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ss nucleus - winter 1998,  Aromatherapy - the Right Scent to Follow?

Aromatherapy - the Right Scent to Follow?

George Smith assesses one of the most popular alternative therapies

Although there is an emphasis in these days on the use of modern technology and the practice of evidence-based medicine, many alternative therapies, for which scientific evidence is somewhat lacking, are flourishing and spreading rapidly into all levels of healthcare.

Whilst aromatherapy is by no means the most popular of these, it has certainly increased considerably in its market share in recent years. In 1995 it amounted to 12% of those trying alternative therapies and there are now more than 6,000 aromatherapists in the UK. We need to ask some questions: how did aromatherapy develop? Does it work and if so, how? What does the Bible say and should Christians use it?

Delving into its textbooks and promotional pamphlets reveals quite a mixture of fact and fiction, some very unorthodox diagnostic procedures and a wide variation in treatment and techniques...many of these current practices having very ancient and interesting roots!

Ancient history

Aromatic oils were widely used in ancient civilisations for a variety of purposes. The early Egyptians used them for fumigation and embalming and some can still be identified in recently excavated mummies. There are clear indications of their use for medicinal purposes, in anointing and religious rites and ceremonies. These heady perfumes were ingredients in cosmetics and skin care preparations as well as in medicinal brews and in incenses designed to affect mood and mind. Preparation rooms for these substances have been found within the stone walls of ancient temples where priest/healers formulated their perfumes and medicines and handy prescription notes were discovered carved on the walls (4500 BC was pre-MIMS!).

Strange and occult practices were sometimes associated with the use of these incenses. It was believed that demons could be driven out by breathing in the holy smoke of woods and resins. The word perfume literally means 'through the smoke' being derived from the Latin; per, meaning through and fumus, meaning smoke. Aromatic oils were burnt on altars to appease the gods and channel divine knowledge. Preparations of incense and perfume were used to elevate the human spirit to other dimensions of awareness. In Asia they were used in association with yoga, meditation and hallucinogenic drugs to produce altered states of consciousness, out-of-the-body sensations, euphoria and religious ecstasy.

The Greeks and Romans were less adventurous, although the Greeks used psycho-aromatherapy. Wall pictures show flowers placed on the head to treat depression and fatigue. The Greeks ascribed a divine origin to all aromatic plants and there was a Greek temple of aromatherapy. Hippocrates (460-370 BC), called the founder or father of medicine, advocated daily aromatic baths to prolong life. The Roman scientist and historian Pliny (AD 23-79) recorded the use of aromatic oils in cosmetic ointments and skin-care preparations. Records show treatment using aromatic oils together with massage, appearing as a constant strand.

Recent history

From these early days, references to the use of aromatic oils continued to appear in text and pictures, both in medical and religious contexts. The Chinese used these together with their traditional herbal medicines and acupuncture. Aromatic oils were recognised and used in biblical times. In the Middle Ages, incense and aromas were used as disinfectants and to purify the air from poisons and diseases. They were extensively used to fumigate and protect during epidemics of plague in France and England in the 17th century. 'Herbalism' (not to be confused with the legitimate use of medicines derived from herbs) often had astrological associations. This included the use of aromatic oils and flourished until the late 19th century when more scientific medicine slowly became available.

The next significant event was triggered by an explosion in the laboratory of Professor Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a French cosmetic scientist. This burnt his hand which he plunged into neat lavender oil. His pain was relieved and his burn rapidly healed without infection or scarring. Concluding that essential oils had powerful analgesic and antiseptic properties, he wrote a book about the therapeutic value of aromatic plants, first using the term 'aromatherapie' in 1937.

During the Second World War, a French army surgeon, Dr Jean Valnet, used aromatic oils to treat burns and wounds, but later used these for the treatment of long term psychiatric patients. He is said to have used similar preparations (orally, through the skin, in baths and intra-dermal injections), to treat cancer, tuberculosis and diabetes.

An Austrian-born biochemist, Marguerite Maury became unhappy about the oral use of aromatic oils because of their potency and potential toxic effects. In the 1960s she popularised the use of these oils by massage into the skin after they had been diluted with vegetable oils to around 2 or 3%. This is the most common form of aromatherapy in use today.

Robert Tisserand reintroduced aromatherapy into Britain in 1969. He published his book 'The Art of Aromatherapy' in 1977. This has become a standard reference book running to 15 reprints and has inspired current world-wide interest in aromatherapy. He founded the Tisserand Institute for Research and Education and helped set up the Aromatherapy Organisations Council in 1991. There is no statutory regulation of this therapy in the UK.

