The History and Foundations of Aromatherapy

Tao L | 24 September 2023
Reading time : about 8 minutes
The History and Foundations of Aromatherapy

    The practice of aromatherapy, which involves treating various ailments using aromatic plant extracts known as essential oils, has ancient origins dating back to the history of phytotherapy. This discipline emerged simultaneously in several regions of the world, notably in China, India, Mesopotamia and around the Mediterranean. As soon as human beings began to explore the potential of plants, they looked for ways to extract their beneficial components. Distillation and extraction techniques are said to have been described in India and China, where the Chinese even wrote a collection of essential oil recipes called the "Pen tsao" (or Shennong Bencao Jing).

    In ancient Egypt, aromatic plants were used to purify homes, make cosmetics and embalm the dead. The Egyptians used a rudimentary distillation method in which plants were mixed with boiling water, then the steam impregnated fabrics. This technique was also associated with religious rituals aimed at purifying the air and offering essential oils to the gods. Egyptian priests were considered the world's first perfumers, preparing aromatic plant-based blends called kyphi. Wealthy individuals used these essential oils to embalm their deceased, helping to preserve the mummies discovered centuries later.

    Later, in 16th-century Provence, local craftsmen began producing essential oils from plants such as juniper wood, aspic and rosemary. However, with the progress of Western medicine and the development of synthetic products through chemistry, the use of essential oils was somewhat forgotten.

    It wasn't until the 20th century that the term "aromatherapy" was first used. The discipline was revived by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who improved the practice by using it to treat an injury he had sustained. After burning his hand in a laboratory accident, Gattefossé dipped his hand in lavender essential oil, known for its antiseptic and healing properties. According to legend, his healing was remarkably rapid, sparking renewed interest in essential oils for medicinal purposes.

    Avicenna, a 10th-century Persian philosopher and physician, is credited with creating the alembic in the year 1000, an invention that enabled aromatic extracts to be extracted from plants. He is said to have been the first to extract a pure essential oil, notably rose oil. Subsequently, other researchers such as Jean Valnet and Pierre Franchomme contributed to the development of aromatherapy by studying and promoting the properties of essential oils. Today, aromatherapy is a growing success in France and elsewhere, with millions of bottles sold every year, and is practiced in many countries, including Brazil and India.

    The fundamental principles of aromatherapy are based on several essential concepts and methods of use.


    Aromatherapy is largely based on the process of distillation. During this process, the aromatic plant is heated, transforming the water in a vat into steam. This steam then passes through the plant, releasing the aromatic molecules. The vapour is then cooled in a coil, returning to a liquid state in a Florentine vase. At this stage, the essential oil, which is lighter than water, floats to the surface and is separated from the water. Different parts of the plant, such as leaves, flowers, stems, bark, thorns or wood, can be distilled to obtain essential oils with different properties. For example, to obtain essential oils from dried or fresh flowers, it is necessary to place them in a vat before distillation. The resulting essential oils are packaged in dark bottles to protect them from light, and retain their properties for around five years.


    During the distillation process, water heated in the vat containing the plant is transformed into steam, which contains the plant's aromatic molecules. After cooling and returning to a liquid state, this residue is collected in another vessel, called a Florentine vase. This extract, made up of the water used for distillation and containing the plant's aromatic molecules and trace elements, is known as a "hydrolat". Unlike essential oils, hydrolats contain fewer active molecules (around 0.1%) and are also rich in minerals and trace elements. Hydrolats are recommended for their gentleness, and are suitable for a wide range of people, from children to the elderly. However, it is advisable to consult a professional, at least when first using them.

    Differences between hydrolats and essential oils

    Hydrolats and essential oils differ in their composition and properties. Hydrolats contain active and fragrant molecules, albeit in lower concentrations than essential oils (0.1% vs. 100%). What's more, unlike essential oils, hydrolats contain minerals and trace elements. Hydrolats are used in a variety of applications, including aromatherapy, cooking for their aroma, as sprays or for therapeutic purposes, both internally (undiluted or diluted in lukewarm water, as a gargle) and externally (applied to the skin).

