science behind aromatherapy

The Science Behind Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a multi-billion dollar business in the United States alone. When you add the use of essential oils in other countries around the world, the use of essential oils is truly astounding. But are essential oils nothing more than substances that smell good, or are there scientifically proven benefits to essential oils? To be more specific, is there science behind aromatherapy?

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of volatile oils produced by plants to affect the mind and body in certain ways. This is accomplished in mainly two ways. They can either be smelled or mixed with a carrier oil and massaged into the skin.

Essential oils can be diffused or smelled straight from the bottle. This method uses scent receptors in the nose to transmit naturally occurring chemical molecules from the oil directly into the limbic system of the body to affect the brain and nervous system. This method is used for oils that are believed to affect mood or other emotions and bodily functions, such as sleep.

The second method uses a few drops of essential oil mixed with natural vegetable oil, known as a carrier oil, to transport the chemical constituents of the oil through the skin and into the bloodstream. Common carrier oils include almond, apricot seed, and grape seed oil. Once the essential oil has been diluted in the carrier oil, most essential oils are safe for use on the skin. However, there are a few exceptions which I will mention in the section on safety later in the article.

Historical Uses

More than 1,000 years ago our ancestors found that by mechanical extraction or by using essentially a still to steam certain plants they could extract oils from plants. It should be noted that these substances are not literally oils. They are called oils because they do not mix well with water and will separate and float on top of the water when mixed together.

Our ancestors used plants and the substances derived from plants for a number of health and beauty benefits. For instance, we all know about the spices known as frankincense and myrrh from the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus. Frankincense represented deity and myrrh represented death. In modern times both are available as essential oils derived from the steam distillation of the resin gathered from the plants.

For a thorough review of medicinal plant usage through human history, you can read this Historical Review Of Medicinal Plants’ Usage.

The word aromatherapy originated from the French word ‘aromatherapie’. It was coined by a French perfumer named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in 1937 when he burned his arm during a lab accident and immediately plunged the burned arm into a vat of lavender oil. He discovered that the lavender oil not only cooled the burn but accelerated healing and prevented scarring of the wound. It was from this accident that the modern study of aromatherapy was born.

The Science Behind Aromatherapy

Admittedly, there are scant human studies dedicated to the use of essential oils. But this is changing as modern medicine deals with such things as antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and the desire of many to seek a more natural life without the use of harsh chemical drugs. In the past 20 years, there have been many more studies published which have looked at the effects of essential oils and aromatherapy.

The website WebMD states “thanks to a growing number of studies showing how they work, hospitals and clinics now use the oils more and more for stress relief, pain and nausea relief, and even to prevent bedsores”.

Studies in laboratory cancer lines have shown promise of some essential oils being able to inhibit cancer cells and even prevent some cancer cells from reproducing. Note that these studies have shown promising results but they are on laboratory cancer cell lines and not in actual human test subjects.

Many more studies have been done concerning aromatherapy and the ability of essential oils to affect mood or behavior. These studies have shown promise in human subjects but many studies results have been subjective in nature. Therefore, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the studies.

However, the scientific landscape appears to be changing as the scientific and medical communities begin to look harder at the science behind aromatherapy. A search of the Pubmed database shows a significant increase in studies focused on essential oils over the past 10 years. Do a search for many essential oils, and you will find studies looking at the antimicrobial, psychological and medicinal effects of the oils or the isolated constituents.

Many of these studies have borne out what our ancestors found out by using these plants and the resulting extracted plant substances as showing certain benefits for health and wellness. But many more human studies are needed to be able to say definitively that a specific essential oil can be used for a specific ailment in most cases.

But the same can be said for most synthetic drugs. Due to the differences in biological and psychological makeup between individuals, not all outcomes from any particular drug will be successful. Although we all have certain biological similarities, a drug that works for me may not necessarily have the same positive result for you. The same holds true for essential oils.

The science behind aromatherapy may not be well established with scientific double-blind studies. However, the scientific community has finally taken an interest in finding out through investigation whether the claimed benefits of essential oils and their uses have merit. This is an encouraging development for those of us who make use of and practice aromatherapy.

A Few Words About Safety

A discussion of the science behind aromatherapy would not be complete without a word about safety. The explosive growth of multi-level marketing companies selling essential oils has given rise to the untrained salesperson touting the use of essential oils for every health concern under the sun.

In 2014 the FDA sent warning letters to several MLM companies due to representatives claiming that essential oils could cure everything from cancer to the Ebola virus. Unfortunately, many people believed the hype and some have been harmed or have become permanently sensitized due to the misuse of essential oils.

Since 2013 the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy has compiled a list yearly of injuries associated with the use or misuse of essential oils. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the injuries reported have come from the advice of untrained MLM reps who have advised using the oils internally or in undiluted form. For more information on the safe use of essential oils please read my guide to Essential Oil Safety. I also wrote a post looking at essential oils safety. You can read that article here.


Modern science is beginning the process of scientific examination of the science behind aromatherapy that our ancestors used concerning plant-based medicinal treatments. Some have been shown to be correct and others still need more human studies.

Since the use of essential oils is not regulated by the FDA some unscrupulous sellers have made outlandish claims about both the effectiveness and safety of essential oils. It is imperative that you either do your own research or seek the services of a trained aromatherapist when deciding whether to use essential oils for yourself and your family.

While I sell essential oils and use them on a daily basis, I also feel as a medical professional for 34 years that it is incumbent upon me to also point out the dangers of using essential oils improperly. I never want to hear of someone who was injured due to the misuse of an essential oil.

Now that we are seeing evidence that essential oils have benefits that can be proven by the science behind essential oils I am encouraged that we will see more studies on the benefits they can provide.