What is Aromatherapy?

by | Nov 3, 2021 | Aromatherapy 101, General

With the rise in popularity of essential oils, are you someone who finds yourself wondering … What is aromatherapy? Personally, when I was first introduced to essential oils I had no clue what they were or how to use them. The only thing I knew about aromatherapy was that occasionally I would run across some candle, lotion, fragrance oil, etc. that included the term on the label.

At the time, I thought that aromatherapy was just the use of some product (usually Lavender scented) that had a pleasing or relaxing aroma. However, true aromatherapy, not the commercialized version found in many popular retail chains, is so much more than that.​

For anyone unfamiliar with aromatherapy and trying to get a better understanding, or someone thinking the whole thing is a bunch of woo woo or just placebo, there are many well-known products that use aromatic materials and concepts of aromatherapy. Just to name a few … If you have ever used Witch hazel for various skin issues, Tucks Pads for hemorrhoids, Vicks VapoRub for a cold, Noxzema to wash your face and help with acne, Listerine for oral hygiene, and Biofreeze for achy muscles and joints, then you have experienced what aromatherapy is capable of.


So what exactly is Aromatherapy?

The short explanation is that aromatherapy is the use of pure, high quality aromatic materials such as essential oils, hydrosols, and CO2s, produced from flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees for health, beauty, and well-being.

Please be aware…
There are many products that can easily be found in stores and online that state they are 100% pure essential oils, while in reality they are anything but. They do not have the same chemical makeup as essential oils and they should not be used for therapeutic purposes. It should also be noted that quality and purity are not the same thing but that is a whole separate article. For more information see my guide about What to Look for When Buying Essential Oils.

It should also be noted that while people have been using medicinal plants since pretty much the beginning of human history, aromatherapy as we know it today, and many of the aromatic materials we currently use, are not the same as what was commonly used thousands of years ago. It was not even until the 20th century that René-Maurice Gattefossé (also known as the father of aromatherapy) coined the term aromatherapy.


How do aromatic materials work?

First it needs to be understood that essential oils and other aromatic materials are so much more than just a scent.

For instance…
Fragrance oils are just a few synthetically produced chemicals put together in a lab to resemble the smell of something. However, essential oils are produced from plants by one of several different distillation methods or by the expression of citrus peels, and can be made up of hundreds of different chemical constituents. Due to their complexity, they cannot be recreated in a lab. They also have various properties due to the specific makeup of their chemical constituents.

Also, where many people see aromatherapy as only working on a psychological level through our sense of smell, there is much more to it than that.

Our olfactory system delivers messages directly into the limbic system which is the part of our brain that deals with memories and emotions as well as communicating with other parts of the brain like the thalamus. So our sense of smell is closely connected to our emotions and our perception of things, but it should also be noted that these connections are not always positive. Furthermore, with its connection through the limbic system to the hypothalamus and thalamus, other body systems can be affected as well.

However, due to the various effects aromatic chemicals have on our bodies, and depending on the reason aromatic materials are being used, we do not always need to be able to smell them for them to be effective. It is well-known that there are many times that people, for various reasons, lose their sense of smell. Even in these situations, essential oils can do things like open up nasal passages to help with congestion, help break up mucus, and calm coughs.

Additionally, the volatile constituents that make up essential oils are extremely small by nature. Due to their small size and lipophilic characteristics, they are able to penetrate the skin and get into tissues. They are also able to bind to receptors and penetrate into cells. Some constituents even eventually make it into the bloodstream when applied topically. However the fastest, most immediate route into the bloodstream is via the lungs by inhalation.

So not only can they work psychologically, but they can work physiologically and pharmacologically as well.

Various uses for aromatic materials have been researched, documented, and even verified scientifically over the years. While some have a general, expected outcome, other results can vary depending on the individual person and the specific material being used.

The following are considered to be general therapeutic properties or actions of essential oils and other aromatic materials: adaptogen, analgesic, antidepressant, anticonvulsive, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antispasmodic, antitumoral, aperitif, carminative, cephalic, choleretic, counterirritant, insect repellant, mucolytic, prophylactic, sedative, stimulant, urinary antiseptic, and wound healing.

It also needs to be understood that the saying, “There’s an oil for that” is not entirely accurate.

As mentioned above, when it comes to the psychological effects of aromatic materials, while a scent can be relaxing for one person, it can have the opposite effect on someone else that associates that same aroma with a past trauma. Another example is where Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is generally calming for most people, but with some others (especially children with ADHD) it has the totally opposite effect.

That is not even getting into the complexities of while an oil may be appropriate for one person, due to contraindications because of age, medications, specific health conditions, etc., it may be totally inappropriate for someone else.

It is also well-known that because many essential oils and other aromatic materials share similar chemical composition, it is common for different ones to have the same therapeutic properties.

For example, all essential oils are antimicrobial to some degree, but some are more so than others. Therefore, some cover a wider spectrum where others may only be effective on a certain type of bacteria, fungus, or virus.

