Aromatic plants and oils have been used for thousands of years, as incense, perfumes and cosmetics; and for medical and culinary applications. Natural aromatics and perfume materials were among the earliest trade items of the ancient world, being rare and highly prized.

When the Jewish people began their exodus from Egypt to Israel around 1240 BCE, they took many gums and oils with them, together with knowledge of their use. In most early cultures the religious and therapeutic roles of aromatic oils were intertwined

History of Aromatherapy

Phoenician merchants brought camphor from China, cinnamon from Indian, gums from Arabia, and rose from Syria to the civilizations of Greece and Rome. The Greeks learned about perfumery and natural therapeutics from the Egyptians.

The Romans were lavish in their use of perfumes, which they used on their hair, bodies, clothes, and beds, and for massage. Roman knowledge of oils spread to Constantinople, where great works were translated into Persian and Arabic and passed on through the Arab world

The perfumes of Arabia spread to Europe at the time of the crusades and became famous throughout Europe. Gradually, the Europeans began to experiment with their own native herbs, such as lavender, sage, and rosemary, which were used for strewing floors and as protection against plague and other infections

Distillation, used to produce pure essential oils and aromatic water, was employed in the practice of alchemy, the hermetic pursuit dedicated to the transformation of base metals into gold, a religious quest in which the stages of distillation were equated with stages of an inner psychic transmutation

Scientific Revolution

For many centuries, aromatic materials were the main protection against epidemics. The medicinal properties and applications of increasing numbers of new essential oils were analysed and recorded by the pharmacists. With the scientific revolution of the early nineteenth century, chemists were able to identify the various constituents of the oils and give them specific names. This laid the groundwork for the development of the oils’ synthetic counterparts and the growth of the modern drug industry. By the mid twentieth century, essential oils were used only in perfumes, cosmetics and foods

Birth of Aromatherapy

The term ‘Aromatherapy’ was first coined in 1928 by Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a French Chemist working in his family’s perfumery business. He became fascinated with the therapeutic possibilities of the oils after discovering by accident that lavender was able to heal a severe burn on his hand quite rapidly and help prevent scarring. He also confirmed the discoveries made by Cuthbert Hall in 1904, that many of the essential oils were more effective in their totality than their synthetic substitutes or their isolated active ingredients

In 1964, French doctor and scientist Dr Jean Valnet used essential oils as part of a programme by which he successfully treated specific medical and psychiatric disorders, the results of which were published in the book ‘Aromatherapie’

The work of Valnet was studied by Madame Marguerite Maury, who applied his research to her beauty therapy, in which she attempted to revitalise her clients by creating a strictly personal aromatic complex that she tried to adapt to the temperament and particular health problems of each subject

Therapeutic uses

  • Skin problems are often the surface manifestation of deeper conditions, such as build up of toxins in the blood, hormonal imbalance, or nervous and emotional difficulties. Versatile essential oils are able to combat such complaints on a variety of levels. Essential oils are an ideal ingredient for cosmetics and skin care as well as for the treatment of specific diseases
  • Circulation, muscles and joints: Essential oils are easily absorbed via the skin and mucosa into the bloodstream, affecting the nature of the circulation as a whole. Oils with a rubefacient or warming effect, such as black pepper, camphor, and sweet marjoram, give better local blood circulation and influence the inner organs. They bring a warmth and glow to the surface of the skin and can provide considerable pain relief through their analgesic or numbing effect
  • Respiratory System. Nose, throat and lung infections are conditions that respond very well to treatment with essential oils. Inhalation is a very effective way of utilizing their properties
  • The Digestive System – Although it is not recommended that essential oils be taken orally, they can effect certain changes in the digestive processes by external application
  • Genitourinary/endocrine systems – The reproductive system can be affected by absorption via the skin into the bloodstream, as well as through hormonal changes. Some essential oils such as rose and jasmine have an affinity for the reproductive system. They have a strengthening effect and help to combat specific complaints such as menstrual problems, genital infections
  • The immune system – Virtually all essential oils have bactericidal properties, and by promoting the production of white blood cells they can help prevent and treat infectious illness. It is these properties that gave aromatic herbs and oils such high repute with regard to infections such as malaria and typhoid in the tropics and epidemics of plague in the Middle Ages. People who use essential oils all the time mostly have a high level of resistance to illness, catching fewer colds than average and recovering quickly
  • The Nervous system – Properties of many oils correspond to the traditionally held views: chamomile, bergamot, and sandalwood were found to have a sedative effect on the central nervous system; jasmine and clove were stimulating. Some oils are known to be adaptogens, having a balancing or normalizing effect on the systems of the body
  • The Mind – This is perhaps the most discussed and yet least understood area of activity regarding essential oils. There is no doubt that throughout history, aromatic oils have been used for their power to influence the emotions and states of mind