Written by: 
Richard Thomas, medical writer

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What is aromatherapy?

The term aromatherapy - literally 'smell therapy' - describes the process of healing or alleviating complaints using the smell of aromatic plants, particularly when used with massage.

The list of essential oils in popular use today is almost as long as there are plants with a strong and distinctive aroma

The word was coined in 1928 by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French perfumery chemist. After curing himself of a severe burn by massaging the flesh with lavender oil, Gattefossé became interested in how aromatic plants used in the perfume industry could be applied therapeutically in the healing of minor afflictions.

Aromatherapy is thus closely related to herbal medicine, and so can be seen as part of a tradition much older than the therapy developed by Gattefossé. Indeed, it is widely considered that Gattefossé did not so much invent the idea as rediscover a skill in wide and common use throughout the ancient world and still used in many parts of the globe, but lost or forgotten in Europe until recent times.

Gattefossé's particular contribution was to identify those plants, flowers and herbs that he considered to have a therapeutic or healing effect, and to refine the process of extracting their concentrated, or 'essential', oil for use in therapy. The patient would use an oil either by inhaling its aroma or massaging it into the skin, diluted in a second odourless or 'neutral' oil such as almond oil.

How is aromatherapy used?

Examples of popular 'essential oils' in use today are lavender, neroli (orange blossom), rose, sandalwood, marjoram, rosemary, jasmine, patchouli, ylang-ylang, clary sage and geranium - although the list is almost as long as there are plants with a strong and distinctive aroma.

Although many doctors question the effectiveness of aromatherapy, few question its safety. Anyone can go into almost any shop offering healthcare and beauty products and find a range of commercially-produced essential oils for self-help and home use, in the same way that they can buy perfumery products. Use of essential oils in this way is usually through self-massage or vaporising the concentrated oil in a bath or in a special container called a 'burner' or 'vaporiser'.

Nevertheless, the use of essential oils by 'qualified aromatherapists' has grown up, especially since the 1980s, as a specific therapeutic skill in which people trained in the use of oils for particular ailments or conditions offer their services to those who feel such treatment will benefit them.

Therapists are often specialists in related complementary therapies such as massage, reflexology and relaxation therapy. Some are health and beauty therapists using the oils non-therapeutically for skin toning, relaxation and general well-being.

Some aromatherapists insist that diluted essential oils can be taken by mouth like any other medicine, but this is a much more controversial area because some plant extracts are unsafe to swallow - one example is juniper. The responsible advice here is that the use of oils in this way should always be recommended and supervised by a qualified medical herbalist (a specialist in herbal medicine) or medical doctor.

Exceptions include oils such as tea-tree and sandalwood, which may be used, heavily diluted in water, as a simple antiseptic gargle for sore throat, laryngitis, mouth ulcers and dental plaqueAny flat, raised patch; for example, a raised patch on the skin, fatty deposit in the inner wall of an artery, or layer over the surface of a tooth.. Studies have also shown tea-tree oil, when inhaled or rubbed into the skin, to be effective for conditions as diverse as bronchitis and athlete's foot.

Choice of aromatherapy oils

The therapeutic use of essential oils, whether through self-help or the services of an aromatherapist, is claimed to help a wide range of relatively minor ailments and conditions, from anger and anxiety to thrush and urinary infections.

In 1988 one authority, Robert Tisserand, listed more than 60 complaints that might respond to essential oils, including such serious long-term conditions as arthritisInflammation of one or more joints of the body., asthma, gallstones, high bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. pressure, heart disease and premature ageing.

A 2006 UK study showed that a combination of essential oils was effective against skin problems caused as a side-effect of some cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. treatments. However, in practice, aromatherapy is now most frequently used for conditions related to stressRelating to injury or concern. and anxiety, muscular and arthritic aches and pains, skin conditions including hair loss, colds and 'fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system., respiratory problems, digestive problems, premenstrual syndrome and post-natal depression.

Practitioners trained in aromatherapy usually make the point that it is important to assess the person needing treatment as much as the oil or oils generally regarded as being helpful for a particular condition. Each person is, therefore, treated individually and no two people with the same symptoms or condition will necessarily be given the same treatment or oils.

Some qualified aromatherapists class essential oils as falling into one of four categories, according to whether their ascribed effects are relaxing, calming, invigorating or stimulating.  Oils may be used singly or in combination accordingly, and this is also a useful guide in self-help:

  • Regulators (relaxing and calming)
  • Stimulants (invigorating and stimulating)
  • Sedatives (relaxing and calming)
  • Euphorics (invigorating and stimulating).


Examples include bergamot, frankincense, geranium, rose, rosewood.

Conditions claimed to be helped: Mood swings, depression, insomnia, stomach problems.


Examples include eucalyptus, juniper, peppermint, rosemary, tea-tree.

Conditions claimed to be helped: Fatigue, indigestionDiscomfort after eating., colds, muscular pain, period pains.


Examples include camomile, lavender, marjoram, orange blossom, sandalwood.

Conditions claimed to be helped: Anxiety, insomnia, burns, stressRelating to injury or concern., cystitis, throat infections.


Examples include clary sage, grapefruit, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang.

Conditions claimed to be helped: Depression, anger, impotence, throat infections, hangover.

Aromatherapy appears to be most beneficial in aiding relaxation, particularly when used in massage

Using essential oils in self-help

For massage

Essential oils should always be diluted in a neutral 'carrier' oil. That's because some oils can cause skin irritation or even an allergic skin reaction in sensitive people if applied without proper dilution, or may be toxic if absorbed.

As a rough guide, three drops of concentrated or pure essential oil mixed with a teaspoon of carrier oil is about right. Examples of carrier oils are almond, avocado, grapeseed, soybean or wheatgerm. The mixture will not keep, so it is best to mix up no more than you will use in one therapy session.

For inhaling or vaporising

Add a few drops - generally no more than ten - to a bath of hot water, a vaporiser or simply a dish of water put on a radiator.


Oils can be used singly or in combinations to suit an individual's needs. Most practitioners recommend combinations of no more than three oils at a time.


In general, essential oils are not recommended during pregnancy, and especially not during the first three months or if there are possible complications. The safest oils to use, properly diluted, during a normal pregnancy, are said to be lavender, geranium, camomile, rose and ylang-ylang.

Ten useful essential oils

  • Camomile - calming
  • Eucalyptus - antiseptic
  • Geranium - astringent (contracting or shrinking body tissues)
  • Lavender - painkilling
  • Rose - antiseptic
  • Rosemary - stimulating
  • Sandalwood - antiseptic
  • Marjoram - painkilling
  • Jasmine - antidepressant
  • Neroli (orange blossom) - sedative.

Safety and efficacy

Aromatherapy has never attracted the criticism from the medical and scientific world that, for example, homoeopathy has done. Generally, it is regarded by orthodox medicine as, at best, mildly beneficial, and, at worst, harmlessly ineffectual. The result is that it is today widely and increasingly practised by therapists of many disciplines, as well as by the general public, as a means of self-help.

Although the chemical effects of smell on the body are well known (aromatic chemicals called pheromones can cause sexual stimulation, for example), aromatherapy appears to be most beneficial in aiding relaxation, particularly when used in massage. The mental and emotional benefits this can bring can be as therapeutically effective as any directly physical or chemical interventions on the body.

In summary - used sensibly and responsibly, aromatherapy is arguably one of the safest and most effective of the complementary therapies for the fairly limited range of ailments for which experience over recent years has shown it to be beneficial.