Aromatherapy refers to extracting essential oils from plants, flowers, and roots to try and heal someone. Since it is based on no known science or critical peer review, methods vary and the field has no licensure, certification, or required training. If you say you’re an aromatherapist, you are. It uses botanical terms and words like “healing” and “chemical properties” give it a façade of legitimacy.
Despite the prefix, only a small percentage of aromatherapy uses the whiffing of a substance as the cure. More often, the aromas are used to identify the oils and determine their potency. The resulting products are then applied to the skin or consumed.
The field is rife with anecdotal tales, which devotees swallow with as much gusto as they would a lemongrass healing gumbo. Post hoc reasoning and communal reinforcement also permeate the aromatherapy community.
Considerably harder to find are double-blind, peer-reviewed, reproducible studies on the topic. The Center for Spirituality and Healing offered a few reasons for the lack of such studies. On its website, it notes, “Oils will be different based on region and climate.” Perhaps, but that would be no reason they couldn’t be tested in a specific area.
The center concedes that standardization could be achieved, but skirts this with a nifty piece of ad hoc reasoning: “The problem with standardized essential oils is that they are no longer natural, genuine, and authentic.”
It further argues that, “Blind studies with aromatic substances are problematic because people associate smells with past experiences.” It is true that smell is the sense most associated with memory. But a person associating cinnamon with long-lost friend would not preclude testing its veracity as an anxiety buster. By the center’s reasoning, a double blind study couldn’t be tested on Vick’s VapoRub, perhaps aromatherapy’s lone legitimate use.
The site goes on, proclaiming, “In essential oil therapy, the oils are sometimes applied with massage, which makes it difficult to tell whether the outcome was due to the essential oil alone, or the massage, or the combination.” Despite this admission, we next learn that using oils results in “positive effects for a variety of health concerns including infections, pain, anxiety, depression, tumors, premenstrual syndrome, nausea, and many others.”
Delving deeper into the site, we are told that “Essential oils have been used on humans for thousands of years.” Here we see a frequent alternative medicine ploy, the appeal to irrelevant authority. These appeals always seem to be based on ancient ideas, such as those used by the Dynastic Chinese, Native Americans, or Pharaohs, Just to mix it up, I’d love once to see a New Age proponent praise a South Sudanese rain dance or a Montenegrin talisman.
I conducted my own study. As I was both 100 percent of the researchers and subjects, it wasn’t of the double blind variety. But the Center for Spirituality and Healing says that’s not my fault. For the experiment, I slathered myself in Patchouli oil and, indeed, I experienced an immediate increase in skin slickness.
I didn’t get anything else out of it, but there were no shortage of ideas when I mentioned this to an online aromatherapy community. Here, testimonials are passed around excitedly without questioning or studies. No evidence is supplied or requested. There is seemingly no mental, physical, or spiritual benefit beyond aromatherapy’s scope. Juniper alone is said to cure skin conditions, influenza, varicose veins, and most, astoundingly, epilepsy and mental illness. It can be used as an antidepressant, an antibacterial agent, and plenty of “antis” in between.
One of the more common claims is that aromatherapy boosts the immune system. Yet, according to Dr. Mark Crislip of Science-Based Medicine, “The immune system, if you are otherwise healthy, cannot be boosted. A reasonable diet, exercise and sleep is all the boosting the immune system needs.”
In fact, the immune system will only fall apart under extreme conditions, such as starvation, chemotherapy, or becoming HIV positive. And I could find no studies that supported the use of jasmine or lavender to cure those conditions.
An aromatherapist will chalk up a success if rose petals are used and a sore throat goes away. But if it won’t work on a second person, the aromatherapist will note that different bodies have different needs, and they will suggest, and sale, another tonic. To be safe, some aromatherapists make non-testable claims, such as how certain oils will restore harmony to the energy flow.
Another tactic is claiming their products are part of a holistic approach to health. The other parts are regular checkups, healthy food, vigorous exercise, and adequate sleep, all of which will make you feel better without aromatherapy. As such, aromatherapy is not generally dangerous like faith healing or vaccine denial. It just won’t do any good, and the user ends up to attributing to aromatherapy whatever good happens when practicing it, or to what a healthy lifestyle is responsible for.
Oils can kill bacteria, but soap will do it better and it can be purchased without Tangerine Dream playing in the background. Despite all this, I am not completely immune to the aromatherapy’s charms. A long-discontinued incense, called Passion Flower, had an aroma so pleasant it immediately shifted me to a tranquil mood. Must have been my chakra balancing.