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Questions and Answers About Aromatherapy

Questions and Answers About AromatherapyIn the third of our series looking at ‘Alternative Therapies,’ we look at the commonly asked questions about Aromatherapy, and provide answers to help you make informed decisions.

What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants to support and balance the mind, body, and spirit. Aromatherapy refers to the inhalation and topical application of true, authentic essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty and well-being. The field of aromatherapy activity is quite wide, ranging from the deep and penetrating therapeutic actions of essential oils to the extreme subtlety of fragrance on the psyche.

One of the uses of aromatherapy is to strengthen the self-healing processes by preventative methods and indirect stimulation of the immune system. Essential oils (also known as volatile oils) are the basic materials of aromatherapy. They represent the fragrant essences found in many plants.

These essences are made in special plant cells, often under the surface of leaves, bark, or peel, using energy from the sun and elements from the air, soil, and water. If the plant is crushed, the essence and
its unique fragrance are released.

When essences are extracted from plants, they become essential oils. They may be distilled with steam and/or water, or mechanically pressed.

There are many essential oils used in aromatherapy, including those from Roman chamomile, geranium, lavender, tea tree, lemon, ginger, cedarwood, and bergamot. Essential oils are very concentrated. For example, it takes about 220 lbs of lavender flowers to make about 1 pound of essential oil. Essential oils are volatile, evaporating quickly when they are exposed to open air.

What is the history of the discovery and use of aromatherapy as a complementary medicine?
Fragrant plants have been used in healing practices for thousands of years across many cultures, including ancient China, India, and Egypt. Ways to extract essential oils from plants were
first discovered during the Middle Ages.

The history of modern aromatherapy began in the early 20th century, when French chemist Rene Gattefosse coined the term aromatherapy and studied the effects of essential oils on many kinds of diseases. In the 1980s and 1990s, aromatherapy was rediscovered in Western countries as interest in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) began to grow.

How is aromatherapy administered?
Aromatherapy is used in various ways. Examples include:
Indirect inhalation (patient breathes in an essential oil by using a room diffuser or placing drops nearby).
Direct inhalation (patient breathes in an essential oil by using an individual inhaler with drops floated on top of hot water) to treat a sinus headache.

Aromatherapy massage (massaging of one or more essential oils, diluted in a carrier oil, into the skin).
Applying essential oils to the skin by combining them with bath salts, lotions, or dressings.

Aromatherapy is rarely taken by mouth.There are some essential oils commonly chosen to treat specific conditions. However, the types of oils used and the ways they are combined may vary, depending on the experience and training of the aromatherapist. This lack of standard methods has led to some conflicting research on the effects of aromatherapy.

Have any studies been conducted using aromatherapy?
Many studies of essential oils have found that they have antibacterial effects when applied to the skin. Some essential oils have antiviral activity against the herpes simplex virus. Others have antifungal activity against certain infections. In addition, studies have shown that different essential oils can be calming or energizing. One study showed that after essential oils were inhaled, markers of the fragrance compounds were found in the bloodstream, suggesting that aromatherapy affects the body directly like a drug, in addition to indirectly through the central nervous system. When used topically (on the skin), in a suitable dilution, essential oils have a myriad of applications for health, beauty and well-being.

Besides being used in massage and for skin care, they are easily applied as first aid remedies. The anti-inflammatory properties of Helichrysum and German Chamomile make them useful for pain due to local inflammation. The anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties of Tea Tree, Eucalyptus globulus, and Cajeput are helpful for flu and sinusitis prevention and general strengthening of the immune system. Essential oils can be added to many personal care products and integrated into home maintenance chores to enhance the overall environment.

Have any side effects or risks been reported from aromatherapy?
Safety testing on essential oils shows very few side effects or risks when they are used as directed. Some essential oils have been approved as ingredients in food and are classified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, within specific limits. Swallowing large amounts of essential oils is not recommended.

Allergic reactions and skin irritation may occur in aromatherapists or in patients, especially when essential oils are in contact with the skin for long periods of time. Sun sensitivity may develop when citrus or other essential oils are applied to the skin before sun exposure. Lavender and tea tree essential oils have been found to have some hormone-like effects. They have effects similar to estrogen (female sex hormone) and also block or decrease the effect of androgens (male sex hormones).

Is aromatherapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as a cancer treatment in the United States?
Aromatherapy products do not need approval by the Food and Drug Administration because no specific claims are made for the treatment of cancer or other diseases. Aromatherapy is not regulated by state law, and there is no licensing required to practice aromatherapy in the United States. Professionals often combine aromatherapy training with another field in which they are licensed, for example, massage therapy, registered nursing, acupuncture, or naturopathy. Some aromatherapy courses for healthcare providers offer medical credit hours and include conducting research and measuring results.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy ( and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists ( are two organizations that have national educational standards for aromatherapists. There are many schools that offer certificate programs approved
by NAHA.

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