Essential oils

Essential oils are highly concentrated substances extracted from various parts of aromatic plants and trees. Over 400 are described. The use of the word 'essential' is interesting. This refers to the fact that the oil produced from a particular plant is said to be a unique extract from that plant. Some have incorrectly suggested that the word 'essential' indicates that these are essential for the maintenance of good health. Others believe that there is some essential energy liberated from these oils suggesting reference to the 'vital life force' or 'cosmic energy', the idea behind many holistic alternative therapies in use today.

According to Penny Rich in her book 'Practical Aromatherapy', 'Essential oils are so complex and magical that no-one really knows what they are. Romantics and enthusiasts say they are the life force of a plant, similar to the human spirit. Researchers say they are a mixture of organic compounds such as ketones, terpenes, esters, alcohols, aldehydes and hundreds of other molecules, too small and complex to classify under a microscope.'


Originally these oils were obtained by simple methods such as squeezing or absorption into wool fibres but more sophisticated methods of distillation and, more recently, solvent extraction have gradually been developed. Tisserand suggests that, 'natural aromatic substances are better than artificial ones which do not contain any "life force"'.


Oils can be prepared for use in baths, compresses, poultices or ointments and can be made up as gargles or sprays for inhalation. Occasionally they may be used orally by those who are qualified in orthodox medicine. The most widespread use today is, however, by application to the skin by massage. According to Tisserand, this is a combination of Swedish (soft tissue), Shiatzu (Japanese acupressure) or neuro-muscular holistic massage.


Many aromatic oils are effective as disinfectants or antibiotics, against certain fungi, bacteria and even some viruses. Tea tree oil for example was shown to have some effect against methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in France, 1995. Aromatherapy is said to benefit an extremely wide range of medical conditions such as convulsions, depression, dyspepsia, hysteria, kidney disorders, asthma, bronchitis, cholera, diabetes, diphtheria, gallstones, malaria, measles, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and even cancer! They are claimed to rid toxins from the body and, by those who believe in the theory of body energy or life force (Ch'i) to balance negative or positive energies (yin/yang).


Although essential oils in their concentrated state are extremely powerful, no licence is required for their use. Taken internally some can be lethal. They should not be applied neat to the skin as severe local reactions may result particularly in already damaged skins (eg eczema). Some oils (eg cinnamon) may produce an allergic skin reaction and others are phototoxic - citrus oils together with sunlight may produce a severe reaction or burn. 10% of oils are potentially harmful in pregnancy and should be avoided even on the skin.

What is aromatherapy and does it work?

It is essential to make a distinction between the use of aromatic oils and aromatherapy.

Aromatic oils have well-recognised and legitimate uses as perfumes, antiseptics and respiratory tract decongestants and also for fumigation, embalming and anointing.

On the other hand aromatherapy is variously presented as a relaxing beauty treatment (cosmetic/aesthetic aromatherapy), or a sophisticated form of herbal medicine (medical/clinical aromatherapy). Tisserand and like-minded therapists, however, believe it has a much wider dimension as a holistic therapy (holistic or psycho-therapeutic massage), where the essential oils have a therapeutic use in terms of body, emotions, mind and spirit. These therapists may use a wide range of techniques for diagnosis and choice of treatments including intuition, pendulum swinging, dowsing and muscle testing (kinesiology). Holistic aromatherapy has been described as 'a sojourn into the realms of the psyche inspired by the soul caressing properties of nature's ethereal essences'.

Despite the vigorous promotion of aromatherapy as a healing art, somewhat guarded claims are made for its effectiveness in organic disease. Valid scientific evidence is clearly lacking. The Consumer Association's handbook states that 'few randomised controlled trials have been undertaken in aromatherapy and no research on whether its benefits are due to the relaxing massage or to the oils themselves'. It is, however, frequently used in conjunction with dietary advice, counselling and other therapies such as herbal medicine, reflexology and yoga. If the results are beneficial, it may be difficult to unravel which therapy is responsible...and we must always remember the powerful effect of placebo.

How is it said to work?

Holistic aromatherapy is variously described as working by releasing neuro-chemicals, by balancing hormones, by stimulating the immune system or a combination of these (now called psycho-neuro-immunology) but little scientific evidence for these theories is available.

Pierre Franchomme (1987) believed that, 'all essential oils contain positive or electrical charges which help to bring about the healing process'. Others claim that its benefits depend on the balancing of vital energy, life force or cosmic energy. Gattefosse stated, 'Essential oils can be used to balance the energy flows in the body in a similar way to acupuncture'.