Also, because of the wide variety of chemical constituents that are in many of the aromatic materials, it is common for any one oil to have more than one categorical effect. An example of this can be seen with Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) which many refer to as the “Swiss Army Knife” of oils, because of the variety of properties that it is known for. Analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, insect repellant, sedative, and wound healing are just some of these.

Some other examples that come to mind are Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus radiata), for its insect repellant, mucolytic, and stimulant properties, and Helichrysum aka Immortelle (Helichrysum italicum), for its anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and wound healing potential.

So while an oil may be chosen for a specific purpose, it may also be helpful for something else at the same time. Additionally, it may be helpful for something entirely different, at a later date, for someone else. It is even possible that if certain conditions change, it may no longer be appropriate for someone that has used it before.

It also needs to be understood that while aromatherapy can be a wonderful complement to professional medical care if used correctly, it is not to be used in the place of it. A medical professional should be seen for a proper diagnosis and then it can be determined if aromatherapy can be beneficial. In addition to that, a properly trained aromatherapy professional may need to be consulted depending on the circumstances.


How can aromatherapy be used?

Myths and misinformation are abundant when it comes to aromatherapy. Just like there are a lot of fake or adulterated essential oils available on the market, there is a multitude of bad information out there about how to use them as well. The most important things to remember when it comes to aromatherapy is to always research oils for their uses and safety guidelines before purchasing and using them, and always get your information from trained aromatherapy professionals.

Depending on one’s level of education, there are three main ways in which aromatic materials are used in aromatherapy. These are: environmentally (by inhalation), externally (topically), and internally.

Essential oils can be used environmentally to help clear the air of microbes, and by inhalation to help with many things from mood to respiratory issues. This is the easiest and safest route for anyone just starting out with aromatherapy.

Diffusers are one of the most popular ways in which to use essential oils like this. Just be sure to follow some common safety guidelines for their use.

There are nebulizing types that can put out concentrated amounts of oil into the air by dispersing a mist of just the oil itself. These are best used in shorter intervals so as to not be so overwhelming.

Ultrasonic diffusers use water to form a mist that carries the oils into the air. This option uses much less oil than the amounts that are put out by a nebulizing type. They can also be used over an extended period of time if using just a few drops of essential oil.

It is important to regularly clean the diffuser and allow it to dry completely so that it is not growing bacteria and mold and dispersing it into the air. At the very least if using frequently over several days, it is recommended to rinse the unit daily and add fresh water and oils. It is also recommended that distilled water should be used in them to protect the device as well as air quality from any minerals, etc. that are commonly in tap water.

There are also indirect or passive diffusers that use gentle heat or even a fan to help evaporate and disperse the scent throughout the air.

If a compact and travel friendly option is preferred, or if one needs a way to utilize essential oils without disturbing others, personal aroma sticks/inhalers are also a great alternative.

However, you do not need a fancy device to take advantage of using essential oils.

Other simple passive options include putting just a few drops on a tissue, in a steaming cup of water, or the filter of a central heating and air unit. Just keep in mind that essential oils can break down some materials, including some plastics, and damage and/or stain some surfaces.

In general, indirect/passive diffusion is the safest way to diffuse.

As one’s education in aromatherapy progresses, essential oils can be used externally by applying them to the skin after properly diluting them for the situation with a preferred carrier such as any number of vegetable, nut or seed oils, additives, clays, waxes, aloe jelly, or lotions. These can be used to make massage oils, skin care items to help with things like blemishes and scars, and salves for bruises and coughs.

Additionally, while diluted oils are being applied topically, not only are they helpful with things such as skin and muscle problems, but it is another mode for inhalation as well.

Essential oils can also be added to baths as long as they are carefully chosen, and properly solubilized by mixing them first into something like an unscented liquid soap or bubble bath before adding them to the tub. Read here for more on bath safety.

Lastly, do not forget about hydrosols. There are those that believe they are nothing more than watered down essential oils. That is definitely not the case. At times there are things they can do that essential oils cannot. That is because in addition to miniscule amounts of essential oil constituents, they contain the volatile water-soluble constituents that are not present in the essential oil. For the most part, they do not even smell like their essential oil counterpart. In addition, due to their very gentle nature, they are a safer option to use with young children and pets.

The last way in which essential oils can be used is internally. This is getting into what is called aromatic medicine which is considered an advanced form of aromatherapy. It is being mentioned here for educational purposes only, and to explain why it should not be done by anyone without extensive training.

Again, it needs to be understood that only pure essential oils of the highest quality should be used and even though most claim to be 100% pure, we have seen they are anything but. So no one should be getting a bottle of “essential oil” from a big box store, Amazon, etc. and taking them internally. If you do not have enough training to know how to identify and where to find quality oils, you definitely should not be taking them internally. Aromatherapy is a self-regulated field and there is no such thing as FDA approved oils.

