Making Sense of Scents: Aromatherapy For Beginners

An in-depth look into aromatherapy.


| January/February 1999


In the United States, where using scents to heal has moved into the mainstream, the term ­aromatherapy is broadly applied. Scented candles with names such as “Meditation” and “Sensuality” can be found at the checkout stand of the local market, along with spray bottles of scents designed to set a mood with the pump of an atomizer. The aromatherapy category has also come to include bath salts, shampoos, lotions, potpourris, and much more. The multitude of products is nothing new, though; historically, essential oils have been used in a variety of forms, depending on the culture and new discoveries about aromatherapy.

While a large selection is nice, it may be confusing when you’re just beginning to use aromatherapy. To help you be a wise consumer, we offer a little basic background.

The Discovery

Aromatherapy is a relatively new term, although the practice of using scents to heal is centuries old and crosses many cultural lines. Ancient Egyptians used scents (incense burners have been found in ancient tombs), as did the early Chinese, who employed scents in civil and religious ceremonies. During times of plague, Europeans carried pomanders made of oranges and cloves to mask odors and fend off diseases.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century, however, that the term aromatherapy actually came about. It refers to a specific form of holistic healing that involves carefully ­inhaling or applying herbal essential oils, which are volatile, aromatic plant compounds. René Gatefossé, a French chemist working in the lab of his family’s perfume business during the 1930s, is credited with coining the term. Gatefossé began researching the healing properties of herbal essential oils when he saw his own hand—burned accidentally while working—heal quickly and without scarring after he plunged it into a bowl of diluted lavender oil. In 1937, he published Aromathérapie detailing his research. During World War II, another Frenchman, Jean Valnet, a medical doctor, used essential oils to treat wounded soldiers, and an Austrian biochemist, Marguerite Maury, introduced the use of essential oils with massage techniques.

Today in France, more than 1,500 doctors have been trained in aromatherapy and prescribe essential oils routinely; in England, aromatherapy is used in hospitals to help patients relax and sleep after surgery.

Aromatherapy As A Profession

The aim of trained aromatherapists is to work with the body to promote health, not to provide a “silver bullet” cure. Generally speaking, an aromatherapist assesses both symptoms and an individual’s lifestyle—his or her diet, stresses, personal goals, and fears. From there, the aromatherapist determines which oil or blend of oils is appropriate.





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