Aromatherapy is a scientiﬁcally unproven alternative medicine practice involving the use of aromatic oils from plants to affect mood or to promote health. The oils are administered in small quantities through inhalation, massage, topical application, bathing in water to which the oils have been added, and/or ingesting them. Aromatherapy has become big business in the United States, with widely available products including bath soaps, candles, pottery, jewelry, moisturizers and other personal products, massage devices, and massage oils, all promising various aromatherapy-related beneﬁts. The makers of most of these products simply claim aesthetic effects: they smell nice and that helps people to feel relaxed and comfortable.
Of concern here is another aspect of the practice, a ﬁeld sometimes referred to as “medical aromatherapy” or “aromatic medicine.” The plant substances, known as essential oils, are alleged by aromatherapy practitioners to contain hormones, antibiotics, and antiseptics, or to act in the same manner as those substances. Some go further and add a spiritual dimension, suggesting that the oils contain and impart the “life force,” “spirit,” or “soul” of the plant. Aromatherapy is presented as a complete medical system that can revitalize cells, strengthen defense mechanisms, and cure the cause of disease.
On the psychological front, oil of bergamot (the added ﬂavor in Earl Grey tea) is said to balance and normalize emotions and ﬁght depression; lavender oil is said to relieve anxiety and promote relaxation; rose oil and sandalwood oil are favored for boosting conﬁdence. There are many more claims, covering a wide range of physical and mental health problems, and some have surfaced in mainstream marketing. In 2001, for example, Johnson & Johnson began national promotion of lavender-scented baby bath soap, with commercials that strongly suggested that the lavender would promote relaxation in a way that other baths would not.
The essential fact which is often absent from essential oil testimonials is a simple one: although pleasant odors of rose and lavender may help a person to relax, and oil of bergamot can help a nice relaxing cup of tea to smell more interesting, there is no scientiﬁc evidence that they can alter the course of any disease or alleviate the symptoms of any psychological disorder. Furthermore, essential oils are not without unpleasant side effects. Some people are allergic to aromatherapy products, and some essential oils used in aromatherapy (including cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, and various peppers) can cause chemical burns. Other oils can cause serious health problems if ingested. Pennyroyal, for example, can cause miscarriage. In the absence of controlled experimental research conﬁrming the health-related effects of essential oils, aromatherapy should be considered a way of adding nice smells to the atmosphere, but nothing more.
- Berwick, A. Holistic Aromatherapy: Balance the Body and Soul with Essential Oils. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1994;
- Feller, R. M. Practical Aromatherapy: Understanding and Using Essential Oils to Heal the Mind and Body. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1997;
- Sweet, C. A. “Scents and Nonsense: Does Aromatherapy Stink?” Priorities for Health (American Council on Science and Health), 9(4) (1997);
- Worwood, V. A. The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: Over 600 Natural, Non-Toxic and Fragrant Recipes to Create Health, Beauty, and a Safe Home Environment. New York: New World Library, 1991.