History of Aromatherapy

(Now and Then) The History of Aromatherapy, plus Facts & Stories

Essential oils are everywhere these days! Over the millennia, their popularity has grown in and out of focus, though. The history of Aromatherapy and essential oils is very fascinating. It dates way back in ancient times, and we have evidence. The stories are all interesting.

If you’re a fan of Aromatherapy, then you’re probably curious to know a little about its origins and history. In this post, you’ll find details about:


  • The history and importance of Aromatherapy today. To learn more about its ups and downs throughout the millennia, I feel it’s important to understand where it stands today.
  • Its history and importance over the course of millennia. Speaking about ups and downs, at some point, it was even considered evil.
  • How they used essential oils then versus how we use them today.
  • Last but not least, a few words on the effectiveness, safety, and toxicity of Aromatherapy.


The History of Aromatherapy (Ups, Downs, and Importance)


When it comes to modern Aromatherapy, there aren’t many unknowns. Except, of course, some oil molecules that haven’t yet been classified. This classification began in the 19th century.


Things are just as clear today as they were in the beginning. In the beginning, natural remedies were the only known medicines. It was only later, in between millennia, that this form of medicine became a bit confusing.


Things either advanced and new branches of natural therapies emerged. Or on the contrary, things hindered, like it happened during the Middle Ages.


Until we get there, though, I thought of starting this history of Aromatherapy with the present time.


Today, Aromatherapy is a form of CAM. CAM stands for complementary and alternative medicine. Aromatherapy uses essential oils as its main active substances. But that’s not all, because carrier oils and hydrosols are also used.


What is the theory behind aromatherapy? The theory is to enhance our health and wellbeing through natural and pleasant methods. Essential oils are great tools for doing just that.


Once the modern medicinal system took shape, advancements began. Slowly but surely, the medicine we know today, became able to save a lot of lives.


With natural remedies, you’re pretty blind as to what really happens within the body. Today’s medicine is a remarkable institution, but it is not without its flaws.


This is why natural therapies are still sought after. They can still help us feel better. And they can definitely help researchers find new drugs and learn new things.  


Let’s take the resistance of viruses and bacteria to antibiotics. Lab-made drugs follow specific pathways in our bodies. They involve certain physiological processes and get certain responses from the body.


Essential oils don’t follow specific pathways. They’re highly active substances. These oils are always interacting with the environment, including live organisms.


One single essence contains tens or hundreds of active compounds/molecules. These compounds work in a synergy together and interact with each other all the time. They can pass the protective biofilm of the virus and kill it from the inside. 


That’s why strong antimicrobial essential oils are so great at preventing some illnesses. Scientists agree that essential oils have a huge potential in today’s medicine. They can help us discover new alternatives to antibiotics.


One of the most prominent figures of today’s Aromatherapy is Robert Tisserand. He’s a chemist and an essential oil educator. He has the reputation of not associating himself with untrusty sellers. So, many people go to him when they’re in doubt about their oils.


Precious oils throughout the ages.


What are the benefits of using Aromatherapy today?

If you choose to use Aromatherapy remedies, you’ll enjoy many benefits. Both your mind and body will benefit from the effects of essential oils. Hydrosols are also great remedies, though they’re much gentler.


There is much medical research on the anti-anxiety properties of aromatic oils. Some of the best ones are Lavender, Sweet Orange, Ylang Ylang, and Sandalwood.


Of course, there are many others, but it will take some time until science gets to explore them all.


Aromatherapy oils can:
  • Prevent viral infections (the flu, colds, respiratory problems, etc.)
  • Strengthen the immune system.
  • Improve the aspect of skin.
  • Help to heal skin infections.
  • Get rid of dandruff and itchy scalp.
  • Strengthen the hair and improve its aspect.
  • Improve breathing.
  • Help you sleep better.
  • Relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Relieve stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Lower the rhythm of heart rate.
  • Relieve muscle tension.
  • Etc.


The term Aromatherapy was first used by a French scientist. His name was René-Maurice Gattefossé. It happened in the 20th century, in 1910 to be exact. This man is considered the father of Aromatherapy and what it represents today. He was very interested in perfumery.


Many of you are probably already familiar with this little story, so I will make it short. He discovered the healing properties of Lavender essential oil by accident.


From there on, he went researching the properties of many other essential oils. His first book appeared in 1931 and was called “Aromathérapie” (Aromatherapy). He did not, however, create essential oils.