    Common contraindications and indications

    It's important to note that some hydrolats are not suitable for everyone. For example, certain hydrolats are not recommended for children aged 0 to 3, including oregano, savory, yarrow, rosemary camphor, hyssop and ledonium.Cinnamon, ginger, oregano, savory, thyme, thymol and frankincense can also be taken orally. In addition, sage oil should be avoided by people who have had or are suffering from hormone-dependent cancer. Hydrolats are often used for their soothing, anti-stress, anti-infectious, anti-rheumatic, skin and eye relaxant properties, etc.

    Precautions for use and storage

    Hydrolats can be used in larger quantities than essential oils, but it is strongly recommended that you consult a professional or refer to serious literature for proper use. Hydrolats should be kept refrigerated to preserve their freshness and properties.

    Various methods of use

    1. Oral route : One to three drops of essential oil can be taken in a teaspoon of honey or olive oil, or on a small sugar cube or neutral tablet (available in pharmacies). Avoid ingesting the essential oil pure or in water.

    2. Cutaneous use : No more than six drops of essential oil mixed with two teaspoons of vegetable oil (such as sweet almond oil) should be used for massage.

    3. Inhalation : You can inhale a few pure drops on a handkerchief or by inhaling directly from the bottle for a few seconds.

    4. In the bath : A few drops can be added to a tablespoon of bath base (such as labrafil or plant milk).

    5. In a diffuser : A few drops can be placed in a saucer near a heat source, or a dozen drops can be used in a diffuser.

    Self-medication is a key principle of aromatherapy, and an integral part of its users' enjoyment. Numerous well-documented practical guides are available to help you find your way around and take the necessary precautions. However, it is advisable to seek the advice of a professional, such as a pharmacist or aromatherapist, before taking the plunge. Once you've familiarized yourself with the discipline, you can also refer to practical guides.


    Aromatherapists often recommend using several essential oils simultaneously, as they can potentiate their effects. For example, in cases of water retention, Pistachio Mastic and Italian Helichrysum are often combined for their draining properties. However, it's essential to consult a professional rather than creating a potentially dangerous blend yourself.

    Buying the right essential oils

    If you choose to buy essential oils, it's best to opt for quality, even if this can sometimes cost a little more. Organic essential oils, bearing the AB (Agriculture Biologique) label, are recommended, as they guarantee the absence of GMOs and pesticides. The HECT (Huile Essentielle Chémotypée) and HEBBD (Huile Essentielle Botaniquement et Biochimiquement Définie) labels are also guarantees of quality. It's important to check that the plant's Latin name is indicated on the label to be sure you're buying the recommended variety. For example, Ocimum basilicum (exotic or tropical basil) and Ocimum sanctum (holy basil) have different properties. The origin of production and the part of the plant distilled should also appear on the label.

    Over-the-counter essential oils and contraindications

    Some essential oils may only be sold by pharmacists, due to their potential toxicity. The Agence Nationale de la Sécurité des Médicaments (ANSM) points out that these essential oils can be toxic, irritating, phototoxic or carcinogenic. The fifteen essential oils subject to this regulation include wormwood, wormwood, common mugwort, white mugwort, arborescent mugwort, Canada cedar, sage, tansy, sassafras (carcinogenic), sabine, rue, wormwood, and jonciform mustard. All other essential oils are sold over the counter, but it is important to note that, according to the ANSM, they must not claim therapeutic indications if their composition is not guaranteed as to their potential therapeutic effect.

    Common indications

    Essential oils have a wide range of applications, from the management of dermatological problems (acne, cold sores, scars, etc.) to digestive disorders (bloating, constipation, etc.) and ENT disorders (colds, coughs, bronchitis, etc.). They are also used to relieve fatigue, stress, insomnia and osteoarticular pain.

    Precautions to be taken

    It is essential to respect the contraindications associated with the use of essential oils, particularly for pregnant women, people suffering from hormone-dependent cancer, hypertension, or other specific ailments. Essential oils must be used with caution, and in case of doubt, it's best to seek advice from a pharmacist or aromatherapist.

    Published on 24 September 2023 at 09:52
    Updated on 24 September 2023 at 12:00

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    Tao L

    Tao L

    Web Editor

    My name is Tao and I am very passionate about complementary medicine. In my home country, I trained in traditional Chinese medicine. I like to pass on the knowledge gained from my experience.