Essential Oil Therapy, coined aromatherapy by French perfumer and chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, is the therapeutic application and use of essential oils to support the well-being and health of the subject (human or animal). The legend about Dr Gattefosse states while working in his laboratory, he had an accident that resulted in a third degree burn of his hand. Trying to cool the burn, he plunged his arm into a vat of lavender oil that his co-worker had just brought into a cooler. The burn pain started to decrease and within a few minutes stopped. He continued to apply the lavender oil and was surprised that the burn healed completely without a trace of a scar. He then became obsessed with the potential of healing properties in aromatic substances and as a chemist started to research the chemical properties of various essential oils. Dr Gattefosse is credited by many as the father of aromatherapy.
There are generally three schools of aromatherapy:
The German school – believes that the best way to get the benefit of essential oils is through inhalation. Inhalation puts the oil molecules into the blood stream via the lungs and directly to the brain via the olfactory nerves which connect to the central brain.
The English school – focuses on massage with neutral carrier oils. They believe that the oil mixture should contain 2 – 5% essential oils as a best practice. The English School uses the skin as the primary organ of absorption for essential oils applied diluted in low concentrations.
The French School – emphasizes taking essential oils orally, but in practice they utilize all four methods of administration: ingesting orally, applying to skin neat (undiluted), inhaling, and injecting.
In the US and Canada, the French and British schools predominate. The British rely on scientific research on animals, using oils that are often perfume or food grade, and usually applying only certain compounds isolated from essential oils rather than the whole oil. The British emphasize that aromatherapy can be unsafe and states many cautions and contraindications for oils taken neat or orally. These warnings are probably valid when non-therapeutic grade oils are applied. The French rely on scientific research with people using whole oils of therapeutic grade quality and, to a great extent, the empirical and anecdotal experience of their practices. These differences explain why there are some contradictions between books of different schools. It also reinforces why it is important to know what type of oil is being used, its source and purity.
David Stewart, in his book, The Chemistry of Essentials Oils Made Simple, defines a therapeutic grade essential oil as “one that is specially distilled from plants that are cultivated organically or grown wild in a clean environment (not gathered along a busy highway). Plants should be from the proper botanical genus, species and cultivar. No chemical fertilizers are added to the soil and crop cultivation is free of herbicides and pesticides. Essential oils should be extracted by steam distillation at minimum temperatures and pressures, as was done in ancient times. No chemical solvents are to be used in the extraction process.” David Stewart goes on to explain that The French agency AFNOR regulates the quality of essential oils as well as thousands of other French products but currently there are no standards for therapeutic-grade essentials oils set by any government agency in North America. Therefore, if you choose to follow the French school, it is imperative that you understand exactly where and how your essential oils are sourced.