Aromatherapy – History and modern use of essential oils

Aromatherapy – Aromatic herbs have been the domain of perfumers, alchemists, physicians, chemists, priests, royalty and gods since ancient times. Detailed Babylonian import orders (c.1800B.C.) for a variety of aromatics including cypress, cedarwood and myrrh were inscribed on clay tablets. One of Egypt’ s more lavish Pharaohs, Ramses III, once offered 246 measures and 86 bundles of cinnamon, and 3,036 logs on another occasion, for a petition to one of his Deities. The act of distillation was being practised in ancient Turkey, Persia and India and stills were being used in the foothills of the Himalayas as far back as 3,000 BC. In more recent times, Elizabeth I would surely have used aromatics in her annual bath which she proudly had, ‘whether she needed to or no’. (sic)

The Romans gained their knowledge from the Greeks and the Greeks learned from the Egyptians who had been preparing aromatic infusions for more than 5,000 years. The Egyptians held scents in high regard and utilised them in medicine, food preservation, cosmetics, cooking and religion. The earliest recorded recipe for deodorant can be found in the Papyrus Ebers of 1,500 BC and there are recorded incidents of essences being used in the treatment of manias, depression and nervous disorders. The principles of aromatherapy even played a part in the building of towns when a town commissioned by Akhenaton, who is probably more famous for his marriage to Nefertiti, was built with large spaces for the burning of herbs to keep the air germ free.

As Egypt grew strong, it’s rulers imported exotic scents as a sign of economic and political might. They imported frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh and cinnamon as tribute from conquered peoples and with trading partners, these treasures were sometimes exchanged for gold. Perfumery was closely linked with religion and each God and Goddess was allotted a fragrance. Statues were anointed with secret formulations made by Priests and used for such a variety of times as prayer, healing, war and love.

In Babylon, perfumed mortar was used to build temples and in India, temples were built of sandalwood to maintain an aromatic atmosphere. This link with aromatics and the spirit was also fostered by the Greeks who prized scents so highly because they were a direct gift from the Gods. Their afterworld was Elysium and the air was eternally sweet with the smell of perfumed rivers.

The Greeks visited the Nile Valley, which came to be known as the Cradle of Medicine, in 500B.C. and upon returning to their homeland, established a medical school on the Island of Cos. Here, the combined knowledge of Greek and Egyptian experience was indexed and classified and a variety of influential works served to promote and further the uses for aromatic substances. The school’s most famous graduate, Hippocrates, recommended a daily bath and massage with essential oils as the basis for a sound health regime. Another Greek physician, Megallus, formulated an aromatic remedy to which he gave the subtle name Megaleon. To make it, cinnamon, myrrh and charred frankincense were soaked in ‘Oil of Balanos’ and it quickly gained fame for healing wounds and reducing inflammation. Wine-based oils were popularly used for anointing the forehead with perfumed unguents. Perfumes were also inhaled to heal specific complaints. Quince or white violet eased stomach discomfort, grape-leaf cleared the head and rose helped headaches.

Dioscordes wrote a treatus with references to over 500 medicinal plants called De Materia Medica which was later translated into a variety of languages and went on to influence the Roman herbalist Galen (c.30A.D.) who wrote the Western world’s standard medical reference for more than 1,500 years. Concerning Odours was a treatus on scent written by Theophrastus in which he discussed how aromatics were processed and linked to thought and emotions.

There is no doubt, however, that the hedonistic and inspired Romans took the use of scents to new heights. In Nero’s palace, silver spice-filled pipes perfumed the guests as they were entertained. Perfumed earthenware cups were especially popular and over 1,000 fragrant watering spots were scattered around the city. Aromatics were to become so popular, that a special edict was declared in 30A.D. that forbade the personal use of exotic scents as the supplies for use on ritual altars were growing scarce. Later, when the seat of learning moved east from Rome to Constantinople, perfumed arts maintained their popularity.

