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Aromatherapy is a term coined by French chemist René Maurice Gattefossé in the 1920's to describe the practice of using essential oils taken from plants, flowers, roots, seeds, etc., in healing. The term is a bit misleading, since the aromas of oils, whether natural or synthetic, are generally not themselves therapeutic. Aromas are used to identify the oils, to determine adulteration, and to stir the memory, but not to directly bring about a cure or healing. It is the "essence" of the oil--its chemical properties--that gives it whatever therapeutic value the oil might have. Furthermore, vapors are used in some but not all cases of aromatherapy. In most cases, the oil is rubbed onto the skin or ingested in a tea or other liquid. Some aromatherapists even consider cooking with herbs a type of aromatherapy.
The healing power of essential oils is the main attraction in aromatherapy. It is also the main question for the skeptic. There is very little evidence for all the claims made by aromatherapists regarding the various healing properties of oils. Most of the support for the healing power of such substances as tea tree oil is in the form of anecdotes such as the following:
In the plane on my way to India [from Europe] a few years ago, my index finger began throbbing violently. A rose thorn had lodged in it two days before, as I pruned my roses. It was now turning septic. I straight away applied tea tree oil undiluted to the finger. By the time I arrived in Bangalore, the swelling had almost gone and the throbbing had stopped (Daniele Ryman, Aromatherapy).
Professor Tomas Riley of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Washington has published a paper in [blah blah scientific journal] which demonstrates that tea tree oil kills many bacteria present in common infections, including some staphylococci and streptococci.*
When references are made to other aromatherapists, they are usually of the following type:
Marguerite Maury prescribed rose for frigidity, ascribing aphrodisiac properties to it. She also considered rose a great tonic for women who were suffering from depression (Daniele Ryman, Aromatherapy, p, 205).
Such testimonials are never met with skepticism or even curiosity as to what evidence there is for them. They are just passed on as if they were articles of faith.
Besides personal experience, the only kind of research aromatherapists seem interested in is in reading what other aromatherapists have said or believed about plants or oils. The practitioners and salespersons of aromatherapeutic products seem singularly uninterested in scientific testing of their claims, many of which are empirical and could be easily tested. Of course, there are many aromatherapists who make non-testable claims, such as claims regarding how certain oils will affect their "subtle body," bring balance to their chakra, restore harmony to their energy flow, return one to one's center, or contribute to spiritual growth. Aromatherapy is said to restore or enhance mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual health. Such claims are essentially non-testable. They are part of New Age mythology and can't really engender any meaningful discussion or debate.
When aromatherapists get into professional debates about empirical matters it is generally over such matters as whether natural oils are superior to synthetic ones, though even here references to scientific studies of the issue are sought in vain. The way aromatherapist Daniele Ryman, a defender of natural oils, treats the subject of "lavender" is typical. In her book, Aromatherapy, she gives some botanical and historical information about the plant, including a claim by Matthiole, a 16th century botanist, that lavender is a panacea which can cure epilepsy, apoplexy, and mental problems. She tells us that the principal constituents of lavender are alcohols such as borneol, geraniol, and linalool; esters such as geranyle and linalyl; and terpents such as pinene and limonene. Lavender also contains a high percentage of phenol, a strong antiseptic and antibiotic. She also notes that while many essential oils are very toxic, lavender is one of the least toxic of all oils. Then she tells us that lavender is "the oil most associated with burns and healing of the skin." She says lavender is "very effective in treating cystitis, vaginitis, and leucorrhea." Furthermore, as an herbal tea, lavender "is also good as a morning tonic for convalescents, as a digestive after meals, for rheumatic conditions, and at the first appearance of a cold or flu." To prevent varicose veins, Ryman advises that you "massage the legs with an oil consisting of 3 drops cypress oil, 2 drops each of lavender and lemon oil, and 1 ounce of soy oil" (p. 143). Nowhere does she give any indication that anyone anywhere has done any control studies with lavender to test any of these claims. Now, it's true that expressions such as 'very effective' and 'is good' are not very precise, but they are not complete weaslers like 'helps' (which is what she says lavender in your bath will do for cellulite). And 'most associated' with burns doesn't actually say that it will do any good for burns. Still, I think these claims can be made precise enough to test, though I doubt if Ryman or most other aromatherapists have any interest in doing such tests.
For some reason, Ryman doesn't say much about lavender's use to reduce stress in her chapter on lavender. However, in a section on "Insomnia" she says that "lavender is a gentle narcotic, recommended for mental and physical strain." There has been a study done, not mentioned by Ryman, which compared the effects on intensive care patients of aromatherapy using lavender, massage therapy and rest. The study concluded that rest was best (Dunn).
I would not reject aromatherapy out of hand, however. When I have a cold and a stuffy nose, I'll use Vicks VapoRub, a mixture of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil. Strictly speaking, I suppose I am a practicing aromatherapist. However, when I look at what people who call themselves aromatherapists claim, I have to conclude that aromatherapy is a mostly a pseudoscientific alternative medical therapy. It is a mixture of folklore, trial and error, anecdote, testimonial, New Age spiritualism, and fantasy. What aromatherapy lacks is a knack for sniffing out non-sense.
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books and articles
Dunn, C. et al. "Sensing an improvement: an experimental study to evaluate the use of aromatherapy, massage and periods of rest in an intensive care unit," Journal of Advanced Nursing, 21, 1995, pp 34-40.
McCutcheon, Lynn. "What's That I Smell? The Claims of Aromatherapy," Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 1996.
Aromatherapy: Making Dollars out of Scents by Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Scents and Nonsense: Does Aromatherapy Stink? by Cheryl A. Sweet