A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: aromatherapy

16 Feb 2011
Dear Sir,
I’m not sure what the date is on your article about “aromatherapy”, but I would just suggest that you google some of the more well known essential oils and you will find a preponderance of research articles giving evidence to the belief that essentials can heal and why that would be so.

Cinnamon Bark and Cassia for instance have many studies showing their main chemical constituent “cinnamaldehyde” to be a very powerful antibacterial agent.

It seems the food industry and wood industry may be the impetus for these studies, but many are dated back into the 1990’s. In a few of the articles it is stated quite clearly that the “vapors” are what caused the demise of the bacteria, so your beginning statement about aromatherapy on your website just simply isn’t true.

Thank you.

reply: I assume the beginning statement you think isn't true is this one: "The term is a bit misleading, since the aromas of oils, whether natural or synthetic, are generally not themselves therapeutic." From what I've read by aromatherpists and their advocates, I think the statement is true. I don't claim that no vapor can be therapeutic. I even use the example of my own use of vapors in therapy with camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil.

Finding bark or the skins of fruits and vegetables to be toxic against bacteria, fungi, or insects would not be surprising, since they have evolved to provide this function, among other things. I did find one scientific study that found the amount of antibacterial effect in cinnamon bark and cassia is about the same, but I also found another site that reminds readers: "Cinnamon bark oil is irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. Both cinnamon and cassia can cause hypoglycemic attacks in people with diabetes or low blood sugar." I don't think anything I say in my aromatherapy entry precludes belief in the medicinal properties of some vapors.


11 Nov 2002
Hmmmm. It's funny that whenever you need an aromatherapist, there never is one, especially at the scene of a serious road accident. It's very rare in such an event, with blood, snot and severed limbs everywhere, that someone doesn't come charging through offering their services announcing, "Let me through, I'm an aromatherapist."

Cheers, Michael

20 Jul 2000 
I was slightly insulted by your statement that believers or practitioners of aromatherapy would not want to read your article. Id est, people who are involved in aromatherapy are a bunch of unscientific hippy dolts. Or perhaps I read too much into your innocent cynicism. Or skepticism rather. It *is* skepticism, and *not* cynicism you are basing your dictionary on, right? Regardless, I *did* read your article; it's actually one of the first pro/con articles I've read on aromatherapy. Up until now I have only read information on what essential oils are used for what malady or to which desired effect, and the variety of ways in which essential oils can be administered. I am more interested in the skepticism than the testimonials, as is obvious from my choice of reading. Your article has inspired me to attempt to acquire an allocation of funds to research aromatherapy scientifically (id est experiments with control groups, etc). I have my doubts as to how effective a "blind" study would be <GRIN>. Another statement you made that troubled me was in regards to claims made that pharmaceutical companies and the like were the ones with the money and it was not in their best interests to promote aromatherapy (and I would add other alternative healing methods to this as well). You countered this statement by denouncing it as "unscientific whining". I would like to note that slurs are no more scientific than testimonials or conspiracy theories. I was still left with questions: Is it or isn't in their best interests to study aromatherapy? If it is, then why don't they do the research? If it's a fraud, they could disprove it. If it has value, then is it best for them to simply ignore it and hope it goes away? Why couldn't they sell essential oils? Is there a smaller profit there than in pharmaceuticals? Perhaps pharmaceuticals are cheaper to make. There are many questions I would like answered that require scientific research. But aromatherapy works for a great many people, placebo or no. It is amusing that you, a "man of the mind" as it were, might never know the full power of the mind. Life is full of paradox. P.S. sorry for being so long winded...

Bear Palomo-

reply: According to US Business Reporter

Many consumers have chosen alternative forms of medicines as health remedies. These alternative medicines collectively known as herbal medicine supposedly offer faster healing without the after effects of traditional medicines. Some large pharmaceutical manufacturers have capitalized on this trend by producing their own herbal medicinal solutions. Herbal medicines have the added advantage of less government regulation than traditional medicines.

In short, the major pharmaceutical firms are businesses and will go where they think there is good money to be made. Why bother doing research on ginkgo biloba, shark cartilage, donkey hair, rhino horn, etc., when the people who buy it don't care if there is any scientific proof it works?