It is thought that the Arabs were the first to distil ethyl alcohol from fermented sugar. This provided a solvent other than oils and waxes for infusions, and such popular luxuries as floral waters followed. Much of the demand for these products was from export markets. Ibn Sina, a Persian physician more commonly referred to as Avicenna, was the author of over 100 books, some of which were influential in Europe until the sixteenth century. In the 10th century AD, he improved the process of distillation when he introduced an extended cooling pipe to the still. This addition allowed the plant and steam molecules to cool faster so more solvent could be made. Many new medicines and ointments were brought from the east during the Crusades and many of today’s surviving herbals, whose contents included recipes for the use and manufacture of essential oils, were written during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Essential oils are usually extracted by steam distillation. The oil giving part of the plant is placed inside a stainless steel vat and extreme pressure from the steam around the vat breaks down the plant material and releases the essential oil from the plant cells. When cooled, the oils separate naturally from the water. The residual water is used for cosmetics or skin care and is known as ‘floral water’. Aromatic waters were popular for centuries and even used by the Bible’s chaste Susannah of Babylon, who bathed in orange floral water. The height of their popularity in sixteenth century France saw many varieties, including Carmelite Water made by Carmelite nuns and containing Melissa, promoted for their health benefits. Aromatic plants were becoming an popular part of European life and monasteries were increasingly known to cultivate medicinal herbs.

During the The Plague of the 14th century, over eighty million people across Europe died within the space of a few years. Again aromatics were turned to for help. Frankincense and pine scented candles and garlands of aromatic herbs were burned in European streets to cover the stench of death and help disinfect the air..Later during the sixteenth century Bubonic Plague, doctors walked the streets wearing huge hats with large ‘beaks’ attached. Aromatic herbs were placed in the ‘beaks’ to purify the air for breathing and long open-ended canes also filled with herbs were carried. They waved the canes in front of them as they walked for extra security. Aroma and health were firmly linked as perfumed air was deemed not only pleasurable, but antiseptic.

Fifteenth century physician and alchemist Paracelsus said alchemy’s role was developing medicines and extracts from healing plants. He believed distillation released the most desirable part of the plant and by 1700, essential oils were utilised in mainstream medicine. The advent of chemistry and chemical synthesis, however, saw their steady decline. It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that aromatics regained their lost favour. The history of modern aromatherapy is a short one, but this history is inextricably woven into the more general history of plants and their extracts, compounds and essential oils.

The quality of essential oils relies on the growing conditions of the plant, soil, weather conditions and the timing of harvest. All influence the fragrance, colour and potency. This century’s noted aromatherapist and physician, Dr. Jean Valnet, observed they must be dried and preserved skilfully to keep their power intact and used with discrimination. Through scientific research and analysis he helped to substantiate the reputed benefits of essential oils .

Essential oils can be distinguished from fatty oils because they can be volatised by heat and will evaporate. Fatty oils will stain paper permanently, but the stain is temporary with essential oils. Essences are soluble in alcohol, ether and fixed oils. They are not soluble in water, even though they donate some of their scent to their aqueous surrounds. Their boiling points are varied and reach between 160° C and 240° C. Many of their secrets have been discovered in the last century, there is still much to learn and Dr. Taylor of the University of Austin, Texas mused that more new compounds of essences are presented to the world’s chemists than they could possibly analyse in a thousand years.

The rigidity of nineteenth century science turned its back on naturally derived substances in favour of those born in the laboratory. It was thought better to synthesise the active therapeutic properties of a plant to provide not only a uniform standard, but a cheaper cost as well. When synthesised, however, these products can be toxic to some and not as powerful as the originals they emulate. M. Huerre in 1919 was to clearly state:

“It is not enough to place side by side the principal chemical elements which analysis shows to be present in a particular vegetable essence, in order to obtain a product which, therapeutically speaking, is as active as that of the natural essence.”

The term ‘aromatherapie’ was first coined by the French biochemist Reneé-Maurice Gattefossé in 1937. He is thought to have become an advocate after burning his arm during a laboratory experiment. Upon burning his arm, he plunged it into the nearest tub of cold liquid. The tub was full of lavender oil, and not only did he find relief from the pain, but the wound healed at an astonishing rate and Gattefossé went on to study the properties of essences for the rest of his life. He theorised that essential oils can be passed from the skin to the body’s internal organs because the skin is connected to the brain and nervous system. He also classified the various effects of essential oils on the digestive system, the metabolism, the nervous system and the endocrine glands.