Tisserand maintains that aromatherapy is based on natural therapeutic principles shared by acupuncture, herbal medicine or homeopathy. These are life force (Ch'i), yin yang and organic foods. He believed that individual aromatic oils were either yin or yang in effect and were identified as having a ruling planet such as Mars or Mercury. He was convinced that the element of massage was vital to the application of these oils and that, 'Our hands heal on two levels - the physical and what might be called the psychic'. Hand healing or therapeutic touch has itself been linked with faith healing, magnetic healing, psychic healing and spiritual healing. One therapist maintains that there is an energy aura surrounding our body which can be massaged with beneficial effect.

What does the Bible say?

There are a considerable number of references to aromatic oils including frankincense (Ex 30:34-36; Lv 2:1; Mt 2:11), myrrh (SS 4:6; Pr 7:17; Mt 2:11; Jn 19:39), cinnamon, aloes, camphire and hyssop (Ex 12:22; Lv 14:4,6,51-52; Heb 9:19) both in the Old and New Testaments. Frankincense was used for sacrificial fumigation and incense. Myrrh was associated with rituals of purification as well as a perfume. Frankincense and aloes together were used for anointing. Hyssop is mentioned as a symbol of spiritual cleansing. It was used to sprinkle blood on the lintels before the Exodus and as part of a cleansing ritual described in Leviticus. Research suggests that the oil used by the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33,34) (sometimes quoted in support of aromatherapy) was much more likely to be olive oil rather than an aromatic preparation.

There are strict warnings against the use of divinatory and occult activities (Ho 4:12), such as dowsing and pendulum swinging, which are listed in some of the books of aromatherapy as diagnostic measures. Astrology (Is 47:13), similarly forbidden in Scripture, is sometimes used in diagnosis and selection of remedies. The labels on some aromatherapy bottles are overprinted with signs of the Zodiac.

Should Christians use it?

Holistic aromatherapy is associated by many practising therapists with the theories of life force, vital energy, meridians and chakras which are rooted in Taoist, Hindu and other Eastern philosophy and religion (Jos 24:23; Is 47:13; Ps 81:9). Many alternative therapies, particularly those associated with New Age holistic healers, are based on the idea of God being a force or energy, rather than the Christian belief in a personal God and heavenly Father. Many of these therapies, grouped together under the heading of 'Energy Medicine', are often seen to be on offer in close juxtaposition to occult and astrological practices, tarot card reading, palmistry etc at psychic fayres and Mind-Body-Spirit events with strong New Age associations.


Careful distinction needs to be made between the legitimate use of aromatic oils and holistic aromatherapy. From a medical perspective it must surely be hazardous to rely on aromatherapy when proven orthodox medical treatments are available.

Claims that aromatherapy is effective in the treatment of spiritual as well as physical and mental sickness raise serious questions from a Christian perspective. Spiritual ill health may indeed require treatment within spiritual realms but if this is not by the Holy Spirit of God and based on biblical principles and guidelines, one has to ask, 'What spirit, supernatural or occult force is involved in the healing?' Discernment is needed in all these areas and as Christians we are required to:

'Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.'
1 Thes 5:21-22 (KJV)


  • Consumer Association Investigation into Aromatherapy - Report 1990
  • Culpeper N. Culpeper's Complete Herbal. London: Foulsham and Co, (multiple editions)
  • Lawless J. The Illustrated Encycolopaedia of Essential Oils. Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1995
  • Lawless J. Illustrated Guide to Aromatherapy. Shaftesbury: Element, 1997
  • McGilvery C, Reed J, Mehta M. The Encycolopaedia of Aromatherapy, Massage and Yoga. Enderby, Leicestershire: Acropolis Books, 1994
  • Pfeifer S. Healing at any Price. Word Publishing, 1988
  • Rich P. Practical Aromatherapy. London: Robinson, 1994
  • Rowlands B (Ed). The Which? Guide to Complementary Medicine. Consumers' Association, 1997
  • Smith W. Concise Dictionary of the Bible. London: John Murray, 1880
  • Stanway A. Alternative Medicine - A Guide to Natural Therapies. Bloomsbury Books, 1992
  • Tisserand R. The Art of Aromatherapy. Saffron Walden: C W Daniel Co Ltd, 1993 (fifteenth reprint)
  • Wildwoode C. The Bloomsbury Encyclopaedia of Aromatherapy. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Co, 1996
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