08 Nov 1999 
Just to let whomever wrote that know that tea tree oil is an antiseptic containing the similar constituents as Eucalyptus oil. This is what caused the "healing" to occur. Although I do not think breathing oils in can be the whole cure to any disease studies do indicate that changes in bio chemistry of the brain do occur with odours and this can have an effect on the mood and emotions. Eucalyptus oil, containing Eucalyptol; basically terpene and cymene is a powerful microbacterialcide. I do not know why this account would be mentioned in an aroma therapy book because it is obvious that the application was topical to the wound and the action was a direct effect of the oil on the site itself, not the breathing in of the volatile oil.

PS I do not practice aroma therapy but do not condone it either for further tests on the power of scent and the effect on brain chemistry needs to be done. Most viable are probable uses for the regulation of serotonin as we know smell causes involuntary reaction like hunger and fear to occur, who is to say it does not effect other emotions as well.

08 Nov 1999 
I use tea tree oil on occasions for treating minor cuts and scratches, and I believe it is effective. It definitely relieves inflammation and soreness, and seems to accelerate healing. Particularly for cold-sores around the mouth, which I am prone to, it is preferable to other over-the-counter preparations I have tried.

I am retired after a career in biomedical research and technology transfer, and am decidedly of the "Doubting Thomas" school regarding "alternative medicine" therapies. For more serious abrasions, I am a firm believer in triple antibiotic ointment. But I do think tea tree oil has some beneficial effect.

I remember reading somewhere that it has identified ingredients which are known to have weak antibiotic activity.

I find your SkepDic page extremely interesting and useful. Keep up the good work.
Larry Bonar

16 Aug 1999
Just reading the "what's new" entry and noticed this statement:

It is interesting that you mention Gattefosse, but you cease to mention his experience with lavender oil when you talk about that oil later on. Gattefosse was badly burned in a laboratory explosion at one point and stuck his burned arm into the nearest vat available to cool the burn. This happened to be a vat of lavender oil and his burns healed without scarring as well as much more quickly than normal.

As I recall, the modern use of ice and other cooling substances happened after anecdotal evidence of a dairy farmer plunging his burned arm into a container of chilled milk. The physical cooling of the burn was the mechanism, and I imagine lavender oil is a somewhat less-effective heat transfer substance than milk, but still adequate to forestall severe tissue damage.

Later on, one of your correspondents, David Ehrensperger, talks of Otto of Rose. Presumably he means attar of rose. These guys can't even get their "facts" straight.
John Renish

24 Apr 1998
I read a few of the entries in your
Skeptic's Dictionary and, since I have worked with essential oils for the last 7 years or so, I decided to read your entry on aromatherapy. While I cannot offer a controlled study, I can offer my own experience. Below, I will list some of your claims and my responses to those claims:

1. "Furthermore, only in some cases of aromatherapy are vapors used. In most cases, the oil is rubbed onto the skin or ingested in a tea or other liquid"

I have not come across these claims at all. Having worked with an aromatherapist and read various materials in the field, I have found the majority of practitioners do recommend inhalation and discourage ingestion (at least in the U.S).

reply: You may be right, but it all depends on what counts as aromatherapy. Some people count cooking with herbs as aromatherapy, in which case, ingestion is typical. What I was trying to emphasize is that though it is called aroma therapy, rubbing on oils or adding them to the bath, etc., are a major part of the practice.

2. "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."

It is interesting that you mention Gattefosse, but you cease to mention his experience with lavender oil when you talk about that oil later on. Gattefosse was badly burned in a laboratory explosion at one point and stuck his burned arm into the nearest vat available to cool the burn. This happened to be a vat of lavender oil and his burns healed without scarring as well as much more quickly than normal.

While I have not gone through anything quite so dramatic, I have burned myself many times in my life, both before and after I discovered lavender oil. I am very much attuned to the way my body heals or does not heal (most people are) and I have found, for minor burns, that lavender oil does wonders. My burned skin has healed at greatly accelerated rates due to lavender oil--much less pain and no scarring. Have you tried this at all? If not, I highly suggest it.

reply: I never denied that rubbing on various natural (and artificial) ointments can assist the healing process. Aromatherapists, however, are prone to such anecdotes in lieu of scientific studies. Testimonials are not scientific evidence. If aromatherapy wants to become scientific, aromatherapists must become scientists.

