What is Aromatherapy?

Have you ever inhaled the scent of a rose? Perhaps you’ve enjoyed the scent of fresh rosemary, sage, or thyme as you use cook with the fresh herbs. Or, maybe you live in an area where there are pine trees or flowering trees that bloom in the spring.

If you’ve had these experiences, you have connected with the natural aromatic compounds from these plants. They may create feelings of warmth, evoke fond memories, and maybe even excitement.

While these experiences are not considered “aromatherapy” in the professional sense, it is certainly a window into that world.


When I first started using essential oils back in the early 1990s, I only used them for two reasons: to scent my environment, and to feel calm. Was this aromatherapy? Not necessarily.

Sure, I had several different types of diffusers, including a fancy glass nebulizing one. I also was gifted an expensive and overwhelming essential oil kit. I had no idea how or why I should use the oils, and I didn’t appreciate their aromas. I was in college at the time so I was busy studying and working. I didn’t have the time or energy to explore aromatherapy any further.

So, I only used the lavender essential oil with the occasional addition of lemon or sweet orange. I’d use the diffusers, or I’d drop the essential oil on a cotton ball. After that, I wouldn’t interact with the oil, and I certainly wouldn’t pay much attention to it other than to notice the smell in my room or car. The rest of the essential oils went to waste because after opening them one time, I never touched them after that.

Even though I was using essential oils with a hint of purpose, I was not using them with any skill.


Left: Rene-Maurice Gattefossé. Right: Dr. Jean Valnet.
Left: Rene-Maurice Gattefossé. Right: Dr. Jean Valnet.

To be able to understand aromatherapy, we need to look at some of its history.

In ancient texts, there are references to aromatic plants that have been used for thousands of years. The aromatic plants and oils that were used in ancient China, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome may not have been exactly like the essential oils that we know and use today. They were most likely used by these ancient civilizations in the form of incense, perfumes, and scented fatty oils. They were used for a variety of purposes including medicinal, spiritual, social, relational, and also for trade.

The approach to modern-day aromatherapy started to be molded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The most well-known of the early pioneers were Rene-Maurice Gattefossé, Jean Valnet, and Marguerite Maury.

In 1910, French chemist and perfumer Rene-Maurice Gattefossé was working in a laboratory when there was an explosion. He states that his hands were covered “with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped the gasification of the tissue” (Gattefossé, 1993, p. 87). Battaglia (2018) states that “Gattefossé is to be commended for having the insight to see that the therapeutic application of essential oils constituted a discipline in its own right.” (p. 36). He continued to have an interest in using essential oils therapeutically in medical settings and coined the term “aromatherapie” in 1937.

Dr. Jean Valnet was an army surgeon who used “essential oils as antiseptics in the treatment of war wounds during the Indochina war from 1948–1959” (Battaglia, 2018, p.36). He continued his work and focused on anti-infectious and antibiotic properties, dosage levels, and methods of application (Shutes, n.d.). Valnet (1980) states that “Aromatics have always played a leading part in the maintenance of health” (pp. 260–261).

Marguerite Maury was a beautician and biochemist (Battaglia, 2003, p.18) with a background in nursing and surgical assisting (Shutes, n.d.). She moved from Vienna to France and became the pioneer of dermal application, including dilution for massage and the use of essential oils in the beauty industry (Battaglia, 2003, p. 19).

In 1977, Robert Tisserand published his book The Art of Aromatherapy. Tisserand (1977) references the work of Professor Paolo Rovesti at Milan University and states “essences cannot be expected to do the whole job on their own: they are not miracle drugs. In such cases some form of counselling, psychotherapy or spiritual inspiration is needed in combination with aromatherapy.” (p. 98).

To identify this concept, Tisserand coined the term “psycho-aromatherapy” in the 1980s (H. Tisserand, personal communication, May 19, 2022). Note that psycho-aromatherapy is a different concept than aromachology. At the Botanica2022 conference, he referred to this concept as “aromapsychology” (Tisserand, 2022). Mr. Tisserand is the founder of the Tisserand Institute which provides education on aromatherapy, essential oils, and safety.

Around this same time, there was a new shift in aromatherapy, and it “became a semi-medical modality, which allowed the lay person to attempt self-therapy for many common ailments.” (Battaglia, 2018, p.38).

Fast forward to today, where the use of essential oils and aromatherapy is a thread that intertwines and overlaps across many different industries and professions.


There are a variety of definitions and perspectives that illuminate the fragrant world of aromatherapy. In general, aromatherapy can be considered the skillful use of pure essential oils with a specific goal in mind. This goal lies within the context of an overall holistic picture: to restore balance and enhance the well-being of the individual.

Aromatherapy can be considered its own practice. It can also be integrated with other approaches and modalities. While essential oils are a wonderful tool to support health and well-being, they are not a magical solution or a “one size fits all” approach.

