The Power of Aromatherapy

The Power of Aromatherapy
by Rob Gilbert

As the cost of health care skyrockets, Americans are increasingly turning to alternative medicine, including herbal remedies like Aromatherapy. Most people are aware of Aromatherapy, but there are many misconceptions about the science behind it and the role that Aromatherapists play in selecting the most effective herbal extracts. The idea of inhaling fragrant oils extracted from plants and trees to treat a medical condition may seem unscientific to many, but the power of Aromatherapy comes from its connection to herbal medicine, which is increasingly finding its way into mainstream culture.

In the U.S., large pharmaceutical companies dominate the over-the-counter and prescription drug markets, but public acceptance of alternative medicine, including Aromatherapy, is growing. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 31,000 adults involved in the study, 36 percent said they had used some form of alternative or complementary medicine.

While the popularity of herbal medicine is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., Aromatherapy dates back centuries and its use is widespread in Europe and Asia. The term “Aromatherapy” traces its roots back to 1937, when a French chemist named Rene’ Maurice Gattefosse, burned his hand during one of his experiments and applied the nearest available liquid, lavender oil, to the burn. The oil eased the pain and Gattefosse began to experiment with other plant oils to discover their properties and medicinal potential.

The essential oils used in aromatherapy are believed to contain therapeutic properties that may offer an alternative to synthetically manufactured pharmaceuticals. According to the spokesperson for the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), Kelly Holland Azzaro, RA, CCAP, LMBT, “Essential oils have specific chemical compositions, giving them their unique scent as well as therapeutic properties. Once an Aromatherapist studies the chemistry aspect, this added dimension is another tool for the Aromatherapist when choosing specific oils.”

Aromatherapy typically involves the controlled application to the skin or inhalation of aromatic essential oils derived from plants, flowers, and wood resins. The fragrant oils are absorbed by the body and interact with the olfactory system to achieve the desired effect. Aromatic essential oils are commonly applied directly to the skin during a massage, with the oil being absorbed into the body through the skin. “With essential oils, it is the chemical composition of the oil that gives it its therapeutic effect,” says Holland Azzaro.

The plant oils used in Aromatherapy differ from pharmaceutical medicines in that they use the whole plant and not just a single active ingredient. Practitioners of Aromatherapy believe that aromatic plants work holistically and are safest and most effective in their natural state, contrasting with the pharmaceutical approach of isolating an active ingredient and concentrating the dosage.

The U.S. government classifies plant oils used in Aromatherapy as Dietary Supplements, which are regulated by the Dietary Supplement and Health and Education Act of 1994. The Act exempted Dietary Supplements from the pre-market safety evaluations required of other food ingredients.

In 1962, Congress passed a law requiring that drugs be proven effective before they could be sold to the public. Economic and regulatory factors account for the major drug companies’ disregard for research into Aromatherapy. According to drug industry estimates, FDA approval of a new drug can take from 5 to 12 years with costs into the hundreds of millions. The cost of research into the safety and effectiveness of drugs compels the major pharmaceutical companies to focus their attention on medicine that they can patent, which allows them to recoup their investment in research. Because plant extracts in their natural state cannot be patented, companies are reluctant to spend research money on herbal remedies, including Aromatherapy.

While the looser regulatory environment made it easier to bring new purported herbal remedies and supplements to market, some question the safety and quality of the products now available. The lack of standard dosages and weaker quality control measures, some fear, threaten the safety of consumers of herbal products. The most serious risk can be an herb’s reaction with other medications. Those taking prescription or over-the-counter medicine should consult their doctor before experimenting with herbal medicine.

The essential oils used in Aromatherapy can be applied in many forms, including ointment, tea, tincture, compress, or poultice. Aromatherapists often blend essential oils into a compound that can be used as an oil or spray. Some scents can conjure up pleasant memories, which might explain some of the perceived effects of Aromatherapy. Consistent with their holistic approach, practitioners believe Aromatherapy promotes physical, mental, and spiritual health.

The science behind Aromatherapy, as with other forms of alternative medicine, involves some subjectivity. Inconsistent distillation of the plant oils explains part of the difficulty of obtaining consistent and reliable research in this area. For Aromatherapy to be safe and effective, you must use quality essential oils, which can be quite expensive. Fortunately, due to their concentrated nature, effects can be achieved using only a small amount of an essential oil.

The subjective element makes it difficult for researchers to explain Aromatherapy’s perceived therapeutic characteristics. A given olfactory sensation might trigger a positive response in one person, while another person may have no reaction to the same scent.

Essential oils can be obtained directly from an Aromatherapist, health food stores, through various distributors, holistic medicine practitioners, massage therapists, and, of course, on the internet. Maryanne Gilbert, a massage therapist in Golden, uses Aromatherapy blends in her massage oils to personalize the massage experience. Gilbert explains, “If a client arrives for a massage after a stressful day, I’ll add a little lavender to the massage oil and the client will begin to relax and calm down almost immediately.” More information can be obtained through her website or her massage studio at (720) 988-6980.

Licensing requirements for Aromatherapists vary by state. Aromatherapists can become Registered Aromatherapists (R.A.) by passing a test administered by The Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC). More information about the R.A. credential can be found at Explains Holland Azarro, “Some Aromatherapists only work with Aromatherapy, in which they offer consultation and teach the uses of essential oils, and some will also consult with larger companies about formulations for a line of products. It is a wonderful and diverse group of people that can be found throughout the Aromatherapy industry.”

Laraine Kyle, RN, MSN, CMT, with the Institute of Integrative Aromatherapy in Boulder, Colorado, can provide the names of local Aromatherapists and additional information on Aromatherapy at or Kyle, a noted authority on Aromatherapy, has developed an herbal mosquito repellent she describes as ten times more effective than DEET. More information about Aromatherapy, as well as Kyle’s mosquito repellent, can be obtained by contacting the Institute of Integrative Aromatherapy at (303) 545-2002.

Rob Gilbert co-owns with his wife Health & Harmony Massage, LLC located in historic downtown Golden. Rob creates and sells aromatherapy blends for Health & Harmony Massage. He most recently blended an energizing aromatherapy spray he calls Gettyup! which he uses during his “day job” as a paralegal. Rob can be contacted via email at or phone 720-988-6980.