How Do We Define Aromatherapy? |

Dec 3, 2020 12:15:00 PM | Aromatherapy and Essential Oils How Do We Define Aromatherapy? |

ACHS student Ashley Carpenter explores how aromatherapy is defined by various groups historically and in the present day.

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This article was written by ACHS student Ashley Carpenter.

Did you know that the use of aromatic plants was originally part of herbal medicine that dates back thousands of years, and is not confined to any geographical area? “Residual patterns of use and trade in contemporary society suggest that nearly every part of the world has some history of the use of aromatic plants in its healthcare system.” [2]

Some believe the term aromatherapy is just for inhalation use, while others believe that it means aromatherapy massage. Physicians in France define aromatherapy as “the inclusion of essential oils via oral, rectal, and vaginal routes.” [2] However, different levels of training are required for these more complex uses. [2] As you can see, aromatherapy has many different meanings depending on who you ask.

Aromatherapy is defined as the use of aromas for their healing properties. [7]

Shirley Price defines aromatherapy as the controlled use of essential oils to promote the health and vitality of the body, mind, and spirit by inhalation, baths, compresses, topical application and full-body massage. [7]

There are different types of aromatherapy. Holistic aromatherapy focuses on the restoration of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health through the application of essential oils. [7] Clinical aromatherapy is about targeting a specific clinical symptom and measuring the outcome. Clinical aromatherapy can be divided into medical aromatherapy and nursing aromatherapy. In France, Germany, and Switzerland, the oral use of essential oils is used by physicians. [2]

How does AIA Define Aromatherapy?

The Alliance of International Aromatherapists defines aromatherapy as:

“The inhalation and topical application of true, authentic essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty and well-being.”[1]


Historical Definitions

The use of essential oils dates back to ancient Egyptian times when they were used for embalming purposes. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse is known for coining the term “aromatherapy.” Gattefosse was a chemist and perfumer in the early 1900s. He discovered lavender essential oil's therapeutic actions after an accident in his lab that severely burned his hand. [7] Isn’t that incredible? His hand had become infected and one rinse with the lavender essential oil had stopped the infection. He was so impressed that he dedicated his life to researching essential oils. [2]

People have been using essential oils for thousands of years for their healing purposes. Now there are studies that are being done on essential oils that show their therapeutic capabilities. There is even evidence that some essential oils may be an alternative to treating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. [3] According to Buckle (2015), inhaled essential oils can affect the human brain or lungs, be absorbed through the skin, and be absorbed by ingestion.

Inhalation of essential oils is the fastest method of getting essential oils into the body and it may even be the oldest method. [2] For instance, inhaling bergamot essential oil helps with anxiety. [8]. Aromatherapy is potentially effective for pain in dysmenorrhea, labor/childbirth, blood pressure reduction in hypertension, stress, depression, sleep quality, and anxiety. [4]

How does NAHA define aromatherapy?

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy describes aromatherapy as follows:

Aromatherapy is described as both an art and a science because it takes the knowledge of the scientific aspects of the plants and oils and combines it with the art of producing a beneficial blend. Basically, a successful aromatherapy blend is a synergy of science, art, and the practitioner’s knowledge of both, and how to apply it.[5]

Aromatherapy is becoming more common in the healthcare industry. Some hospitals are starting to use essential oils as well. For instance, it has been found that inhalation of Lavender Lavandula angustifolia essential oil can significantly lower pain in postoperative cesarean patients [6], and topical application helps episiotomy recovery [9]. This can be a great alternative for patients. Now we can find essential oils in many stores throughout the world.

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Aromatherapy Safety

You have to be careful when using essential oils because many have been adulterated and are not pure, even though they are labeled that way commercially. This means that they have synthetic constituents added. Essential oils that have been adulterated should not be used for medicinal purposes. Essential oils can be adulterated with diluents and extenders.