3. "This kind of post hoc reasoning abounds in the literature of alternative health care. What would be more convincing would be some control studies."

You made this comment in reference to the use of tea tree on an individual's septic finger. Now, I have not had the drama of a septic finger, but I have had several recalcitrant minor infections that have cleared up under application of tea tree. This is direct, personal experience. What do you suggest for a controlled study?

reply: It's not my job to design or do controlled studies for aromatherapeutic claims. It's your job. My job is to evaluate the studies, if and when they are done.

4. "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."

The above comment was made in reference to rose as a cure for frigidity. How much do you use your sense of smell? When working around essential oils, I found that one's smell is keener the more it is exercised. Thus, one's experience with scent is almost entirely subjective.

For example, Otto of Rose is pure and very expensive. To those who have a keen sense of smell, there is nothing else like it in the world and it is worth every penny. The scent is a euphoric experience to be cherished. The quote you provided was this:

"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)"

This makes perfect sense to me since I have been able to experience rose the way to which it is referred above. I have offered this same scent to others only to have them say (to my utter disbelief), "Gee, that smells nice." To me, it is hardly an article of faith, but simply something that is.

Will you grant that some individuals have keener senses of smell than others? If so, call this "scent intelligence" for the sake of argument. It would seem that some individuals have greater "scent intelligence" (or keener senses of smell) than others and, given that, it would follow that those with keener senses of smell would be more able to reap the benefits of aromatherapy--a practice based on scent in many cases (i.e., especially rose). Does this make sense to you? It has been the case in my experience. You are looking for quantified data--how does one quantify this?

reply: Of course, people have different "scent intelligence," as you call it. What needs to be measured is not keenness of sense, but effect on the health of the body. We're not talking perfume here. Or, are we? If so, the whole field is subjective and about all we can hope to measure is the subjective response (attraction, repulsion) to the perfumes.

5. "Of course, one should not forget that aromatherapy is also used to enhance beauty, but I'll leave that topic to others who might wish to examine the role of the placebo effect in New Age healthcare and cosmetology."

What can I say to this one? My experience is directly opposed to what you are saying above. I have seen the effects of essential oils on skin, my own and others', and those effects were hardly what one would call a placebo effect. Your attitude of disbelief might very well be blocking any fair sense of inquiry.

reply: It is precisely the skeptical attitude that is required to do a proper scientific study of these claims.

6. For further reading, you suggest 3 books. 1 is by Stephen Barrett, MD, the 2nd is by Val Lariviere, and the 3rd is about the life of Edward Bach.I have not read any of these, but I would guess that Dr. Barrett already had his mind made up before beginning his exploration of aromatherapy. I can't comment on the book by Val Lariviere and the Bach remedies to which you refer are viewed with skepticism by the aromatherapists I know.

To offer a more balanced selection, you might refer to works by Robert Tisserand, Jeanne Rose, and Christine Wildwood (to name a few). I would be happy to send you specific titles if you like.

Also, try some of this yourself. This does not mean go try something once (especially in the area of scent) and, when it doesn't work given an underdeveloped sense of smell, proclaim loudly to the academic world (and anyone else who will listen) that aromatherapy is all nonsense.

reply: I don't say aromatherapy is all nonsense. I say that it is not clearly defined and that it is not a science. I like nice aromas as much as the next person, and am repulsed by certain odors, including tobacco smoke and certain perfumes that irritate the membranes of my nostrils and are very reminiscent of certain insecticides.

With things like lavender and tea tree (and other things applied the skin), sense of smell will not matter. With Otto of Rose and other inhaled scents, however, you will need to do some work--simply put, it will take time.

To end, I would like to say that I do not find all claims of all aromatherapists to have merit. Some of the claims conflict. Some claims, I have not been able to verify personally. Still other claims have not worked in my experience. For other claims pertaining to essential oils, the jury is still out for me. I approach each claim with a healthy dose of skepticism, waiting for the essential oil to prove its claim to me. More often than not, the oils have proven themselves to me via experience (not through rumor, 2nd hand account, etc.). I suggest you try the same approach.