In the late 1950s, Marguerite Maury began studying essential oils and how they could be used to penetrate the skin for the maintenance of health and beauty. She also developed the methods of massage aromatherapists still use today. For much of this century, aromatherapy has been the domain of the beauty industry while remaining an outcast in the medical community. It is only recently that oils have once again been selected to meet the needs of the individual for healing. Until recently, beauticians were given a pre-packaged mixture by the oil manufacturers, and had no part in the mixing of the oils or their potency.

Each essential oil has a localised action. For example, the supnarenal glands are stimulated by savory, the central nervous system by lavender, thyme and aspic, the intestines are treated by cinnamon, cloves and rosemary, the lungs by niaouli, eucalyptus and pine and the urinary stem by juniper and sandalwood. Oils act as natural balancers, or adaptogens, which will instigate reactions in the body so a state of homeostasis is achieved. Adaptogens are interesting because they are swingers. Hyssop acts to normalise either high or low blood pressure, peppermint is both relaxant and stimulant depending on the dosage and what it’s mixed with, and lemon will act on the autonomic nervous system as either a tonic or sedative, depending on what is required.

Essential oils usually enter the body through the nose and the skin and leave the body in the same way as other things we excrete – through the skin, breath, faeces and urine. Upon inhalation, tiny particles are taken to the roof of the nose and up behind the eyes. This is where the olfactory system is, and where we register emotions, sexual feelings, memory and learning. The olfactory system is attached to the limbic system which links the left and right brain and the voluntary and involuntary nervous centres. Cilia around the olfactory bulbs transmit ‘messages’ which are encoded and sent around the body. Through massage, oils are absorbed through the skin. Although it is recognised that essential oils can affect the lipids of a cell membrane, hormone levels and inhibit bacterial growth, no-one seems to know just exactly how they work.

When the combination is more than the sum of the parts, this is a synergistic effect. Synergistic blends contain two or more oils mixed in such a way as to produce a chemical compound different to the component parts. They are powerful acting and direct and contain a vibrancy not otherwise attainable with just one oil. Proportions should be correct, however, and it is sometimes important to mix more than needed because a component part diluted in carrier oil may be only 0.001 of the whole, but that thousandth is vital to the whole.

Aromatherapy is a complementary natural therapy. It embraces the notion of life force, whole organic food, good air and healthy lifestyle. Massage oils, poultices, steam inhalations, sitz, hand, body and foot baths, gargles and room sprays are the most common methods of administration. Aromatherapy incorporates yin and yang, reflexology, shiatsu, pressure points, vibrational healing, colour therapy, crystals and meditation. It is a universal and abundant therapy that revitalises the mind, body and spirit.

Essential oils are categorised by species, chemical constituents and effect. They are divided into three ‘notes’ – top, middle and base – in a similar way to the ingredients of perfume. Top notes are uplifting and refreshing, middle notes affect body systems and the general metabolism and base notes are sedating. They are mixed with a variety of carrier oils for massage, each with its own additional therapeutic value. The general rules are as follows:

Minimum-maximum drops of essential oil Into millilitres of base oil

0-1 drop 1

2-5 drops 5

4-10 drops 10

6-15 drops 15

8-20 drops 20 5 ml = 1 teaspoon

10-25 drops 25 10 ml = 1 dessertspoon

12-30 drops 30 15 ml = 1 tablespoon

Like any therapeutic tool, essential oils must be used with caution and respect. Basil, clary sage, juniper, rosemary, marjoram, fennel, clove bud, cypress, peppermint, cedarwood and lemongrass should be avoided during pregnancy because they may induce menstruation or have diuretic properties which would deplete fluid in the foetal sac. The citrus oils can cause skin photosenstisation to the sun’s ultraviolet rays and exposure to the sun should be restricted for no less than four hours after using such oils. People with high blood pressure, epilepsy, neural disorders or kidney disease need to be especially careful as oils like cypress, rosemary, jumiper and black pepper as they may aggravate their conditions. Oils should never be used undiluted on the skin and never contact the eyes or sensitive parts of the body as they can cause redness and burning. An unfortunate friend of mine once went crazy with a bottle of orange oil in the bath and suffered mild burns on her legs. If a stinging sensation, inflammation or burning does occur, apply a lot of carrier oil immediately. This will help to disperse the essential oils.