The most common diluent is diethyl phthalate. “It has a bitter taste and can be irritating to mucous membranes. When absorbed through the skin, it depresses the nervous system. Current research indicates possible cancer-causing effects.” [7] Extenders are aroma materials that may have a close or identical fragrance and are synthetic. Particularly expensive oils are more likely to be diluted or extended or even be completely synthetic, such as rose or jasmine oil, because it takes about 2,000 rose petals to get 1 drop of rose otto oil. [7]

It is best to contact an educated aromatherapist when using essential oils for your health. You can always search for aromatherapists in your area with the NAHA, AIA, and the ARC, or you can contact the aromatherapist (here) for any information you may need. Aromatherapists can educate you on methods of use, safety, how often the oil should be used, and create a specific plan for your needs. Some essential oils can have contraindications and should not be used when certain health problems are present. Contacting an aromatherapist can be important and you should always consult with your primary care provider when choosing any holistic health plan.

ACHS has created an essential oil safety Ebook that you can download for free here.

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  1. Alliance of International Aromatherapists. (2020). Aromatherapy. Retrieved from

  2. Buckle, J. (2015). Clinical Aromatherapy Essential Oils in Healthcare (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO. Elsevier

  3. Doran, A.L., Morden, W.E., Dunn, K., & Edward-Jones, V. (2009). Vapour-phase activities of essential oils against antibiotic-resistant bacteria including MRSA. Lett Appl Microbiol, 48(4), 387-392. DOI: 10.1111/j.1472-765x.2009.02552.x.

  4. Freeman, M., Ayers, C., Peterson, C., & Kansagara, D. (2019). Aromatherapy and Essential oils: A Map of the Evidence. Washington (DC): Department of Veterans Affairs (US). Retrieved from:

  5. National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. (2020). What is Aromatherapy? Retrieved from:

  6. Olapour, A., Behaeen, K., Akhondzadeh, R., Soltani, F., Razavi, F.S., & Bekhradi, R. (2013). The Effect of Inhalation of Aromatherapy Blend Containing Lavender Essential Oil on Cesarean Postoperative Pain. Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, 3(1), 203-207. DOI: 10.5812/aapm.9570

  7. Petersen, D. (2017). Aroma 101 Introduction to Aromatherapy (17th ed.). Portland, OR. American College of Healthcare Sciences

  8. Rombola, L., Tridico, L., Scuteri, D., Sakurada, T., Sakurada, S., Mizoguchi, H., Avato, P., Corasaniti, M.T., Bagetta, G., & Morrone, L.A. (2017). Bergamot Essential Oil Attenuates Anxiety-Like Behavior in Rats. Molecules, 22(4), 614. DOI: 10.3390/molecules22040614

  9. Vakilian, K., Atarha, M., Bekhradi, R. & Chapman, R. (2011). Healing advantages of lavender essential oil during episiotomy recovery: a clinical trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 17(1), 50-53. DOI: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.05.006

Disclosure of Material Connection: I am a student at American College of Healthcare Sciences, the Institution that publishes this blog. However, all opinions are my own. This blog may contain affiliate links. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine. 

About American College of Healthcare Sciences

ACHS Founding President Dorene Petersen with three studentsAmerican College, founded in 1978, is a fully online accredited institute of higher education specializing in holistic health. Based in Portland, OR; our goal is to make research-driven and science-based holistic health education taught by industry-leading experts accessible to anyone anywhere while still giving students a hands-on experiential learning experience like a traditional college and a strong sense of community, school pride and student bond.

This commitment to our students and graduates reflects in our current survey results that reflect 98% of our students would recommend ACHS to a friend or family member.

We believe education is the most powerful tool for changing an individual and the world around us. 

When a person enrolls as ACHS, it is vitally important that they graduate with tools they need to forge their own holistic and sustainable missions, build up their communities confidently and changing the face of healthcare with knowledge.

Ashley Carpenter

Written By: Ashley Carpenter

Ashley Carpenter is an ACHS Certificate in Natural Products Manufacturing and Diploma in Aromatherapy graduate and current AAS in Complementary Alternative Medicine student, and the owner of Outlandish Remedies (