David Ehrensperger

reply: Unfortunately, I don't have enough money to try the various oils available at my local Co-Op. In any case, this trial and error method of testing hypotheses is very primitive and is not very effective at ruling out confirmation bias and subjective verification, which is why we would like to see a clear definition given of 'aromatherapy' and some controlled studies to test its various empirical claims.

06 May 1998 
Your Skeptic's Dictionary was brought to my attention by a friend and client of mine who was angered to see that you had harsh words about aromatherapy. I have read your article and find that although your sources are legitimate, I don't think you have taken much time to thoroughly investigate the subject. I have been a practicing aromatherapist for 13 years. I also work with herbs and call myself an herbalist.

reply: I gave it as much time as I thought it deserved.

I'd like to raise several points here. 1) There ARE studies done on essential oils. Read Aromatherapy: Scent and Psyche by Peter and Kate Damian and you'll find plenty of them. 2) OK, there are not MANY studies done on essential oils, but WHY? Because the AMA and the pharmaceutical companies have all the money to fund such studies, and it is not in their interest to do so.

reply: Really, where is your proof for this often repeated charge by the pseudoscientific whiners of the world?

 3) It is becoming more and more common for reputable suppliers of essential oils to have all their oils tested using gas chromatography. Generally, NOBODY who has experience with essential oils trusts their nose entirely to figure the relative purity of an oil. They generally have a GC done. 4) European aromatherapists suggest internal use of essential oils. American aromatherapists generally do not. ALL cases of severe toxicity involving essential oils result from internal use. I must agree with your assessment of the Bach flower remedies though. I really think they're bunk personally. I also invite you to visit my Web page: www.kamala.com

I don't give a lot of the scientific information you're looking for on it (I find most of my clients are confused and mystified by it, so I save it for those who ask), but you might take a look at some of the other books I recommend.

Dana M. Gass owner, Kamala Perfumes, Inc.

reply: We wouldn't want to confuse or mystify anyone with scientific information, now. Maybe you could get a job with one of our (Sacramento City College) nursing programs. The head of one of the programs (Rae Woods) said much the same thing to me about twenty years ago when I offered to develop a medical ethics course for nursing students. By the way, this person still heads the program and teaches therapeutic touch to her students. It wouldn't surprise me if she teaches aromatherapy as well.

July 05, 1998
I read with interest you comments on aromatherapy especially those that apply to me. I just want to make a few comments. The article you quoted  from was a short introduction to aromatherapy in a magazine provided free of charge to health food stores. The article was aimed towards people who  are interested in finding out a little bit more about a term they have only  heard about. It wasn't ever intended to be anything more. It was not  intended as a scientific proof for a sophisticated readership. You might  have been better off critiquing works by Valerie Ann Worwood or Jean Valnet  as they are leaders in the field and have a strong research and science base.

reply: You are probably right.

Also I have never called myself (anointed or otherwise) an aromatherapist. I however do use aromatherapy in my practice with quite beneficial results. If it didn't work, I wouldn't use it.

reply: As I understand it, your business is called Gateway Aromatherapy and you practice a "healing art" which uses essential oils, among other things. And you say you use aromatherapy. Why would you object to being called an aromatherapist?

I would also recommend that you place the Bach Flower critique  separately  since Bach flower remedies are not nor have they ever been part of  Aromatherapy. They are flower essence therapy, taken internally, created differently for rather different purposes.

reply: This is a good suggestion and I plan to move the Bach Flower stuff to its own entry.

I think skepticism is healthy but I think you need to have a rather  large  knowledge base for a critique. And that knowledge base should probably  involve the best that a field has to offer rather than a one page, extremely general article on a topic. But hey, thanks for thinking of me.
Val Lariviere

reply: As you know, I selected one quote from your essay and noted that it was typical of the kind of non-testable claims made by aromatherapists. What is "balance," "imbalance," "the centre," etc.? These are not empirical terms referring to observable, measurable qualities. They are subjective evaluations. Subjective validation is typical of most pseudosciences.

larrow.gif (1051 bytes) aromatherapy


All Reader Comments


© Copyright 1994-2012 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.