The Dispensary of Hand Prepared Aromatic Remedies & Complementary Therapies

History of Aromatherapy

History of Aromatherapy

Ancient Civilization

18,000 BC evidence that plants were first used medically from cave paintings of Lascaux in Dordogne, France. Burning aromatic plants one of earliet methods  of usage thought to drive out evil spirits.

Neolithic period 7000 to 4000 BC production of vegetables oils discovered, Olive, Castor, Seasame, Linseed oils produced by pressing. Aromatic medicines important in ancient herbrew, Arabic and Indian civilisations. The use of aromatic plants such as Spikenard and Hysop were mentioned in the bible. In india Sandalwood was used as a holy unguent and incense. the cosmetic ointment Urguija contained Sandalwood, Rose, Kasmine and Aloes.

Ancient Egypt records datings back to 4500 BC refer to aromatic barks and resins, and use of perfumed oils, aromatic wines and vinegars. Pots were found in Tutankhamen's tomb ( dating 1350 BC; opened in 1922) still contained traces of Frankincense, Myrrh and a variety of Spikeyard. Papri dating 2800 BC ( reign of Khufu ) record medicinal and magical use of plant medicines aromatic substances blended to precise formulations by temple high priests, alchemists to make medicinal potions and perfumes. Cedarwood, Caraway Seed and Angelica Root crushed and steeped in oil or wine, or burned as incense. Plant material was soaked in oil, placed in a linen bag and squeezed and twisted to extract essential oil. Origanum, Juniper, Bitter Almond, Coriander and Calamus also frequently used. Kyphi most famous of preparations contained 16 ingredients including Frankincense, Myrrh, Peppermint, Cinnamon, Citronella, and raisins, used by priests to heighten spiritual awareness.

Little distinction between medicinal, magical and cosmetic, aesthetic use of plant extracts in Ancient Egypt. Remedies used in massage, inhalations and as poultices. Aching limbs treated with ointment including Frankincense and Cinnamon; ointment including Myrrh, Coriander asn honey used for herpes. Many aromatic substances ere used in embalming, once body was dried out ( often in the desert sand ) they were anointed with Cedarwood, Juniper, Myrrh, Clove, nutmeg and or Galbanum. Scent often considered to enhance erotic nature, linked to conception, birth and re-birth into the next life. Thus the offerings of precious oils to the dead.

Ancient Greece and Rome, Greeks gave birth to medicine as as science. Aristotle taught the four elements of Hippocrates emphasised medical treatment based on careful observation. Hippocrates endorsed daily aromatic bath and scented massage. He was aware of antiseptic nature of plants, urged the burning of aromatic herbs during plague in Athens.

Theophrastus consolidated Greek botanical knowledge in Historia Plantarum. He believed that the scent of flowers was contained near the surface of the petals. Diosccorides, a Greek surgeon in the Roman army of Nero and author of De materia Medica, first gave details of when a plant's active principles are at their most abundant; e.g the aroma of Jasmine is strongest after sunset, and should be picked at night; Rose flowers should be picked before noon at the latest.

Greeks learnt from Egyptians, Herodotus and Democratus visited Egypt in 4th century BC and declared Egyptians masters of perfumery. Greeks ascribed divine origin to aromatic plants; perfumery thought to derive from Aeone a nymph of Venus. Perfumes made from scented oils ( often rose ) distillation still unknown. Magaleion a famous Greek perfume containing Myrrh, used for skin inflammation and wounds.

The Romans used aromatic plants for culinary, cosmetic and medical purposes. Susinum was a well known scented oils made from Melissa, honey Myrrh, Spikenard, Cinnamon, Calamus and Saffron.

