Aromatherapy what is it

Recently I spent some time with one of my commercial clients reviewing the recent past of Aromatherapy and what we may call its industrial market.  We looked at all the new terms which have been spawned, from Aromachology, Aromaology, Aromatology etc.  We discussed related subjects like osmotherapy.  We chewed the fat over science, consumer perception, even religious aspects and overtones.  Our conclusion was that the term Aromatherapy was so broad as to have little meaning.  

I remember stating almost 20 years ago that such a schism, whilst annoying to the professional therapist, has a certain benefit when it comes to legal issues.  This can clearly be seen by looking at the English speaking world where there has been a phenomenal increase in the public’s interest in all things that smell nice.  This interest in “smell” can only be attributed directly to the pioneers of Aromatherapy.  The fashion conscious Far East quickly followed the English speaking world in its interest in Aromatherapy, despite its quirks of legislation.  Old Europe, the European Union excluding the United Kingdom, was very slow to join the rest of the world of  Aromatherapy.  As we ca see Aromatherapy has not taken off in the old Europe as in the rest of the world.  

The Europeans have been years behind in this market trend.  This is most likely due to the narrow use of the term Aromatherapy by French speakers.  The term aromatherapie has a distinct medical use in France and resultantly the perfume industry failed to take up the term until more recent times.  Perhaps too, it was not until the Spanish and Italian essential oil producers really woke up to the new markets of Aromatherapy that the French producers began to see that there was some money to be made.

The pioneers of modern day Aromatherapy had no idea, I am sure, that we would end up with aromatherapy tissue papers, aromatherapy washing up liquid, aromatherapy ironing water, aromatherapy candles and so forth.

Well, as I said last week to my client, we might not know what Aromatherapy is but the consumer still keeps buying the stuff!  No doubt time will sort fashion out from reality and the profession will emerge strengthened but perhaps with different disciplines.  Who knows?  The really important fact is that Aromatherapy isn’t going to go away and that it has survived, despite different legislatative regimes that attempt to curb it or repress it.  The European Union in particular, with its mania for harmonisation and standardisation, continues to attack Aromatherapy from the bottom up – the bottom here being essential oils.  

Theoretically the only thing that joins the market - e.g. the tissue paper to the candle, from the candle to the massage oil – is the use of essential oils.  So I suppose that the bureaucrats view is that if you can’t control the use, then you can control the raw material.  This is certainly the case and if we are not careful, despite all the soft words, all the soothing noises from different governments and their departments, we are in danger of losing essential oils from common use.

How so?  Well perhaps before getting into what Aromatherapy is, we should look at what an essential oil is and what our primary interest in them should be.  The word aroma implies that smelling things does you good, yet most course work that I see gives more emphasis to the internal use, either by ingestion (depending on what country you are in) or by cutaneous application or by inhalation.  Yet at the heart of the attraction of Aromatherapy surely should be its “smell”.  Aromatherapy itself has spawned a world of academia, all studying smell.  More and more evidence suggests that in scientific terms we don’t know as much about it as we thought we did!  

The original idea of Aromatherapy that essential oils improved mood - or rather enhanced mood or changed mood and therefore changed the internal environment leading to an improvement of the immune system – is no longer far fetched.  The mechanisms, as reductionist theorists would say, are beginning to be understood.  Brain chemistry and its relationships to the “electricity” of the brain is being more closely considered.  Aromatherapy schools, however, continue to give as lot of emphasis to rather mundane chemistry and the modern day therapist is far more likely to say x oil contains y chemical, therefore it does this action.  Certainly that’s demonstrable if we are looking at bacteria in a glass dish or if we are looking at animal tissue, as is mostly the case, and its reaction to certain chemical stimuli.  

That approach, however, has little value when considering the effect of smell and the immune system which is highly individualistic.  Individual reactions do not fit well with standardisation.  The very nature of our modern world lends itself to simple standardisation and what we may loosely call the chemical approach to Aromatherapy.  From the bureaucrat’s point of view this fits very neatly into the need to control essential oils and why from their perspective there is a need to go beyond common sense and perhaps a few warning notices (the reasons yet to be explained) for no other fact that control is the nature of the bureaucratic animal. 

What, then, is an essential oil?  If we talk to a consumer, a client, a patient and even most therapists, they will start talking about plants and nature, flowers, trees, sunshine and the essence of what nature is all about.  Very often they will relate essential oils to foods – anything from a good wine to a real orange.  This is of course what the commercial market has led the consumer to believe.  The typical shampoo that contains herbal extracts or essential oils will have a nice country image attached to it.  However the product has come out of a factory, not a field. The factory will have had to conform to a great deal of legislation in producing the goods and the extract or the essential oil used will, in reality, be a far cry form what the consumer expects and a long way from nature and the soil and sun.  