Aromatherapy has been involved in a marketing frenzy in the last couple of years. The therapeutic value of essential oils have extended from beauty lotions, bath oils and soaps to aromatic colour therapy, insect repellents, house cleaners and ready made bath and vaporiser treatments. Essential oils are available just about everywhere.

It wasn’t until the middle of last year that I really began to understand just how powerful essential oils could be. A particularly nasty bout of cystitis last year left me huddled up, crying my eyes out and in so much pain I was unable to leave the house. I felt I had no choice but to test out my essential oils once and for all because I wanted relief A.S.A.P. I had lavender sitz baths every time I went to the bathroom, drank an awful lot of water and rubbed 1 drop of sandalwood mixed in a teaspoon of sweet almond oil four times daily on my kidneys for ten days. The effects were profound. Not only did the incredible pain cease within a few hours, but it was almost as though the oils were comforting my body. With antibiotics I had felt almost a ‘push-me-pull-you’ bodily reaction that can best be described as feeling like my body was at war. I was comforted on both the physiological and emotional levels and have used essential oils to treat myself ever since.

I think essential oils are one of nature’s most generous gifts. They soothe and heal and can take away a furrowed brow consumed with worry. Essential oils make us healthy, beautiful, strong and calm.

Table 1. Carrier Oils





Base Oil

Sweet Almond Oil

(from the kernel)

very pale yellow

glucosides, minerals, vitamins, rich in protein

good for all skin types, helps relieve itching, soreness, dryness and inflammation

can be used as a base oil, 100 per cent

Apricot Kernel Oil

(from the kernel)

pale yellow

minerals and vitamins

all skins, especially prematurely aged, sensitive, inflamed and dry

can be used as a base oil, 100 per cent

Avocado Pear Oil

(from the fruit)

dark green

vitamins, protein, lecithin, fatty acids

all skins, especially dry and dehydrated, eczema

use as an addition to a base oil, 10 per cent dilution

Borage Seed Oil

(from the seeds)

pale yellow

gamma linolenic acid, vitamins, minerals

PMT, multiple sclerosis, menopausal problems, heart disease, psoriasis and eczema,prematurely aged skin

use a 10 per cent dilution

Carrot Oil

(an essential oil in its own right, but often used in bases)


vitamins, minerals, beta-carotin

premature ageing, itching, dryness, psoriasis and eczema, reduces scarring

use a 10 per cent dilution – DO NOT use undiluted on skin

Corn Oil

pale yellow

protein, vitamins, minerals

soothing on all skins

can be used 100 per cent

Evening Primrose Oil

pale yellow

gamma linolenic acid, vitamins, minerals

PMT, multiple sclerosis, menopausal problems, heart disease, psoriasis and eczema

use as 10 per cent

Grapeseed Oil

almost colourless, pale green

vitamins, minerals, protein

all skins

can be used as 100 per cent

Hazelnut Oil

(from the kernel)


vitamins, minerals, protein

has slight astringent action, suitable for all skins

can be used 100 per cent

Jojoba Oil

(from the bean)


is actually a wax, rather than an oil that mimics collagen, vitamins, minerals, protein

inflamed skins, psoriasis, eczema, acne, hair care, all skin types, highly penetrative

use a 10 per cent dilution

Olive Oil


vitamins, minerals, protein

rheumatic conditions, hair care, cosmetics, soothing

use a 10 per cent dilution

Peanut Oil

(Arachis Nut)