The Scientific Revolution

Throughout the Renaissance period, aromatic  materials filled the pharmacopoeiasm, which for many centuries remained the main protection against epidemics. The medicinal properties  and application of a number of essential oils were analysed  and recorded. The list included cedar, cinnamon, frankincense, juniper,rose, rosemary, lavender and sage, but also essences such as artemisia, cajeput, chervil, orange flower, valerian and pine. (The reception room of a master apothecary)  

Distillation It was the Arab physician Avicenna, (AD 980 - 1037) author of Canon of Medicine, who is thought to have discovered distillation in the 10th century, producing aromatic water as well as essential oils. Commercialised and spread by the Arabs, who were formidable traders. Rose Water became one of the most popular scents, arriving in Europe during the time of the Crusades.

Treasures from the East

Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the 13th century France had its own manufactors of perfume. They produced Rosemary, Lavender and other essential oils; used by the Masters Glovers to perfume their leather. Lavender was first cultivated in Mitchan Surrey; Lavender water became popular. Perfumers were reported to be virtually immune to the plague. However, medicinal use of aromatic plants were rather limited until a revival of interest in the 16th and 17th centuries, advent of the great herbals of Europe.

Earliest printed herbal, Banckes Herbal (1527) by author Askham contains several recepes for rose. William Turner, considered to be the founder if English botany, propounded the concept that medicinal plants may be classified according to hot and cold , and to four different degrees. Another important concept developed at this time was the Doctrine of Signatures; i.e, of an inherent natural correspondence between a plant abd part of the body, based on a certain physical resemblance, e.g. Fennel=eyes; Cypress Nuts = Ovaries, Red Rose = blood; Leaf Oil = Lungs; Flower oils = reproductive system; Bergamot Peel =Skin etc.

Nicholas Culpepper, one of greatest herbal in 1597. The 17th century was golden age of English Herbalism, not yet overshadowed by chemistry. After the plague of 1665, scientific medical understanding gradually emerged, plants were classified by Linnaeus, Royal Society founded, and digitalis, quinine and anaesthesia were discovered. Growth of scientific medicine and use aromatic plants co-existed right to the end of the 18th century.

In the 19th century research into essential oils was carried out by Frenchman such as Cadeac and Meunier. Chamberland (1887) published research  into antiseptic properties of essences. Perfumery industry grew rapidly in 19th century, centred upon Grasse in Southern France that became world centre of essence production. However, medical use of herbs and oils declined with progress of chemical medicine. Synthetic perfumes gained ground.

At the beginnig of the 20th century interest in aromatic plants and natural essences was rekindled by the French chemist and scholar Dr Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. Gattefosse experimented with essential oils during the First World War, using oils such as , Lavender, Thyme, Chamomile, Lemon and Clove at military hospitals for their antiseptic and vulnerary properties. 

Later, Gattefosse coined the term ' Aromatherapy ' writing that the French cosmetic chemists are concerned that the natural complexes should be utilised as complete building units, without being broken up. Dermatological Terapy  would thus develop into 'Aromatherapy '. He wrote several books including 'Aromatherapie'  (1928 ) explaining at length the properties of essential oils and their application, with examples of their antiseptic, bactericidal, anti-viral and anti-flammatory properties. Later he cited remarkable cures of skin cancer, facial ulcers, gangrene, and osteomalacia, as well as Black Widow spider bites.

The italian Drs Gatti and Cajoli researched into the medicinal, psychological and cosmetic begfefits of essential oils in the 1920s and 1930s. Paolo Rovesti was the first to demonstrate the valuie of certain essences for problems such as anxiety and depression.

Dr Jean Valnet, like Gattefosse, used essential oils to treat battle wounds in the Second World War. He was both a medical doctor and herbalists, and used essential oils for many dirfferent disease conditions. he published his own book on Aromaterhapy in 1964.

Marguerite Maury, a biochemist, research into the cosmetological aspects of essential oils, bringing together medicine, health and beauty. She helped to establish Aromatherapy as a medico-cosmetic therapy based on massage. Sge published The Secret of Life and Youth in 1961.

Aromatic Medicine, in conjunction with Herbal Medicine is widely practised by doctors on the continent, and France is referred to as  medicine douce.

