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  • April R Roush-Stanley

The Science, History, and Therapeutic Uses of Aromatherapy & Essential Oils

The Science, History, and Therapeutic Uses of Aromatherapy & Essential Oils

April R Roush-Stanley

American Public University

History of Science 270

December 2020

Elshafie, H. S., & Camele, I. (2017). An Overview of the Biological Effects of Some Mediterranean Essential Oils on Human Health. BioMed research international, 2017, 9268468.https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/9268468 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5694587/

A current question of the time revolves around Aromatherapy and Essential Oils. Why all the hype? Are Essential Oils therapeutic and effective medicinals or potentially hazardous and dangerous chemical substances? Do they do anything at all? Can the phytochemicals of essential oils and the practices of folklore/plant-based medicine be an effective treatment to human health? Many alternative/natural/holistic therapies have existed for centuries and stood the test of time; now through scientific and technological breakthroughs and research, studies can show the benefits of phytochemicals of essential oils in regard to human health and in particular towards anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-carcinogenic effects.


Many Alternative (Eastern) Therapies have preexisted Allopathic (Western) Medicine, Aromatherapy and use of Essential Oils (EOs) are no exception. According to several sources, the use of essential oils dates back to 4500BCE during Egyptian times. “Furthermore, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the ‘father of medicine,’ said that ‘the way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage everyday’” (Sibley, 2003). There is history to account for the use of essential oils by “the ancient Hindu system of medicine, Ayurveda [as well as] in Christianity, according to the Book of Exodus…” (Sibley, 2003). In more recent history, there is “a 600-year-old pharmacy started by Florentine monks [that] is now a trendy global marketer of perfumes and medieval elixirs” (Husain, 2008) where they have used plant (herbal) remedies and essential oils for medicinal treatments as well as cosmetics and perfumes.

With the Fads of the Twenty & Twenty-first Centuries along with Multi-level Marketing companies, essential oils have become more mainstream and because of this they have also come under scrutiny. Recent research has shown promise to the benefits of essential oils; however, just like anything else, EOs should still be used with caution; therefore, it is always best to educate one’s self and/or seek expert advice rather than risk using them ignorantly and/or inappropriately. As research has shown, essential oils, and plants in general (herbal remedies), have chemical compositions that are also referred to as: constituents, compounds, properties, phytochemicals, characteristics, extracts, components, etc., and these compounds can be classified/identified into categories similar to ‘active ingredients.’ For instance,

“[essential] oils are complex mixtures that may contain over 300 different compounds… essential oils components belong mainly to the vast majority of the terpene family. Many thousands of compounds belonging to the family of terpenes have so far been identified in essential oils, such as functional derivatives of alcohols (geraniol, alpha-bisabolol), ketones (methone, p-veticone) of aldehydes (citronellal, sinensal), esters (y-tepinyl acetate, cedryl acetate) and phenols (thymol)... It has been reported that EOs containing mainly aldehydes or phenols, such as cinnamaldehyde, citral, caracrol, eugenol, or thymol were characterized by the highest antibacterial activity.” (Dhifi, 2016)

What this means is based on the properties found in essential oils through analytical scientific research and technology, there is proof not only about how and why essential oils can be therapeutic on a cellular biochemical level, but also which oils will work best for specific purposes. In Dr. Scott A Johnson’s book Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy (2015), he dives into detail about these constituents, as well as safety precautions, protocols, and uses of essential oils. In Maggie Tisserand’s book Aromatherapy vs MRSA (2015), she also talks about these phytochemicals as well as their importance in regard to their antiseptic and antimicrobial properties throughout “history [to combat] infection... [and how] science is now backing up these claims.”