You may hear some aromatherapists also using the term “essential oil therapy” to ensure the inclusion of various application methods. Rhind (2020) uses the term “Aromatic therapy” (p. 21).

To enhance our understanding, we can review some additional definitions of aromatherapy. Here are a few that come from professional aromatherapy associations:

Aromatherapy refers to the inhalation and topical application of true, authentic essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty and well-being. The field of aromatherapy activity is quite wide, ranging from the deep and penetrating therapeutic actions of essential oils to the extreme subtlety of fragrance on the psyche. One of the uses of aromatherapy is to strengthen the self-healing processes by preventative methods and indirect stimulation of the immune system. (AIA, 2019).

Aromatherapy is described as both an art and a science because it takes the knowledge of the scientific aspects of the plants and oils and combines it with the art of producing a beneficial blend. Basically, a successful aromatherapy blend is a synergy of science, art, and the practitioner’s knowledge of both, and how to apply it. (NAHA, 2022).

Aromatherapy uses the volatile aromatic plant essences, known as essential oils, to treat ill-health and help maintain good health. (IFPA, 2022).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health describes aromatherapy as “the use of essential oils from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) as a complementary health approach. The essential oils are most often used by inhaling them or by applying a diluted form to the skin.”

While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute describes aromatherapy as the “therapeutic use of essential oils (also known as volatile oils) from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) for the improvement of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.”


Left: Connecting with the oil while visiting an aromatherapist’s shop in Alberta, Canada. Middle: Connecting with the plants and distillation process. Distilling Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). Right: Connecting with the plants and the farm at New Life Lavender and Cherry Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Jen getting ready to blend.

For me, aromatherapy means using essential oils with skill and purpose. I have a specific purpose or goal in mind. I also have a skill set that I can draw upon. My skills have developed from going to school, but also from ongoing education. I have a process that takes me from when I first encounter an essential oil, to when I’m using it in my blends.

My process includes the science and art of aromatherapy. When I’m first introduced to a new oil, I begin to study it from different perspectives. I learn about essential oil research, chemistry, and how the oil has been used traditionally.

I also spend time with the oil. I spend time sampling the aroma on different days, in different situations, and with different methods of application. I also spend time blending the oil to see how it interacts with other essential oils. Throughout this process, I make notes about the oil for later reference.

When a situation comes up where aromatherapy would be a great option, I review what I have in my current stock, and start my process to create the aromatherapy product that I’d like for that specific situation.

For example, if I want to improve my mood, I first identify the emotions that I’d like to work on. Let’s say that it’s wintertime, and I’m feeling a bit down, and overall sluggish. I take a look at what I have on hand and find that I have some great options which include lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), bergamot (Citrus bergamia), and frankincense (Boswellia carterii).

From going through my educational and experiential process with each of these oils, and also knowing my scent preferences, I’m able to move forward. I proceed to make myself an aromastick that I can use throughout the day to help bring myself back into balance. The key then is to make sure that I continue to use it. It will be even better if I can pair the use of the aromastick with other practices I have, such as breathing or meditation.

This illustrates aromatherapy and how I use it in my daily life. Aromatherapy is an ongoing journey. Regardless of where you’re at with your knowledge, experience, and skillset; there is always something new and fun to experience!


Alliance of International Aromatherapists. (2022). Aromatherapy history and basics. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/aromatherapy

Battaglia, S. (2003). The complete guide to aromatherapy (2nd ed.). Brisbane QLD, Australia: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.

Battaglia, S. (2018). The complete guide to aromatherapy (3rd ed., Vol. 1). Zillmere QLD, Australia: Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd.

Gattefossé, R. M. (1993). Gattefossé’s aromatherapy. R.B. Tisserand (Ed.). C.W. Daniel Company, Ltd., Trans. Essex, England: The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd. (Original work published 1937).

International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists. (2022). What is aromatherapy? Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://ifparoma.org/resources-media/information-on-aromatherapy/

National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. (n.d.) What is aromatherapy. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/what-is-aromatherapy

Rhind, J. (2020). Essential oils: A comprehensive handbook for aromatic therapy (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Singing Dragon.

Shutes, J. (n.d.). Foundations of Aromatherapy and Scholars courses. Retrieved from https://courses.aromaticstudies.com

Tisserand, R. (1977). The art of aromatherapy (16th impression printed 1994). Saffron Walden, Essex, England: The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd.

Tisserand, R. (2022, May 20-22). From energetics to science and beyond – A personal journey [Conference presentation]. Botanica2022 Conference, virtual.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute (2022). Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/aromatherapy-pdq

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (2022). Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/aromatherapy

Valnet, J. (1982). The practice of aromatherapy: holistic health and the essential oils of flowers and herbs. (The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd., Trans). Rochester, VT: Destiny Books. (Original work published 1980).