An essential oil is not defined as an agricultural product.  It is an industrial product.  As an industrial product it can be manipulated and standardised.  Most therapists don’t realise this.  The industrialist, above all, wants conformity and standardisation.  Natural variation is unacceptable.  Standardisation can begin at ground level by selecting a clone from a specific plant which is likely therefore to conform to last year’s crop.  When the oils are collected from several places or countries, it is blended to produce what the customer wants, the customer usually being a manufacturer of cosmetics, perfumes, paints, soaps etc.  What emerges as an essential oil is therefore quite a long way from nature.  It can be described as natural in the sense that at some point in the ground its components were found in a plant.  It may be described in Latin as a plant name but it is more a “type” than a fact.

Such a standard product, however, which has been designed to conform to a standard, can now be demonstrated to conform to that standard by the wonders of such a thing as a gas liquid chromatograph or mass spectrometer.  Of course it’s hardly likely to fail because the standard was designed for an industry that was committed to standardisation!  So the mass market in essential oils and those mostly used in Aromatherapy are pretty bland, blended products, industrialised to conform to a specific requirement.  In a way that’s not so bad, because at least the consumer has something that resembles what they expected.  It’s good for the industrialist who knows that his product won’t fall apart or go off because of some unknown chemistry going on in the emulsion or product.  

So let’s accept that standardisation has its place and values.  It also has a value in relation to stopping outright fraud.  As Aromatherapy has grown it has spawned a demand for “pure” essential oils.  Pure is a notion, not a fact.  Purity can be defined as conforming to a standard.  Purity can mean it is untouched by the standard.  It all depends on your market position.  Aromatherapists have, however, continued to use the term and yet have often demanded lower and lower prices.  Aromatherapy has got itself into supermarkets and we all know that their pricing policies hardly encourage good food let alone good essential oils.  

It is hardly surprising then to find that many cheap essential oils might turn out to be a long way from what they claim to be.  For example Frankincense may have large doses of Turpentine, German Chamomile might turn out to have a synthetic azulene and be mixed with a different species.  World shortages, such as occurred a while back with Patchouli or perhaps with Sandalwood may also encourage different degrees of falsification.  Whilst there are checks available – for example the gas liquid chromatograph we referred to above – price led buying will always lead to people trying to make more profit by selling poor quality.  There are few, if any, bargains in essential oils least of all for those that are scarce.  

To read the literature concerning professional Aromatherapy you would think that nearly every essential oil comes off a farm direct and not from a factory.  Well, in marketing speak, by stretching reality like a piece of elastic that has to be true in the sense that most essential oils, at some point in the distant past, came from a piece of ground somewhere.  The therapist, however, has to take on board that you only get what you pay for.  The majority of essential oils are blended, as discussed above.  What does the therapist really claim to want?  If they have been led to a chemical approach to Aromatherapy, perhaps best described as the green magic bullet, then the industrialised oil is perfectly acceptable for their need.  If however the therapist talks about life force and holism then different considerations might well come into play.  

The argument between vitalism and reductionism is not a new one and lies at the heart of many historical as well as present arguments among medical people.  Surely each position has its own specific value.  My personal position has always been this – if you want a vital, whole oil then you are best off by taking a wild crafted essential oil, distilled on site, unrectified, at low pressure, from a specific species population.  The provisos are that the distillation should be with good equipment and the farmer/producer clearly dedicated to his work.  The work is, in my opinion, an agricultural product in the same way that wine is an agricultural product if produced in the same way.  This is a long way from the industrialised versions which have their own place and purpose.  

It is fashionable to denigrate this “peasant” approach.  It is usually done by people who have a very poor understanding of what wild crafting is.  Typically a townsperson will go into the countryside and think that what is wild is really such.  This can apply to heather on moors, to lavender on garrigues.  Little thought is given to grazing, burning, the subtle changes of nature brought about by soil changes or erosion and so on.  The wild crafters I know are very committed people, committed to sustainability, committed to philosophies that are not fashionable and often living a hard rustic life.  We have a slide presentation of wild crafting that often amazes people when seeing herbs being cut early in the morning, sorted by hand, identified and distilled within hours.  The result in aroma is just fantastic compared to the industry norm or standard.  The idea that such people are going out into the countryside stripping the land is simply not true.  This applies as much to France as to Brazil.   As wild crafting is also part of organic growing, there are even written standards that people conform to.  There is simply no future in wild crafting for industrial purposes.  There is no market for their product because it is extremely valuable and highly priced, perhaps even ten times the price of some of the industrialised material.  Often so called wild material, wild lavender, wild tea tree perhaps, is a wild type not the reality, blended to look like a population rather than the reality.

Wild crafting standards related to organic certification is more than just about indiscriminate harvesting.  It also has to be linked to the fundamental idea of preservation of cultural traditions and to provide income not only to relatively wealthy western workers but also to some of the poorest communities in the world.  It is also important to realise that wild harvesting or wild crafting is important for the maintenance of the diverse environment.  Generally speaking all standards would require that the collectors work in conformity with local national and international legislation and action plans including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  

It is quite usual within a standard or a community for a quality management plan to be established, which must be maintained and documented.  All manner of things must be included, including the harvesting plan details which would deal with those who actually do the work, the maintenance of the species being collected and an understanding of the sustainable yield of the area so that it is not exceeded.  Also consideration should be given to the surrounding areas so that they are not damaged through careless access.

