of different essential oils and their benefits one can easily devise their own treatment of essential oil blends. These can then be dispersed into the air using a diffuser or candle, or simply smelled straight from the bottle. In today’s age, essential oils are readily available in stores and online, making the joys of aromatherapy accessible to anyone.