Methods Of Extraction

The Aroma

When we peel an orange, walk through a rose garden or rub a sprig of lavender between our fingers, we are all aware of the special scent of that plant. But what exactly is it we can smell? It is essential oils that give spices and herbs their specific scent and flavour, flowers and fruit their perfume. The essential oil in the orange peel is not too difficult to identify; it is found in such profussion that it actually squirts out when we peel it. The minute droplets of oil contained in tiny pockets or glandular cells in the outer peel are very volatile; that is, they  easily evaporate, infusing the air with their characteristic aroma. But not all plants contain essential or volatile oils in such profusion. 

Essential Oils are extracted from the roots, flowers, leaves, stalks of plants  as well as from certain trees. A highly concentrated volatile substace obtained from various parts of the Aromatic plant. Despite being used in the food industry as flavourings and in the cosmetic industry in perfumes, when used in Aromatherapy they have the ability to penetrate the skin and be absorbed into the blood stream.

The smell of the aroma stimulates tiny filaments in the nose called olfactory bulbs, which are linked to the olfactory centres in the brain. The hippocampus in the limbic area and the thalamus both linked with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain influencing the hormone system concerned in theory with mood, emotions, ,memory and sex.

Methods Of Extraction 

As essential oils are extractsfrom plants, they are subject to several processes and can vary according to:

  • Where They Are Grown
  • The Climate
  • The Altitude
  • The Soil
  • The Agricultural Methods
  • The Time Of Harvesting

Therefore it is very important that the starting material used to produce the essential oil represents the natural biochemistry of the plant, in order that an oil with the highest grade of quality may be produced. Due to their differences in distribution there are several methods of producing essential oil:

  • Steam Distillation - Flowers & Leaves
  • Solvent Extraction - Flowers Used for Perfumery Fragrance
  • Expression - Citrus Fruit - Lemon Orange Mandarin & Grapefruit
  • Enfleurage - Flowers Absolute Rose & Jasmine
  • Super-Critical Carbon Dioxide Extraction - Leaves & Bark
  • Phytonic Process - Environmentally Friendlt Solvents

Chemistry  Of Essential Oils

The percentage of oil from plants varies from 0.1% to 10%. it takes appromimately 20 rose heads to produce 1 drop of essential oil.

Essential oils are largely composed of volatile chemicals and so tend to evaporate rapidly in a warm or breezy environment. Many are extremely sensitive to the effect of light, heat, air and moisture. Most essential oils contain between 50 and 500 different chemicals. Most essential oils contain many different types of compound, but with one or two major components, which are largely shape the pharmacology and toxicology of the oil. Many of the properties of peppermint oil for instance,can be attributed to its 40% or so content of menthol.

A typical essential oil contains several hundreds of individual chemicals, with great majority at levels of less than 1%. In some cases these components also figure in the action of the oil relative to the human body. For example, bergapten which makes bergamot oil strongly phototoxic, is found at levels of around 0.3%.

All essential oils are mixtures of chemically organic molecules. To understand how small molecules are, consider the fact that a drop of essential oils contains about 40 000000 000 000 000 000 000 or forty thousand million million molecules, so when we consider trace of constituents of essential oils, ie: 0.001% we must remember that the number of molecules will still be gigantic.

In general, essential oils consist of chemical compounds that have hydrogen, carbon and oxygen (HCO) as there building blocks. These can be  subdivided into two groups:


What is an Atom

An atom is the smallest possible intil of a chemical element. It is microscopic and attaches itself to other atoms on order to make bigger structures, known as moleculres.

What is a Molecule

A molecule is a structure made ot two or more atoms joined together. Molecules have particular qualities depending on how much of each chemical element they contain and the way in which those elements are arranged i.e. their shape.Each plant, and in particular each essential oil, has a different combination of molecules arranged in a different pattern. In a way a plant is a combination of different ingredients and it is this chemical recipe and it arrangement which gives each essential oil its individual aroma, therapeutic qualities and effects.  