Aromatherapy History and Schools


The first Aromatherapy school appeared in 1987, in England. Today, it is known as ITHMA – The Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy.


Three years later, in 1990, there was a second Aromatherapy school that opened in France. France has the longest tradition and the biggest influence in everything related to Aromatherapy.


Today, there are many schools of Aromatherapy open throughout many developed countries. ITHMA still exists and continues to prepare students from everywhere.


Today, the highest quality and pure essential oils are steam distilled. We have other extraction methods available, but distillation is the most accessible. The predecessor of a steam distiller is called an alembic


It’s a very old and outdated distilling device. It was invented by Ibn Hayyan, a Persian alchemist (medic), in the 10th century. We can say that essential oils as we know them today, were created in the 10th century.


Later on, Avicenna went on perfecting the alembic. He gave the device a look that was similar to today’s distiller. Avicenna or Ibn Sina was also Persian.


But how exactly old is Aromatherapy? Well, that could be an easy answer, but it isn’t. The fact is that archaeologists are still discovering evidence of herbs and oils used in various places.


For those who look for a brief history of Aromatherapy, I’m afraid there is none. In its whole, it’s a fascinating history, full of evidence and stories.


You’ve seen where Aromatherapy stands today. Now, I’m thinking it is time to see how it got here. For that, I’ll have to take you way back in time.


The farthest back we can go is in Ancient Egypt. So here’s an answer to “how old is Aromatherapy”: about 6.000 years old.


History of Aromatherapy in Ancient Egypt

  • Ancient Egypt is the farthest in time we can go to determine when people used essential oils. This happened before Christ, in 4.500. Their distillation was very rudimental and looked more like maceration.
  • The use of oils was more mystical than medicinal. These areas of expertise were both connected to some strong magical beliefs and symbols. Thus, aromatic oils were used more in religious rituals like embalming.
  • They were, however, used as perfumes and beauty ingredients too.
  • Ancient Egypt influenced lots of other civilizations, offering them valuable knowledge. These civilizations were the Roman Empire and Greece among others.


History of Aromatherapy in Ancient India

  • In India we have Ayurveda. It’s a very ancient system of herbal medicine that uses a holistic approach when diagnosing someone. This system is 5000 years old. Similar systems were used in other Asian parts back then, like China.
  • The early stages of Ayurveda used holy essences like Sandalwood oil. They were infusions or macerations, not really essential oils. This means that the bark or plant was infused in vegetable oils like Sesame, for days.


History of Aromatherapy in The Middle East

  • Ancient Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia, kept records of using aromatic medicine. These are among the oldest written records known, dating from 5.500 BC.
  • Aromatic oils in this era were strongly connected to the gods. Sumerians believed they can care for their souls with these essences.
  • The oils were first used as perfumes. When Egyptian knowledge reached them, that changed. They used the oils mostly to heal some skin conditions.


History of Aromatherapy in Ancient China

  • The ancient Chinese medicine helped advance the art of Aromatherapy. This term was, of course, unknown to them. The Chinese used plants and hers, and their oils in their medicinal system.
  • It is believed that a Chinese God Emperor wrote down details about a hundred essential oils. These were meant to be used as medicine.


History of Aromatherapy in Greece & the Roman Empire


History of Aromatherapy in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire

  • The Greeks are the first in the Mediterranean basin to use medicinal plants.
  • Alexander the Great imported essential oils from Egypt.
  • They were using them for all kinds of purposes: aromatic baths, balms, perfumes, gifts to the gods, etc.
  • Aristotle continues the work of Hippocrates. He writes about hundreds of medicinal plants, how to use them, what for, etc. Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, writes the “History of plants”. This is the most complete work on plants and their use.
  • Later on, this knowledge influences the Roman Empire too. Plant extracts know a climax during this period. Men and women alike used the plants mostly for seduction.
  • The first century after Christ is the time of “De materia medica”. Dioscorides wrote it. He was a highly-regarded Greek doctor, with a lot of influence in the Roman Empire. 


History of Aromatherapy in the New Continent

  • The Americas used rudimentary forms of essential oils and plant extracts before Christ also.
  • The Maya, the Aztecs, and the Incas were all using medicinal plants before the time of the Crusades.