Generally, some things that a properly trained aromatherapy professional would consider are the following…
Is the person taking any medications and are there any interactions or other contraindications? Do they have a specific reason that they would need to be using these oils internally and is it the best way to use the oil? Many times, depending on what is trying to be accomplished, topical application or inhalation has much better efficacy and is safer.

When it comes to taking oils by ingestion, most times very little makes it into the bloodstream due to first pass metabolism. It is usually processed by the liver, etc., and the chemistry is usually altered in some way due to this, and much of oil is excreted instead of making it into the bloodstream. Even what does, takes much longer to get there than if the oil was inhaled. Think a few minutes vs up to 30 plus minutes. In most cases, ingestion is just a waste of oils and an added risk of injury to your system.

If internal use is determined to be the best route, dose is then figured, not in drops, but in mg based on the reason, the oil, the person, their weight, etc., and properly diluted. They should not be taken in water (as water does not dilute essential oils), and they should only be taken for short periods of time, not as a daily practice. Even when oils are taken in pill form, depending on why they are taken, enteric coated caps may be what is needed as a standard gel cap that dissolves in the stomach is not going to accomplish the intended purpose and may have unintended side effects.

The above also explains why adding essential oils as “flavoring” to daily water intake, is a bad idea. While the food and flavor industry is the largest consumer of essential oils, the oils have to be properly diluted or emulsified into the whole food product in parts per million. Also, EOs used for flavoring are usually deterpenated, so they are not exactly the same as the oils we generally use for aromatherapy.

Another thing is many people think that essential oils are the same as the herb, just in concentrated form. This however, is not true as the essential oil only contains the hydrophobic (lipid loving) volatile constituents of that plant. Therefore there are many things missing when the EO is used over the whole herb, including the vitamins and minerals. So please remember, using the actual herb or fruit wedges for flavoring is best.

Honestly, this is not a black and white subject as there are many things to consider. If anyone is suggesting that someone else should follow some specific internal protocol for some medical reason, it is considered prescribing which is illegal in the United States and considered practicing without a license unless that person is a licensed medical professional also trained in aromatic medicine. So again, internal use is not recommended for anyone who has not had proper training in this area, that understands dosage, safety, and formulation, and knows how to determine if any of these choices are right for them.



Aromatherapy is so much more than just using aromatic products with a pleasing aroma. True aromatherapy uses pure, high quality aromatic materials that when properly used are able to interact with our bodies and our environment in several different ways to have pharmacological, physiological, and psychological effects for health, beauty, and well-being.

Aromatherapy can be a wonderful complementary therapy in addition to traditional medical care if it is used correctly. It can also be very complicated to someone just starting out. However, it is something that can be easily navigated with information from a properly trained professional.


Aromatherapy Associations/Organizations

Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) alliance-aromatherapists.org
Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC) aromatherapycouncil.org
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) https://naha.org/

International Aromatherapy and Aromatic Medicine Association (IAAMA) https://www.iaama.org.au/

Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists (CFA) http://cfacanada.com/
Canadian Alliance Of Aromatherapy (CAOA) https://caoa.wildapricot.org/

United Kingdom
International Federation of Aromatherapists (IFA) http://www.ifaroma.org/
International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (IFPA) www.ifparoma.org


Additional Resources

What to Look for When Buying Essential Oils

What Is Aromatherapy? The Dividing Lines Between Feel-Good and Medicine

What is Aromatherapy?

R-M Gattefosse – the founding of Aromatherapy (2005) – english

How Essential Oils Work: A Bird’s Eye Overview

Hydrolats: Demystifying the mystical waters

The complete guide on how to find reliable essential oil information

Essential Oils Directory: Essential Oil Properties, Uses and Benefits

Essential Oil Applications | Inhalation, Diffusion and Topical Applications

Carrier Oils Properties and Profiles

Diffusion guidelines

Guide to Essential Oil Diffusers

Essential Oil Diffuser Safety Tips

Aromatherapy and Essential Oil Inhalers

How to Use Essential Oils Safely

Essential Oil Safety Pages

Bath Safety

An Aromatic Life podcast Episode #37: Reflections on Aromatherapy with Robert Tisserand

What does an Aromatherapist do?



Sheppard-Hanger, S. (1995). The Aromatherapy Practitioner Reference Manual. Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy

Sheppard-Hanger, S. (1995). The Aromatherapy Practitioner Correspondence Course. Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy

Rhind, J. (2020). Essential Oils – A Comprehensive Handbook for Aromatic Therapy, 3rd Edition. Singing Dragon

Tisserand, R. and Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety; A Guide for Health Care Professionals, Second Edition. Churchill Livingstone



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DISCLAIMER: The information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and is for educational and informational purposes only. When incorporating any complementary alternative therapy into your health care regimen, always seek the advice of your medical doctor or qualified healthcare provider, and watch for any possible interactions or side effects. Statements made on this site have not been evaluated by the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). 


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