A Brief History of Aromatherapy

The term aromatherapy evolved in the 20th century, but civilizations have been enjoying its benefits in one form or another since prehistoric times. For centuries, people have used flowers, herbs, and roots to care for their health, their beauty, and their spirituality. In the earliest of times, it was the simple act of crushing plant matter. Evidence shows that cave-dwellers used juniper berries as a basic antiseptic and as a food flavoring. They undoubtedly enjoyed the subtle aromatherapy value of plants through the burning of leaves and woods as well as through the sense of touch. Anyone who has ever touched a rosemary plant or peeled an orange has experienced aromatherapy.

Ancient Chinese cultures used and explored the benefits of plants and herbs. Citrus fruit originated in China and one ancient text mentions the creation of a crude form of essential oil by means of burning the rinds in a vessel of water and collecting the floating “oils”. The Chinese also used incense and burning woods in religious ceremonies. Around the same time as the Chinese were exploring plants, the people of India were using aromatic plants as a vital part of their Ayurvedic medicinal system as well as for incense and spiritual practice.

The Egyptians became experts in the exotic use of aromatics. The most commonly known use is the embalming process. Cedar, sandalwood, cassia, frankincense, and myrrh, among other essential oils were blended with beeswax for that process. Most oils found in Egyptian tombs indicate they were more likely infused oils versus the pure essential oil we know today.

The science of aromatics was also for the living. These ancient Egyptians created cosmetics, perfumes and incense from fragrant plants and resins. Evidence shows that plants such as rosemary, marjoram, jasmine, chamomile, frankincense, juniper, and myrrh were in use. Most perfumes were created by blending the plant matter in oils and fats. The Egyptians became such experts in the field of aromatic cosmetics that it prompted spice trading with other countries in an effort to expand their ingredients and resources. Egyptians, Chinese and Indians were first to discover the aromatherapy and they used essential oils extracted from trees, flowers, fruits, herbs and roots in medicine to treat many diseases, enhance their beauty and improve their overall lifestyle.

After the work of Egyptians, aromatherapy was shared from country to country. First it was used by Greek physicians like Pedanius Dioscorides and then by Persian born physician Avicenna in 980 AD. In 16th century, aromatherapy reached France, where it then spread throughout Europe in 17th and 18th centuries. Marguerite Maury was an Austrian cosmetologist who first introduced massage techniques using essential oils in mid-19th century. Aromatherapy then spread throughout the world due to its benefits. Some have called Marguerite Maury “the mother of aromatherapy in the modern world.” Indeed, aromatherapy was practiced for thousands of years, but it has only recently become very popular in Western world.

Natural vs Synthetic Scents

According to Pour le Monde Natural Perfumes, 60% of what we put on our skin gets directly absorbed into our blood stream. The skin does not have a filter unlike other organs, like our kidneys. This is the basis for Aromatherapy. So, it’s obvious that knowing the origins of the scents and lotions you use is important to your health.

WebMD reports that the use of fragrances in all types of products is skyrocketing and so is the number of consumers are are reporting allergies to these scents. Sensitivity or alergic reactions appear more with synthetic fragrances where “as many as 200 or more chemicals are being mixed to create the fragrances we smell and masking agents in unscented products.” Think about that one for a minute. Making an unscented product requires dozens if not hundreds of chemicals to cover up the real scent.

80% or more of the chemicals used in commercial fragrances are synthetic and 95% of these synthetic compounds are derived from petroleum and natural gas according to Pour le Monde’s research. Why? Cost. Natural scents are more costly to produce than synthetics. The distillation process to get fragrances from botanicals uses steam or water, which is the same process that has been used for thousands of years. Natural scents are often sourced from around the globe. This takes time, effort and money. To be fair, there are some scents, like cucumber-mellon, that are obviously not found in nature. In these cases, synthetics are the only option.

Another side of the debate regarding natural vs synthetic scents is an environmental one. Natural scents are healthier to use and better for the environment that perpetuating a reliance on petroleum. The big caveat here is that botanicals must be grown, harvested and distilled in a environmentally-responsible manner. The great news is that are choices in the marketplace for those who want a healthier and green option in scents. It’s up to you to evaluate the tradeoffs.