What is aromatherapy? Did you know that this very question causes major debates? There are a whole bunch of words and terms tossed about: aromatology, aromachology, aromatherapy, holistic aromatherapy, psychoaromatherapy. Seriously, it’s still a little daunting for me and I’m a pro. So, what exactly is aromatherapy?
For most people who are new to aromatherapy, they conjure up images of candles or bath salts. Maybe they picture a scene with a woman in a bathtub, surrounded by things that smell good. Well, that might be part of it, but it definitely does not cover it.
Aromatherapy has a vast number of definitions, even amongst some aromatherapists. Some definitions, such as the one contained in The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which defines aromatherapy as “the use of aromatic plant extracts and essential oils in massage and other treatment”, seem to be overly restrictive and do not fully embody modern aromatherapy. According to Jane Buckle, author of our Clinical Aromatherapy textbook, aromatherapy is a misnomer because it is not just about smells and massage.
The Sense of Smell Institute (SSI) recognizes aromatherapy as “the therapeutic effects of aromas on physical conditions as well as psychological conditions”. This definition is much more inclusive and allows us to break aromatherapy into several subdisciplines, as described by Başer. Aromatherapy is the more generic and overarching term, which will include: aromatherapy, aromatology, and aromachology.
Aromatology, a subdiscipline of aromatherapy, is concerned with the internal usage of essential oils. The method of internal consumption is not as important as the effects of the chemicals. This is usually overseen by doctors or herbalists and is traditionally quite common throughout much of Europe.
Aromachology is closely aligned with psychology since it is concerned with the impact of smells on feelings. It is also referred to as psychoaromatherapy and aims to study the impact of aromas on endorphins and the limbic system. (Buckle, 2003)
The term “holistic aromatherapy” seems to refer to an approach that considers that patient as a whole and aims to treat them as such. This is a practice undertaken by many nurses in the U.K. who have begun to embrace complementary modalities in their healthcare practices. This term most closely describes what I, as a student, envision aromatherapy to be.
Now, you may still be wondering how aromatherapy works. There are a couple of different ways that the essential oils cause therapeutic actions within the body. Oils can be applied topically to the skin, with somewhere around 20-75% of the oil absorbed by the skin. It varies greatly by atomic weight of the oil but it is pretty straightforward. The oils either treat a topical issue or treat an internal issue once they have gotten into the bloodstream. Oils are sometimes ingested. This is also a pretty simple concept. The final way that oils work their magic is through inhalation. This is pretty complex so if you want to learn more, check out How the Sense of Smell Works.
Before we conclude this topic, I need to make an important point. Essential oils are the key to aromatherapy. Essential oils are one of the many chemical constituents that come from plants. Plants used medicinally, whether the whole plant, or just particular chemical compounds (i.e., volatile oils), are considered to be herbs. This means that by that definition, aromatherapy, a very powerful modality, could be considered a subset of herbal medicine, which is a far older discipline. I make this distinction here because many herbalists are unfamiliar with aromatherapy because it is a “newer” discipline with less research and historical documentation. Many aromatherapists are unfamiliar with herbs and don’t realize understand the connection to the plant or that there are times when one approach is better than the other. For me, they are the same thing. Organic chemical substances that have a biochemical effect on the anatomy, physiology, or psyche of humans. It’s science.
Başer, K. H., & Buchbauer, G. (2010).Handbook of essential oils: science, technology, and applications. Boca Raton: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis.
Buckle, J. (2003). Clinical aromatherapy: essential oils in practice (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone.