Saturday, August 2, 2014


In chapter five of Scientific Perspectives Lynn McCutcheon discusses aromatherapy and its supposed benefits. I was surprised to read that the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy makes some pretty big claims – such as aromatherapy can cure depression, poor memory, fear, wounds, motion sickness, asthma, varicose veins, wrinkles and sprains. Sounds like a great alternative to going to the doctor and getting poked and prodded, as well as taking expensive medicine! Especially since aromatherapy has “proven therapeutic benefits for a variety of conditions”.

So how exactly does rubbing scented oil on yourself or sniffing it cure these ailments? To put it simply – it doesn’t. However, scent has long been linked to the way we process memories. To say we will have zero benefit from smells isn’t quite true either.

Aromatherapy, as defined by the NAHA, is the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health the body, mind, and spirit. The scent of chamomile promotes sleep, while jasmine when applied to the body acts as an aphrodisiac. Aromatherapy is the cure any issue one may have.

However, most of the claims aromatherapists make are rife with pseudoscience. Many of these statements are confusing, ambiguous, contradictory and unsupported by scientific evidence.  

Here are some examples from the text:
      -According to aromatherapists, incense cleanses the air of negative energies. What are negative energies?
      -One is encouraged to get massaged with scented oil regularly to balance the nerves. How do they become unbalanced, and how would we detect an unbalanced nerve in the first place?
             -Benzoin resinoid will ‘drive our evil spirits’ and spruce oil is recommended for any kind of psychic work.
      -Tea tree oil may be used in the successful treatment of AIDS
      -Juniper berry is found to be both relaxing and stimulating
      -As stated by Dr. Meisenheimer: “The amount of essential oil from a few drops placed in your bath that might actually penetrate the [skin] is probably too small to have any meaningful, systemic, physiologic effect.”

So why do so many people buy into aromatherapy? And what about smell being important to our thought processes?

Many people may have some effect from aromatherapy – whether that be a placebo or something McCutcheon describes as confused causation. Confused causation can be easily explained by the following situation: lavender oil is supposedly a very relaxing scent, so I put a few drops in my warm bath. After I emerge, I’m deeply relaxed and sleepy. That must mean the lavender oil worked really well! According to McCutcheon, not exactly. Was it the warmth that relaxed you, the water, the time spent alone, the lavender oil, or a combination of some or all the aforementioned factors? Aromatherapists claim it was the lavender oil. McCutecheon says it would be relatively easy to set up an experiment testing the effectiveness of essential oils but aromatherapists seemingly haven’t done any scientific studies backing themselves up.

Smell is the most direct route to the brain. This means that olfactory information gets to our brain the quickest, therefore (according to aromatherapy) smell is superior to the other senses. Since aromatherapy is concerned with smell, it is the best treatment. While smell does get processed by our brains the most quickly, the amount of time it beats our other senses by can be measured in milliseconds – in other words, it isn’t much of a difference.

Smell is also linked to the limbic system, the part of our brain that is tied to emotions and memories. Say your aunt always wore a specific type of perfume. Whenever you smell it you immediately think of her. Aromatherapists take huge advantage of this fact; that certain smells can trigger memories or feelings. What they don’t mention that looking at a picture of your aunt or hearing her voice causes the same effect.

A personal experience I can offer is many years ago when I had trouble sleeping my mother thought aromatherapy may help me. She purchased a special candle that had an oil well on the top of it, which when burned released the smell into the air. The candlelight and lavender smell were pleasant, but they didn’t especially help me sleep. I still own the candle set and oils and occasionally use it because, well, it smells nice.

Aromatherapy: it smells good, but doesn’t have any medicinal benefits.


  1. I enjoyed reading your post! I work in a natural foods store and we sell aromatherapy oils. There are so many people that come in and buy different oils to "cure" their ailments. I try to explain to them that it will not be the medical cute, but rather a distraction or a placebo-affect sorta thing that might take the edge off of whatever they are suffering from. BUT, there are some other uses that I find justified. People will come in and buy certain scented oils to trap mice, repel insects, and using peppermint on your temples area on your head really does soothe a headache.
    -Lindsey T.

  2. Last semester I bought an aromatherapy soap bar from bath and body works that is said to relieve stress. I thought it smelled good and was definitely under a lot of stress from all of my school work so I figured I'd give it a try. To be honest, I did not really notice any difference. Other than enjoying the nice smell of the soap during my shower, I don't recall any other effects from it. However, my friends, when asking about my classes, asked how I was able to act so at ease about all the work I had to do and all of the tests I had coming up when they were stressed out. I wasn't sure how I had changed, since I did act worried all during fall semester. The only thing I could attribute my calmness to was the soap bar. There could definitely be many factors that led to that other than the soap, the change of schedule for example. Not that I believe that aromatherapy works, but I find it curious that I had much less stress spring semester than fall, when I wasn't using the soap.

  3. My grandmother fills her house with aromatherapy candles. She swears they keep her calm, but I have not really noticed a change! The only thing I have noticed are the terrible smells from all the different scents running together. I do not think there is any medical cure that comes from aromatherapy, but if she thinks it makes her feel better, why ruin it for her? People will try to find comfort in whatever they can get their hands on. Maybe it does work for some people, but it has not worked for me. I might have a biased attitude towards it because I want to become a pharmacist and heavily believe in the benefits of medicine, but I do not see any medical benefits coming from aromatherapy.