In Aromatherapy, Fad Meets Tradition : Ancient Egyptians Knew Flower and Herb Oils Were Soothing, but Are They Therapeutic?


Once every three months, Nancy Bailey of Laguna Beach treats herself to a treatment that’s not only one of the latest fads in feeling good, but also one of the oldest traditions.

It’s called aromatherapy, and for Bailey, it means a light, full-body massage with aromatic essential oils extracted from herbs, flowers and trees.

For others, it may mean anything from a fragrant bath to inhaling sweet-smelling steam from a vaporizer. In any case, it’s becoming more popular, according to Christine Malcolm, executive director of the Aroma Research Institute of America, which is based in Santa Fe, N.M. .

The use of fragrant oils, whether rubbed onto the skin or inhaled, can be traced back to the earliest days of human history, when the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians applied distilled oils from herbs, flowers and trees to the body. Aside from a soothing, pleasant effect, those herbal essences were thought to have therapeutic value as well.

Modern science has only begun to address the subject, however, so the medical jury is still out on whether the sweet fragrance of lavender is a pain reliever, for example, or chamomile can cure a headache.


Rhita Buirski of the Facial Institute in Laguna Beach, who administers Bailey’s aromatherapy treatments, says she’s careful not to make any medical claims for the treatments. “But it doesn’t do any harm,” she says.

“When I first came to this country (from South Africa), nobody had even heard of aromatherapy,” she says. “They didn’t know what I was talking about. And they didn’t place much value on it.”

But in the past couple of years, she says, there has been increased interest.

Buirski uses the technique established by Eve Taylor of London, in which oils are massaged into the skin. “It isn’t a deep massage,” she says. “We don’t work with muscles.”

Taylor’s theory--yet to be proven scientifically--is that the oils penetrate the skin and make their way into the body’s lymphatic system, where it helps flush out impurities.

Bailey says she decided to try an aromatherapy treatment a couple of years ago, as part of an overall plan to “treat myself better all the way around. I started eating differently, doing exercise, lost 38 pounds. It was all part of my decision to ‘Treat Nancy nicer and she’ll do good things for you.’ And so far it’s worked out very well.

“The sense of smell (in an aromatherapy treatment) is delightful. Depending on which oils they use, it almost hypnotizes you. It’s a wonderful sensation,” Bailey says. “Sometimes, if they use a calming oil, I just want to go home and sleep the rest of the day. And other times, with another oil, I feel revitalized and go out with lots of energy.”

Each 90-minute treatment costs $65, and Bailey says cost and time are the only reasons she doesn’t go more often.

After being treated herself, Bailey arranged to have an aromatherapist make weekly visits to her mother, who lives in a convalescent home. In addition to the treatments, Bailey also set up a vaporizer so that her mother could breathe in the smells.

“It’s had a wonderful effect on her,” Bailey says. “And the people who work there like it, too.”

Malcolm, who did some work in olfactory research when she was in college at Ohio State University, says some research is now being done on the benefits of aromatherapy.

Ecco Bella, a New Jersey manufacturer of natural essential oils, claims that basil, for example, can be an antidepressant and an adrenal gland stimulant, while rosemary can act as a decongestant and geranium can stimulate circulation.

The company sells six basic oils: calming, circulation and cellulite, muscle-ache reliever, erotic oil, energizing oil, and an all-around oil that combines jojoba, rice bran, wheat germ, jasmine, orange flower and sandalwood.

Until the industrial revolution, Malcolm says, natural essential oils were commonly used in perfumes and for other purposes. But since synthetic fragrances were first developed in the 1800s, the natural oils have been used less.

“By 1910, we had 20 aroma chemicals, and now we have thousands. Today, even in prestige perfumes, only about 10% of the fragrance may be natural. The rest is made from petrochemicals.”

You can do your own aromatherapy by adding a few drops of an essential oil to bath water or even using fragrant herbs for cooking. But Malcolm warns that no matter how much an oil may smell like a rose or sandalwood or jasmine, it’s important to make sure it’s natural.

She’ll be making a presentation on how essential oils are distilled at the Natural Foods Expo on March 23 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

“If it says perfume oil, that doesn’t mean it’s natural,” she says. And if it’s something like rose and it’s $10 a bottle, it isn’t really rose. Real rose costs $2,000 to $10,000 a pound. It depends on how easy or difficult it is to obtain the oil from the plant.”

Other fragrances, such as musk, are totally artificial. “If anyone smelled real musk, they would gag. It smells like animal glands.”

Another caveat is not to take the oils internally. Some aromatherapists in England have gotten in trouble with medical authorities for recommending that, Malcolm says. “They’ve also been making claims that it can have medical benefits, and that’s caused a controversy.”

If you’re using essential oils on your own, Malcolm says, “It has to be done in moderation. The best way is to use it just to the point where it’s slightly perceivable to your nose.”