Aromatherapy can be defined as the diligent use of essential oils to promote or improve human health, hygiene and wellbeing. The term is applied to personal care products containing essential oils that impart skin-active and/or “feelgood” properties. Essential oils are often found as ingredients in over-the-counter preparations for respiratory health or muscular pain, and there are a number of oral medications that contain essential oils as their active ingredients, although the chances are that your family doctor is not familiar with any of them.
“Aromatherapy” is an all-inclusive term, covering cosmetic and psychological effects, as well as medicinal ones. In order to make a distinction between the more commercial aspects and the medicinal use of essential oils, terms such as clinical aromatherapy, aromatic medicine, and essential oil therapy have been used. Some practitioners regard essential oils as an integral part of the materia medica of herbal medicine, others as therapeutic additions to a massage oil.
The word aromatherapy first appeared in print in 1937 with the publication of a French book called Aromathérapie: Les Hormones Végétales by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a chemist. (An English version was published in 1993.) In 1910, Gattefossé burned one of his hands very badly in a laboratory explosion. The hand developed a serious infection known as gas gangrene, which he intentionally, and successfully, treated with lavender oil. This incident helped greatly to fire Gattefossé’s interest in aromatherapy, though it was not the “lucky accident” that is sometimes recounted by others. In his book, he refers to “The numerous papers, theses and observations made on this subject