pale yellow

vitamins, minerals, protein

all skin types

can be used 100 per cent

Safflower Oil

pale yellow

vitamins, minerals, protein

all skin types

can be used 100 per cent

Sesame Oil

dark yellow

vitamins, minerals, protein, lecithin, amino acids

psoriasis, eczema, rheumatism, arthritis, all skin types

use a 10 per cent dilution

Soya Bean Oil

pale yellow

vitamin, minerals, protein

all skin types

can be used 100 per cent

Sunflower Oil

pale yellow

vitamins, minerals

all skin types

can be used 100 per cent

Wheatgerm Oil


vitamins, minerals, protein

eczema, psoriasis, prematurely aged skin, all skin types

use a 10 per cent dilution

Table 2. The Top Ten Essentials




Middle note

Distilled from flowers

Harmonising and balancing in the body. Relaxes, soothes, calms, relieves irritability, nervous tension, mild anxiety and stress. Soothes muscular aches, pains, bites and stings, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, insect repellent and aids in the pain of burns by direct application.

Tea Tree

Top/middle note

Distilled from leaves and twigs

Nervous debility, shock, colds, influenza, bronchitis, airborne infections, immuno-stimulant, dandruff, cuts and abrasions.

Warning: may occasionally irritate the skin, use with lavender to soften its effect.


Top/middle note

Distilled from leaves

Heat-stroke, shock, general fatigue, nervousness, colds, chills, airborne infections, vomiting, nausea, colic, hangover, travel sickness, oral hygiene, pre and aprés sport.

Warning: avoid during pregnancy or in conjunction with homeopathic remedies, don’t use on small children,babies, sensitive skin or late at night.

Chamomile (Roman)

Middle note

Distilled from flowers

Restlessness, irritability, anger, resentment, insomnia, headaches, migraine, spasmodic coughs and wheezes, rheumatism, allergic reactions, colic, urinary system tonic, stomach cramps, toning and cleansing.

Warning: do not use in early pregnancy.

Eucalyptus (Radiata)

Top note

Distilled from leaves

Aerial antiseptic, colds, fevers, diarrhoea, joint stiffness, rheumatism, anti-fungal, , kidney complaints.

Warning: do not use on small children, or in conjunction with a homeopathic remedy.


Distilled from leaves

Middle note

Anxiety, tension, restlessness, liver tonic, PMT, heavy periods, menopause, urinary and vaginal infections, burns, nosebleed, insect repellent, deodorant, mouthwash, eczema, oedema, haemorrhoids and acne.

Warning: there is a very slight risk of allergic reaction in some sensitive people.

Rosemary Moroccan or Tunisian

Distilled from leaves

Middle note

Depression, confusion, fatigue, general debility, bronchitis, sinusitis, liver tonic, hangover, rheumatic aches and pains, gout, fluid retention, hair and scalp tonic and cleansing.

Warning:do not use in pregnancy or if epileptic or suffering high blood pressure.

Sandalwood West Australian

Distilled from bark

Middle note

Relieves sleeplessness, nervous tension, stress, sore throat, laryngitis, hair and skin tonic, antiseptic,anti-spasmodic and bronchitis, lumbago, sciatica, nausea and egocentric behaviour.

Lemon Cold Pressed

Distilled from rind of fruit

Top note

Stimulating, aerial disinfectant, hangover, gout, rheumatism, cramp, acne, chilblains, fatigue, general debility and listlessness.

Warning: do not sunbathe or use an ultra-violet lamp for at least 24 hours after applying to the skin. Avoid sunlight for four hours after using as lemon is photosensitive.

Clove Bud

Distilled from dried, unopened buds

Middle note

Soothing and warming, relieves mouth and gum infections, toothache, nervous tension, warts and calluses, strong antiseptic, analgesic and anti-bacterial.

Warning:avoid during pregnancy.


The above oils have been chosen as they are readily available, affordable and versatile in the treatment of common ailments. Essential oil blends can be used for everything from relaxation and health, to beauty and emotional pick-me-ups. It is important to have the correct balance of oils because if too much is used can actually have the opposite effect to what is desired. For example, even lavender which is one of the safest and most relaxing oils, can leave you feeling strung out and anything but calm, if too much is used. Always seek a professional for medical advice.

Authors Details:Katherine Rimmer Email the Author


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