Aromatherapy is the branch of alternative or holistic medicine that deals with the usage of certain volatile plant oils or other plant substances to alter one’s psychological state or physical health. As opposed to other alternative medicines, aromatherapy is a peculiarly Western method. That is not to say that treatment involving aromatic scents doesn’t exist outside the West, just that it is called by other terms and may have a more spiritual connotation.
The first common usage of the term was in the 1920s by French chemist Rene’ Gattefosse’ who found quick healing and no scarring with the use of lavender oil on a burn. He devoted the rest of his life to studying the healing properties of essential oils.
There are three main branches of the field of aromatherapy. Home aromatherapy provides psychological and physical healing, perfumes and cosmetics. Clinical aromatherapy is part of the field of pharmacology-the study of how substances affect human tissues. Aromachology is the study of how aromas affect the mind.
Some of the materials used in aromatherapy include fragrant oils extracted from plants usually by distillation; solvents are used to capture absolutes-fragrant oils extracted other than by distillation; phytoncides are microbe killing plant materials such as terpenes which often have a disagreeable smell; herbal distillates such as rosewater are the watery byproduct of distillation; watery extracts of plant materials are called infusions; and carrier oils are ordinarily oily triacylglycerides used for diluting essential oils for external use.
Some commonly accepted therapeutic effects of aromatherapy may in actuality depend on the quality and source of the essential oils used in developing the product. Since there is both plant based source and synthetic source for many of the essential oils, and since in some countries, there is no distinction between food grade and therapeutic grade oils in some countries, it’s important to ensure you are getting the therapeutic or undiluted essential oils present in the therapeutic grade in order to get maximum effectiveness.
Organic or wild plants tend to be more expensive than herb farm plants, but it is generally believed among herbalogists who use the techniques of aromatherapy that such plants are more effective and provide a better source of the essential oils required.
In some countries, such as France, aromatherapy is seen as part of mainstream medicine and physicians routinely use treatments of this sort for their patients. Aromatherapy has not been recognized to date in the same way in the United States, Japan, Russia, or Germany.