(Investigator 150, 2013 May)


The use of plants, herbs, roots, bark and their derivatives for cures, balms, the alleviation of disease, complaints and conditions, dates back to ancient civilisations.

China's greatest naturalist, Li Shin-chen, listed over 1800 different kinds of medical materials in his (1578) Chinese Pharmacopoeia, including 1000 medical prescriptions, some still in use today.

Similarly, the ancient Greeks, Romans and early Middle Eastern civilisations, all recorded the balms and remedies they derived from local plant life.

The natives of the two Americas and India also developed sophisticated herbal remedies, and made their contribution three millennia ago. Some of these ancient discoveries such as quinine, rauwolfin (snake root), iodine, curare, and morphine have become an accepted part of the mainstream medical profession.


Modern aroma therapy advocates believe that the vapours from some plant oils contain therapeutic properties. When inhaled, these exert curative powers — a metaphysical concept. The vapours are considered to be the odic force, life energy or elan vital. These can, it is believed, affect the psyche of the patient effecting cures for ailments other than those of an intestinal origin such as heart and liver diseases, and fractures.


Essentially, the practice of aroma therapy consists of a massage using the vaporous oils of selected plants rubbed into the body to relieve muscular tensions caused by mental or physical stress. The vapours can also be inhaled or the oils used as an additive to bath water.


Most of the claims made by aromatherapists are causally confused, dubious and typically vague. For example: A few drops of a particular oil in your bath water will leave you pleasantly refreshed and relaxed. But was it the warm bath water or the additive that did the trick? To make unsafe water potable, boil it and add rosemary. But what made it safe, the boiling or the additive? A little jasmine massaged into the groin will promote sexual stimulation. I suggest a massage in that area with or without jasmine would have the same result.

Ambiguity is a favourite tactic used by aromatherapists. Frawley, in Herbs and the Mind, quotes one practitioner as saying, "incense cleanses the air of negative energies". But what are negative energies? Another "keeps the nerves in balance". What is an "unbalanced" nerve? Benzoin resinoid will "drive out evil spirits". Have you ever seen an evil spirit? And so on, ad nauseum.

While various vapours are certainly pleasant to smell, and a massage in oil can promote relaxation and a feeling of wellbeing, there is no scientific evidence in support of other unwarranted claims made by most aromatherapists.

From: Edwards, H. 1999 Alternative, Complementary, Holistic & Spiritual Healing, Australian Skeptics Inc.