> Aromatherapy Articles & Guides >
The Confusion Behind the Term Aromatherapy
The Confusion Behind the Term Aromatherapy
What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Excerpt from Romeo and Juliet by
At first glance, the term aromatherapy seems straightforward
enough. It is derived from the Latin word aroma, and the
French word thérapie. How confusing can the combination
of two simple everyday words such as aroma and therapy
be? In reality, the term aromatherapy leads to two false
assumptions false assumptions that benefit companies that
use the term differently than ever intended and in so doing, perpetuate
False Assumption #1:
The term aromatherapy implies that anything that is aromatic and "smells good" is considered healing or therapeutic.
Aromatherapy, more formally called
holistic aromatherapy, is a serious
field of study and practice that only involves the use of pure essential
oils and other natural ingredients that are considered safe
when used correctly. Candles, massage oils, potpourri products,
bath salts and other products that contain synthetic fragrance
oils and other synthetic ingredients are not properly categorized
as aromatherapy products,
despite any aromatherapy claims stated on the labels. Not all natural
ingredients are healthy for us or safe to use. There are ingredients
including essential oils
that are considered toxic, and those are also avoided in the
practice of aromatherapy.
It goes without saying that your
favorite designer fragrance will stir your emotions and your sense
of smell. And you may also wear your favorite fragrance in the hopes
that it will stir particular emotions within your spouse/romantic
partner and those that you come into contact with on a day to day
basis. Your favorite fragranced candle
can also bring a smile or a temporary sense of calm. That heavily
fragranced candle, especially if it is made with commonly used paraffin
wax, however, is dispersing toxins into the air as you burn it and
that is far from the intended definition of aromatherapy
that is meant to use only natural, healing ingredients.
distinction is that synthetic fragrances can be harmful over time
even when used correctly, and they do not offer the range of benefits
that natural products that utilize essential oils. I love to use
Lavender Oil as an
example as so many individuals are familiar with the fragrance of
lavender and enjoy it. A synthetic fragrance that smells like
lavender may be pleasing to your nose and make you smile as you
inhale, but that is pretty much all it will do. Lavender Essential
Oil, on the other hand, contains natural constituents that can help
combat headaches and dizziness. Topically when safely diluted, it
can also help to speed the healing of burns, is anti-bacterial,
and offers a number of other benefits. Visit the Lavender
Essential Oil profile page to learn more about the oil.
False Assumption #2:
The term aromatherapy inherently implies that it is a field that uses essential oils solely for the particular aroma and emotional effect that they deliver.
goes far beyond the use of just "sniffing" (more appropriately
referred to as inhaling) essential oils and other aromatics
for their psychological and mood altering benefits. Granted the
practice of aromatherapy frequently involves the inhalation and
diffusion of essential oils for this purpose, but the practice also
heavily emphasizes the safe use of essential oils in skin care,
hair care, wound care, and in helping to prevent and help care for
illnesses such as the colds and the flu.
Above, I described a few properties of Lavender
Essential Oil. When inhaled/diffused, lavender essential oil
is an aromatically beautiful oil that is relaxing, helps to ease
stress and helps to calm the mind and promote sleep. Lavender Essential
Oil, however, is also well known for its ability to help speed the
healing of burns. It is this property of Lavender Essential Oil
that eventually lead to the origins of the term aromatherapy.
Read on for the story...
How Did Aromatherapy Originally Get Its Name?
During the earlier part of the 20th century, a
French chemist by the name of René-Maurice Gattefossé
became interested in essential oils for their medicinal properties.
Previously, he focused on the aromatic use of essential oils in
perfumery application, but his interest in their therapeutic use
grew after an accident heightened his curiosity. While working,
he burned his arm rather badly. By reflex, he plunged his burned
arm into the closest liquid which happened to be a large container
of lavender essential oil. The burn he suffered healed quickly and
left no scar. He attributed his remarkable healing to the Lavender
Essential Oil, and that lead to his ongoing study of essential oils.
It is Gattefossé that is credited with
coining the term aromatherapy in 1928 within an article where
he supports the use of using essential oils in their whole without
breaking them down into their primary chemical constituents. In
1937, Gattefossé wrote a book called Aromathérapie:
Les Huiles essentielles hormones végétales that
was later translated into English and named Gattefossé's
Aromatherapy. It is still in print and widely read.
Gattefossé certainly had no idea 70 years
ago that aromatherapy would become the field it is today and that
the term that he genuinely meant to refer to a natural healing modality
would be snatched up and misused as a marketing buzzword.
Should Aromatherapy be Renamed?
Robert Tisserand, the an English aromatherapist
who was responsible for being one of the first individuals to bring
knowledge and education of aromatherapy to English speaking nations,
has written several books and articles including the highly respected
1977 publication The Art of Aromatherapy.
The Art of Aromatherapy was the first aromatherapy book to be published
I recall a lively correspondence that I enjoyed
with Mr. Tisserand several years ago regarding the confusion over
the term aromatherapy. In brief, we both agreed that the
term is confusing and does not fully capture what the field is all
about, and we shared our comments over the dilemmas in changing
the name of this valuable holistic field. Though there is agreement
amongst many that the term aromatherapy is misleading, little
has been able to be done to solve the dilemma. We cannot magically
snap our fingers and instantly change the term aromatherapy to something
immediately accepted by all and that doesn't frequently draw clouded
The dilemmas that exist include the following:
- Common agreement does not exist on what single word or brief
phrase would clarify what holistic aromatherapy entails.
- What body would be given the authority and would hold the confidence
by those in the field and society in general to officially decide
upon a new term?
- How would that body be chosen?
- The phrase aromatherapy has been in use for over 70 years.
In its translated derivatives, is a term that is used worldwide.
How would the field go about reducing the confusion that would
certainly occur during the long transitional process of converting
from the term aromatherapy to another term?
- Instead, would there be a secondary term used by the holistic
aromatherapy field to distinguish products and or ingredients
as meeting the requisites of the field?
- Would this name change be imposed just on the United States
and/or English speaking nations or would it be adopted by other
countries, like France, in which the term is much more clearly
- Would a name change also impose a new definition of the field
that limits or expands the nature of the field?
Possible Name Choices...
This is a term that is already used primarily
by professionals in the field. I often prefer to use the phrase
holistic aromatherapy as it helps to differentiate the clouded
overuse and misuse of the simple word aromatherapy by the
general public. Often, but not always, those who utilize the term
holistic aromatherapy are intimately familiar with the history
and intended definition of the term aromatherapy.
Essential Oil Therapy:
A longer phrase, essential oil therapy,
is a bit more clear, but it still does not convey the full scope
of aromatic and natural ingredients that are used by those who practice
holistic aromatherapy. Other natural aromatic ingredients including
herbs and other aromatic plants, and oils distilled by other primarily
natural methods such as CO2 Extracts
and Absolutes are often used in the practice
of holistic aromatherapy as we define it today.
For more introductory information
about aromatherapy and essential oils, read the following articles:
What is Aromatherapy?
What are Essential Oils?
History of Aromatherapy
< Return to Article Archive Index