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Aromatherapy vs Essential Oils: Aren’t they the same?

Often I am asked, “Aren’t Aromatherapy and Essential Oils the same thing?”  The answer is often determined by whom  you ask.  For those of us who have studied the history of  Aromatherapy and/or Essential Oils, the answer is often, ‘It is the study and use of essential oils for the purpose of promoting physical and psychological well-being’ or something similar.  The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy ( describes the term as: “The practice of using volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical well-being. Essential oils, the pure essence of a plant, have been found to provide both psychological and physical benefits when used correctly and safely.”

The question of what Aromatherapy is, or whether it refers to essential oils,  has become a bit confusing for those who have not studied the history of  essential oils.  Yes, essential oils are the most common products mentioned when talking about Aromatherapy, but today, many commercial companies are using the term to promote their products (Room Fresheners, Candles, Aroma Beads, Incense, etc.) and many of these products are made with synthetic fragrances and perhaps a small amount of essential oils, or none at all.  I once had someone ask me to settle an argument on who coined the term ‘Aromatherapy’ –  Mrs. Fields or Walt Disney?  At first this made me chuckle, but then I realized that, while the answer is neither one, it was still an excellent question, for it brought up the fact that both of these people (or at least their companies) understand the role fragrance and smell have on almost all of us, at least psychologically.  Aroma is processed by the part of our brain called the Limbic System.  This part of our brain is the seat of our emotions and memory and is greatly influenced  by smells.  In the question about Mrs. Fields and Walt Disney, I am quite sure it was understood  that the right fragrance will cause us to remember childhood, often resulting in pleasant feelings, memories and emotions, that give us that sense of youthful abandon.  Therefore,  these companies actually pump out fragrances, known to stimulate youthful emotions and memories, in order to entice one to purchase their products.  Most of us will agree that it works.  It’s very hard to pass up cookies, popcorn or candy smells.  For me, it’s cinnamon rolls.  My mother made the best cinnamon rolls and baked bread when I was a child, and the smell of them brings back wonderful memories of licking sticky fingers or the tasty sensation of doughy bread.

As for the real term “Aromatherapy”, it was actually coined around 1910 by a French perfumist  by the name of  René-Maurice Gattefossé.  In about 1910, there was an explosion in his lab that caused severe burns to his hands (to which he applied lavender oil).  Monsieur Gattefossé stated, “The external application of small quantities of essences rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores. In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped “the gasification of the tissue”. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day.”  This was one episode that led him to study the healing properties of volatile plant oils, many of which we know as essential oils today.  In 1937, after working with a number of doctors treating French soldiers for war wounds, Monsieur Gattefossé published a book entitled ‘Aromathérapie’, and aromatherapists worldwide are still using the term today.  This book is currently out of print, but it has been translated, edited and republished by Robert Tisserand as ‘Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy’ along with many of his other books on the subject, including ‘Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals’.  

So, does Aromatherapy mean Essential Oils?  Again, it depends on whom you ask, but the real term, coined by Rene Maurice Gattefossé, was meant to cover the study and use of essential oils and volatile plant material for the treatment of war wounds and diseases.  We can break the word down into Aroma – “a distinctive, typically pleasant smell,” and Therapy – “treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder,” which I believe he was trying to convey.  Essential Oil, on the other hand, is the medium most often used in the study and application of Aromatherapy.

We’ll cover more about what essential oils actually are, therapeutics, grading and more in upcoming blogs.

So I’ll close with one of the many descriptions of Aromatherapy I can agree with, written by Robert Tisserand.

“Aromatherapy is a caring, hands-on therapy which seeks to induce relaxation, to increase energy, to reduce the effects of stress and to restore lost balance to mind, body and soul.” 

~Robert Tisserand

I hope you’ll come back to learn more, or perhaps start your study from the man who coined the phrase.  You can get his book ‘Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy’ by clicking on the title.

Happy Learning!!

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