Why are molecules important to a qualified aromatherapist practitioner

Each molecule of an essential oil produces a particular effect and has a specific theapeutic quality, thus, when used as part of a  treatment plan,  your practitioner knows which oil or which family of oils, contain which molecule for a specific treatment and ailment.

There are seven groups of moleculses that are important to your practitioner, specifically because there effects and actions have been studied.

In general, essential oils consist of chemical compounds that have hydrogen, carbon and oxygen (HCO) as there building blocks. These can be  subdivided into two groups: 

1) Hydrocarbons which are made up almost exclusively of:-   

Terpenes: found in most essentail oils. Terpenes are antiviral, e.g. limonene ( found in citrus oils like grapfruit, lemon, mandarin) anti-septic e.g. pinene, juniper pine, and eucalyptus, anti-inflammatory, bactericidal e.g. chamazulene ( in Blue or German and Roman chamomile)


Sesquiterpenes: a form if terpene with the same qualities and effects e.g. chamazulene found in (Roman and Blue chamomile)


2) Oxygenated Compounds are mainly

Esters:  are fungicidal abd relaxing e.g linalyl acetate ( neroli and clary sage) geranyl acetate (in marjoram) 

Aldehydes:  Antiseptic and sedative  e.g.citral ( bergamot and lemongrass) 

Ketones:  often poisonous and several oils containing them e.g. pennyroyal are banned from use

Alcohols: Antiseptic, anti-viral, uplifting e.g.linalol found in (bergamot, basil, ylang ylang)  menthol found in (peppermint)  geraniol found in (neroli, geranium and lavender)    

Phenols: bactericidal, stimulating e.g. (thymol in thyme)  eugenol also called eucalyptol e.g. (in clove and cinnamon)

Oxides: expectorant e.g. cineol (in eucalyptus, marjoram and rosemary) 

Acids, lactones, sulphur abd nitrogen compounds are somtimes also present.      


Synthetic oils DO NOT have the same effects    (Chemical Structure -Terpenes)  

Synthetic oils are rarely exact copies. Most oils are a mixture of two or three chemical elements plus many trace elements  i.e. (tiny amounts of other elements).  It is the synergy between the main components and the traces ie how all the different molecules work together as a whole oil, which is important. Since exact components of oils are not known, it is impossible to make copies that work as effectively as the real thing.  


Essential oils, skilfully extracted from different parts of plants, petals, seeds, roots, leaves or bark are highly complex compounds and each oil has its own unique fragrance, which consists of properties that are sedative, calmative, anti-septic, fungicidal, anti-viral, uplifting, stimulating, bactericidal, non-toxic, skin irritant and expectorant.

Aromatherapy  works through a combination of the mind's response to their aroma, as mentioned above, both Psychological: Emotions, Memory, Mood and Sex. Physiological: Nerve centre which governs the endocrine system, Pharmacologically: Esssential oils are chemicals and so are humans. Once essential oils have been absorbed into the body either through the skin or inhalation, the chemicals in the oils enter into the blood and other body fluids which interact with the chemistry of our bodies. The approach is holistic, considering the 'whole person' and treating both physical and emotional symptoms in a complementary way.   The use of an essential oil internally is not safe unless prescribed by a qualified clinical aromatherpaist. However, this practice is  not permitted in the United kingdom.


The art of aromatheray  includes several simple ways of using pure essential oils, all of them very pleasant:  Massage, Aromatic Baths, Room Fragrances, ( vaporisation) and Compress. In each case a few drops of concentrated pure essential oil or a combination of several called (synergy) is blended, diluted or diffused according to the treatment method being used.

Proper application of aromatherapy using the purest of essential oils, can improve our physical and mental well-being, quite naturally. All pure essential oils must be diluted with a carrier oil before being applied to the skin. Always read the directions before use.







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