History of Aromatherapy in the Middle Ages

  • During the Middle Ages, essential oils and herbs, in general, were considered evil. They were linked to sorcerers and witches.
  • In Britannia, the Druid monks were trying to create immortality potions. They did that from plants and their oils. They were common only in monasteries and the mansions of rich people.
  • During the Crusades, the oils and plants know a renewed interest. The distillation process becomes ordinary and the oils were known remedies for diseases.  


History of Aromatherapy during the Renaissance period


History of Aromatherapy in the Renaissance Period

  • Until now, the only complete reference to essential oils and remedies was De materia medica.
  • This period makes the oils popular throughout Europe. This era is when the first air diffusion of aromatic oils takes place. The first diffusers were called “pomanders”. The term comes from the French word pomme, meaning apple. They were very intensely used against epidemics.
  • Today, the pomander defines a round-shaped container that holds plants and oils. Thus, their scent is slowly released through small orifices.  


These are some of the most important aspects of the history of Aromatherapy and essential oils.


As you can see, throughout time, plants and their extracts played a very important role. There are many stories and theories about this topic, and you’ll probably read them all eventually.  


Then vs. Now: How We Use Aromatherapy Oils

Plant extracts were not only oils. They were also concoctions and balms. There is not much difference between how they used Aromatherapy then versus now.


The most common method of use was the topical application, as is today. Back in the days, people would also take the extracts orally. Nowadays, this practice is reserved only for medics.


Nobody should take essential oils internally without their doctor’s advice. They risked a lot back then too, but there was no other option.


In ancient times, people would also burn incense to purify their homes and souls. Today, we still use incense, but the most preferred method remains the diffusion of volatile oils.


It’s a lot less messy and it doesn’t pollute the air. On top of those benefits, essential oils can also disinfect the air and make it smell nice.


History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils


Aromatherapy Research, Effectiveness, Safety & Toxicity

Have you ever heard about pharmacognosy (fɑːməˈkɒɡnəsi)? This term is a mixture of two Greek words: 1) “pharmakon” and 2) “gnosis”. One means drugs and the other knowledge.


Thus, pharmacognosy is the knowledge of herbal drugs. It’s a term that describes the scientific approach of using essential oils and other plant extracts.


This branch of knowledge tries to validate and isolate drug properties from plants. It is also called molecular Aromatherapy.


Through this knowledge, scientists were able to produce the aspirin from willow. Morphine also comes from poppy seeds.


Today, scientists continue to study essential oils and other herbs and roots. They contribute to add to our knowledge on how the oils work and how they can help our health.


New individual oil molecules are still discovered. With that, they discover new oil properties as well.


This kind of research is a very complex one. It also takes a lot of funds, which explains why Aromatherapy is still an uncharted territory.


Some plant oils contain hundreds of chemical compounds. Rose, for instance, contains over 300 and coffee has at least 600!


We do have some evidence that essential oils are effective. Unfortunately, we need a lot more. Especially to determine the status of a natural essence as a recognized treatment option. The oils do have useful properties and many people swear by their benefits.


The world of medicine and insurances, however, need solid-based facts. Until Aromatherapy can provide that, it remains an effective complementary therapy. It makes us feel better when we inhale them, which matters a lot to our wellbeing.


Modern-Day Aromatherapy Research


Some of the oil compounds may be toxic, especially if ingested or used with other drugs. That is why you should always talk to a doctor in advance.


Aromatherapy oils are usually very safe when used in a small amount over short periods of time. Avoid taking them internally or when pregnant/breastfeeding to avoid complications.


Also, stick to diffusion and topical use only. Always dilute them in some carrier oil before application.


If you want to keep up with new discoveries, you can always subscribe to the International Journal of Aromatherapy. It’s a quarterly publication and it’s read in over 40 countries worldwide. 



If I were to make a short summary of the history of Aromatherapy, it would be a bit tricky. It’s as old as 6.000 years and it seems to have originated in Ancient Egypt. All the other civilizations used them and some also feared them.


A Persian alchemist invented the first rudimentary steam distiller. It was called alembic. As it was fading from our attention in the last century, now it’s back. People have a renewed interest in using alternative medicines like Aromatherapy.


I started talking about the history of Aromatherapy from a present-day point of view. I hope the small incursion in the past was enjoyable and easy to read too. I sure had fun finding out so many great things about Aromatherapy.

What do you think about the past and origins of our beloved essential oils?


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