(Investigator 48, 1996 May)

Aromatherapy is essentially a massage using the vaporous oils of selected plants rubbed into the body to relieve muscular tensions caused by mental or physical stress. Although becoming extremely popular today, its origins pre-date its New Age revival by many thousands of years.

The use of plants, herbs, roots, bark and their derivatives for cures, balms, the alleviation of disease, complaints and conditions, date back to ancient civilizations. China's greatest naturalist, Li Shin-chen, listed over 1800 different kinds of medical materials in his Chinese Pharmacopoeia, (1578) including 1000 medical prescriptions, some still in use today. Similarly, the ancient Greeks, Romans and early Middle Eastern civilizations, all recorded the balms and remedies they derived from local plant life. The natives of the two Americas also developed sophisticated herbal remedies, and India too, made its 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.

While the ingestion or external application of many types of plant derivatives coming to us from ancient traditions are known to alleviate and cure various ailments, it is also believed by many practitioners that the vapour from some plant oils contain therapeutic properties which, when inhaled, also have curative powers - a metaphysical concept - the vapours are considered to be the odic force, life energy or clan vital, which can affect the psyche of the patient effecting cures for ailments other than those of an intestinal origin - heart disease and fractures for example. Those suffering from sinus conditions and asthma attacks will testify to the efficacy of some inhalants.

Anxious to persuade clients of aromatherapy's acceptance and durability, aromatherapists claim that the belief in the curative powers of vaporous oils dates back 3000 years to ancient Egypt and India, the Indian medicine known as ayuvedic (translated as knowledge of longevity). While it is true that old records listing the medicinal remedies derived from plants are still available today for all to see, there is no evidence to support the claim that aromatherapy was also practised by the ancients.

Likewise, while aromatherapists believe in the curative powers of vaporous oils this belief is not supported by empirical evidence. There is no doubting Mother Nature's bountiful supply of herbs and the beneficial use of them through balms, salves, poultices, oils and medicines however, but a word of caution is necessary on the possible dangerous and deleterious side effects of some of them.

In a concentrated form distilled herbs can be very toxic or harmful in other ways. Some oils cause cancer, others skin irritation and sensitivity. Children have died after ingesting eucalyptus oil, and just one teaspoonful of Wintergreen oil has taken the life of more than one infant. Both have been listed as Schedule Six poisons and containers must have childproof caps and carry warnings. Dr. Lorna Cartwright, a lecturer in pharmacy at the University of Sydney and an expert on medicinal plants, warns that many of the herbal treatments recommended by their proponents have not been subject to clinical trials to establish their efficacy, and because many people believe that "natural" products are automatically safe, they accept them without question. Further, packing and labeling often fail to give adequate warnings, lack childproof lids and make doubtful therapeutic claims. Legislation is in the pipeline to put the Therapeutic Goods Act into practise and major changes are proposed in respect of promotional literature and the labeling of some brands.

In the absence of any definitive proof that aromas can effect cures, one can only conclude, that while a massage utilising pleasant smelling oils can be an enjoyable relaxation therapy, the claim that vaporous oils have anything other than a psychological effect is fatuous.

[From: Skeptoon an Illustrated Look at some New Age Beliefs, 1994, Harry Edwards. Published by Harry Edwards Publications.]