What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is a concept tied to the scientific advances of the 20th century, that is rooted in Western, industrialized, and science-biased societies of our times. The term,
‘aromatherapy’, was first introduced by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist who is considered the father of Aromatherapy.
He discovered the healing properties of lavender essential oil by accident. He had badly burned his hand during an experiment, and plunged his hand into the nearest tub of liquid, which just happened to be lavender essential oil. He was amazed at how quickly his burn healed, with very little scarring. This started the fascination with essential oils, and inspired him to experiment with them during the First World War on soldiers in the military hospitals.
The definition for aromatherapy reads, “The use of volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical wellbeing.”
How Essential Oils Work
I like to keep this simple, and call it the 3 P’s of how an essential oil works.
- Psychologically – scent has an enormous impact on our psyches, as it brings about memories evoked by certain smells. A scent can bring about different feelings & thoughts. For example, smelling vanilla may unveil a happy feeling, and a memory of cookies baking in the oven from childhood.
- Physiologically – Once an essential oil is absorbed through the skin, (which is quick and easy due to their lipid-solubility and extremely small molecular size), and enters the bloodstream, studies of a ‘before and after’ blood sample will detect a change. Depending on which essential oil was used, detectable amounts of the main chemical constituents of the oil are found in the bloodstream.
- Pharmacologically – The natural remedy for what the essential oil is used for. As René-Maurice determined, lavender essential oil healed his burn quickly.
QUALITY & PURITY
There are two well-known terms that are used when determining ‘how good’ an essential oil is.
Purity – refers to the authenticity, the promise, that the product is unadulterated.
Quality – grade of an oil, which can be influenced by growing, processing, or extraction methods.
Unfortunately, there is no standard for the purity of an essential oil. Like many people, it is assumed that if a product is labeled ‘essential oil’, it is natural and pure. Just like with the word, natural, this is not always the case. Most fragrances (including those labeled as natural or essential oils) used in the skin-care industry can be synthetic, including those found in natural food stores and coops.
GRADING OF ESSENTIAL OILS
As part of the quality determination of an essential oil, they may be given a certain grade. Typically, essential oil producers will grade their oils in one of the following acceptable categories:
- Conventional – traditional growth and extraction. Majority of essential oils.
- Organic – grown organically, using traditional growth and extraction methods. Harder to source, and can be cost prohibitive.
- Food-Grade – these oils carry an FCC rating approved for use in food flavorings or additives, and can be used in skin-care as well.
What about therapeutic grade?
Unfortunately, there is no official or standardized definition of the word therapeutic, in regards to essential oils.
The term ‘therapeutic grade’ is used as a marketing term to elicit the idea that the essential oil is of a grade that is ‘purer’ or ‘better’ than one that is not labeled therapeutic.
The amount of effective chemical constituents in essential oils can vary from season to season, based on the time of the year the essential oil was harvested, where the plant was grown, and how it was extracted.
What is the FDA’s involvement in regulating essential oils?
“Essential Oils” and “Aromatherapy”
There is no regulatory definition for “essential oils,” although people commonly use the term to refer to certain oils extracted from plants. The law treats Ingredients from plants the same as those from any other source.
The FDA regards an essential oil as a DRUG, when a claim is made in which the given essential oil will cure or treat a certain condition.
HOW TO DETERMINE IF YOU HAVE A QUALITY ESSENTIAL OIL PRODUCT
Labeling is the first indicator – although it does not always ensure purity. The label should state the common, and INCI / botanical name, for the given essential oil.
Example: Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) Essential Oil.
Now, this can be taken a step further. Quality essential oil companies will list, (or give you the information when requested), the origin of the essential oil, how it was extracted, and will give you the MSDS, Product Specifications, and any Certifications (kosher, fair trade, organic), when applicable.
Finally, trust in the purity of the product. Knowing where your product is coming from is just as important as the items listed above.
Kurt Schnaubelt, Medical Aromatherapy, Healing with Essential Oils, (Frog, Ltd. 1999).
René-Maurice Gottefossé, Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy: The First Book on Aromatherapy, (Girardot & Cie, Paris, 1937, 1993, 1995).
Kathie Keville and Mindy Green, Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art, (The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA, 1995).
U.S. Food & Drug Administration, http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/
Valerie Ann Worwood, The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy, (New World Library, 1991).
The Quality of Essential Oils, Jade Shutes, BA, Dipl. AT., Cert. Herbalist, https://www.naha.org/assets/uploads/The_Quality_of_Essential_Oils_Journal.pdf