Other matters, too, would need consideration within a management plan.  If the species is to have the desired effect then the collection must be carried out at an appropriate time of year to maximise the use of the plant and also to minimise environmental impact.  The collectors must take only those parts that are required by the application.  This would minimise fertility depletion so a good understanding of the regeneration of the plant would have to be held by the local people.  Each species will vary.

There are a host of other issues that would relate to wild crafting and wild harvesting but at the end of the day the therapist has to consider what they want.  Undoubtedly wild crafted materials give the most attractive vital energy or life force especially noted in Aromatherapy.  In a healing profession this then would be a logical material to use.  If this resource was not available or if there was a problem associated with its availability then it would be natural to take in a secondary source, perhaps organic growing.  But then that is a large subject in itself.

There is a distinct difference between wild crafting and just taking from the wild.  It would be quite wrong to disadvantage each crafter and community by talking of bans and so on when the people are the custodians of the land and its wild harvest.  Increasingly such folk are working with government agencies on conservation projects and in better understanding the way nature changes.  Green politics are riddles with shock horror stories rather than good news stories.  There are also good news stories about conservation of fragile species as this journal has shown.

The nose will often tell you that there is a certain vitality.  For years I have said that it’s not what it smells like but what it feels like that makes the difference.  Here we come back to the concept of vital force or vital energy.  When working as a consultant with Nelson’s, the homeopathic company, the company always described Aromatherapy as an “energy medicine”.  In other words, there was a dimension beyond its chemistry.  There are significant differences in smell and its effect, smell here being best described as feel.  Very often wild crafted material has a certain freshness.  As with most things in Aromatherapy we come to a point where we are struggling with words to describe what we feel through our nose.

Despite all the chemistry and analysis in the world it is often tradition and experience that has taught us how to use a plant or at least given us the indicators.  Rarely is there a discovery by chance in plant medicine without direction from original sources, texts or people.  In terms of orthodox medicine and orthodox Aromatherapy the active principle is often sought.  But even identifying the so called active has been shown to have its downside.  An example often quoted is Valerian.  It is often said that the valedotriates were the responsible active constituents for its relaxant effect.  However when these were removed, Valerian still had its effects.  So we come back to the idea of synergy and whether or not the chemistry of the plant is important or perhaps its physics is at least as important.  

When looking at the works of Dr Brian Lawrence, the world’s acknowledged leading expert on the analysis of essential oils, I am constantly amazed not only at the variation of new components being found but also at the incredible number of components, some of them in tiny, tiny amounts.  A true GLC would contain hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of components.  The student or Aromatherapist looks at an analysis from a supplier and maybe sees 10 or if he’s lucky 20 components which is described as the standard.  How far from reality such cheap and cheerful commercial GLCs are.  Aromatherapists in particular should pay attention to such details when purchasing oils and take note where they see reference to a whole oil as opposed to a material that is processed in a high pressure, high temperature still to achieve a standard and low price, where minor components are lost and destroyed.  Minor component means major effect.

David Williams, a well known educator in Aromatherapy, cites the case of Galbanum oil where the pyrazines which are present at less than 0.1% are actually responsible for the green odour character of the oil.  One of the most powerful odours known – thioterpineol – found in some citrus, is said to have so much dispersing power that 10 mls, if distributed around the world, would be enough to be noticed.  Such huge strengths in such tiny components – do we really know what we are dealing with yet?

At the end of the day, we probably all have to make compromises somewhere with the materials that we use.  There isn’t that much wild crafted material about and there are very few organic oils compared to the multitude of things on offer.  Experience gradually tells us which brands are best, which companies are trustworthy, which companies have specialities and so on.  Aromatherapy in a medical context or in a professional skin care context to me requires an energetic approach and I go a long way to find the right oil with the right feel.  For a mass market shampoo that’s quite another matter.  When I buy one I have to accept that I am buying a dream not a reality.  If I buy wild material, I like to think through the implications.  Does it come from a war torn country where ethics might be crossed?  Do I trust my supplier? If I do, then sometimes it’s nice to know that my money is contributing to building up a community or even building up a species and doing something positive rather than being negative such as I won’t buy this because…..  In truth the use by true Aromatherapists is so tiny that any impact is negligible.

Aromatherapy has many aspects but it will survive the longest as a healing art.  It will survive not because someone has standardised an essential oil or patented a particular aspect.  It will survive because people feel that it does them good.  It will survive because the mainline society will see in a chemical sense that essential oils can behave like standard drugs and will “cure”.  Fundamentally it will survive, not through our understanding but through our lack of understanding, our feeling of well being that produces homeostasis, giving us ease without the dis.