By simply typing “Aromatherapy” or “Essential Oils” into PubMed or Science Magazine, two highly respected sites with informative articles typically research-based studies and some opinion-based, a plethora of various titles and articles into this field of study just in the last century alone could be overwhelming. As with any topic (of controversy or not) there is always debate as well as naysayers; however, with use of “analytical methods that combine the features of Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry [(GS/MS)] to identify different substances within a test sample [of essential oils],” (Elshafie, 2017) science and technology combat disbelievers with evidence based research as to the possibilities and power within plant-based therapies such as EOs. Something to note in this report by Elshafie and Camele as well as the research studies mentioned within it, is that even though “the enzymatic reactions within the EOs and the lipophilic properties of the individual bioactive constituents might play a role in degrading the microbe plasma membrane and hence lead to the lyses of the hypha wall,” there can be inconsistencies “[in] the composition of each EO [because they] can vary depending on certain conditions such as plant variety, plant part, growth area, climatic changes, harvesting time, storage conditions, and the chemotype of each component…”; however, “these changes in estimated values could be due to the fluctuation of some experimental factors like temperature and incubation period.” Along with research-based information as well as their personal and professional experiences with EOs, these two books provide insight to the phytochemical brilliance and power of EOs that we may never fully be able to identify, qualify or quantify let alone fully explain or understand; however, just because something is inexplicable does not make it any less effective, valuable, real, or true.


Regardless of various factors leading to overall consistency of any and each EO’s properties, the fact remains that their properties are not only identifiable and measurable per batch, but also have numerous known and unknown benefits. This particular article, An Overview of the Biological Effects of Some Mediterranean Essential Oils on Human Health, by Elshafie and Camele (2017), they do provide specifics on nearly a dozen different EOs including: Lavender, Oregano, Thyme, Peppermint, Sage, Marjoram, Anise, Caraway, Lemon, and Vervain. The information provided as to their benefits is astonishingly positive with results “show[ing] strong antibacterial and antifungal properties,” “antimicrobial activity against several phytopathogens,” “anti-inflammatory, anti-infectious, antimicrobial, and fungicidal effect as well as antiseptic and digestive properties… can relieve many bacterial, fungal, and viral infections when inhaled or applied in the form of vapor balm,” could inspire almost anyone to try natural or alternative therapies such as these Aromatherapy and in particular these Mediterranean essential oils.




A complete understanding of this article as well as extensive additional research could provide one with not only an informed and inspired decision but also confidence and reassurance in the powerful possibilities of what has been ironically termed ‘Alternative Medicine.’ The amazing benefits of Aromatherapy and EOs that has been intuitively known throughout history has now shown to be scientifically reviewed and vindicated as a potentially powerful therapy to aid in human health against biological hazards such as inflammation and microbes. As a Holistic Practitioner with experience, training, use of, additional reading & research, as well as continued education in hopes of becoming a Certified Aromatherapist and eventually an Osteopathic Doctor, I not only believe in the power of essential oils and as this paper shows, so too have various civilizations throughout history and science, but also hope to see an incorporation of both Holistic and Allopathic practices in tandem.



Resources/References:

Current Event Article:

Elshafie, Hazem. S., & Camele, Ippolito. (2017). An Overview of the Biological Effects of Some Mediterranean Essential Oils on Human Health. BioMed research international, 2017, 9268468. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/9268468 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5694587/

Primary Source:


Sibley, Veronica. (2003). Aromatherapy Solutions: Essential oils to lift the mind, body, and spirit. London: Hamlyn.


Johnson, Dr Scott A. (2015). Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy: The Ultimate Guide to the Therapeutic and Clinical Application of Essential Oils. Scott A Johnson Professional Writing Services, LLC.


Tisserand, Maggie. (2015). Aromatherapy vs MRSA: Antimicrobial essential oils to combat bacterial infection, including the superbug. London and Philadelphia: The Clarity Press.


Dhifi, Wissal, Bellili, Sana, Jazi, Sabrine, Bahloul, Nada, and Mnif, Wissem. (September 22, 2016). Essential Oils’ Chemical Characterization and Investigation of Some Biological Activities: A Critical Review. Medicines, 25. doi: 10.3390/medicines3040025 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5456241/

Husain, Mishal. (2008). Heaven Scent. Smithsonian Magazine Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/heaven-scent-17187251/

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