Last Updated: October 9th, 2019

“I was born with music in me.”

So said Ray Charles, and I believe it of myself as well. My music is a melody of “fragrant” chords, of plant essence. They are music for my nose, mind and spirit.

I cannot remember the precise moment when I became aware of my acute ability to smell, to distinguish the finite variables of aroma. The day I opened my first bottle of plant oil essence, so completely engaging my nose and transforming me so swiftly, feels like another lifetime. That tiny bottle of liquid gold would lead me on a path of study, professionally and personally, that I could never have manufactured for myself, no matter how great my imagination.

Aromatherapy is so integrated into my life, aligned with every malady or challenge I encounter, that I must remind myself it remains a new “discovery” to our Western world.

By name, by “smell,” aromatherapy has infused its way into our marketplace. The mention of essential oils can conjure up images of fragrant body care products, room deodorant, cleaning aids, scented candles, even incense, before it registers as an alternative health product, as would a vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplement. Yet, the avalanche of fragrance we experience today is not pure (from whole essential plant extracts). Rather, it’s obtained from their naturally acquired derivatives, or worse, their synthetic replicates.

As a professional aromatherapist, an ironic beauty comes to mind as I move beyond feeling slightly ruffled. I remember the days spent trying to explain, wanting to share, and expose someone to my vocation. I was met with looks of complete confusion, or even disinterest. I’m still met with confusion, but now I’m rarely met with disinterest.

This century we are reawakening our sense of smell. “Olfaction” has become a hip word that’s being investigated and celebrated in every form of media. Visuals of botanicals have left the pages of gardening and agriculture magazines to add backdrop to product containers and marketing ploys. Theatres, shopping plazas, theme parks, hotels, places of worship, salons and spas (including areas we would never have imagined such as office spaces, places of commerce, casinos, classrooms and even hospitals), have acquired a new familiarity through their scents.

We’re acquiring “scent” memories, and these have taken physical form to the plants they represent. There’s added excitement at cosmetic and perfume counters when a sales clerk references exotics of frankincense, bergamot, ylang ylang, lemon verbena, mandarin, linden and jasmine. Shopping for food and household necessities is now a sensory task. Spices and herbs of cassia, clove, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, marjoram, mint, basil, rosemary, and sage cause us to pause and reflect on their flavour, their “scent.” We scan labels on our household products for the names of tea tree, lemon, pine, and lavender—not so much for their antibacterial properties, but to create a halo of their fragrance while we clean. Even our social consciousness has been triggered. Sandalwood and rosewood have moved beyond beautiful fragrance to plants that are bearing the weight of planetary mismanagement. We’re creating mental scrapbooks for scent, no longer content to merely smell, we want to know what we have smelled and how the scent will make us feel.

Making sense of scent

Odour recognition takes place primarily in the right hemisphere of our brains, the area responsible for emotions, creativity, passion and drives. Our left hemisphere rules logic and impartiality. It stands to reason that it can be cumbersome for us to describe what we have smelled. We relate to aromas qualitatively—emotionally rather than logically. We remember scents by how they affect us.
Talk to someone about rose and there’s recognition of exquisite scent. Gardeners may share their belief that old shrub roses have the finest smell they’ve ever encountered. The fragrance instantly cheers them, helps slow their pace and eases their tension. It may conjure memories of their grandmother’s garden, a petal jelly they sampled, or a face toner they discovered. We celebrate the beauty of the smell and taste of the fragrance—the aroma.

Scientific research has found that smell is the keenest of all our senses. In an area the size of the pit of a small apricot, one square inch with millions of sensory neurons, we have the capacity to capture, process and then store 10,000 odours. Through the reflexive and unconscious act of breathing, scent creates a personal history for us, without our even being aware. None of our other senses establishes a memory database quite like this. Our response to scent is both physiologic (body) and psychosomatic (mind and spirit) as it enters the olfactory nerve tract and connects to the central nervous system. Within an instant of smelling an aroma, we can be sent back to the first moment we were introduced to it.

Scent is not simplistic. It is voluminous. In each breath, we inhale a complex recipe of aroma naturally given off by our surroundings. Everything we do or do not touch has one, or multiple scents. The walls of our rooms, the trees at our front door, scents carried on the wind, animals we pet, people we greet, clothes we wear, the floor of the earth we stand on. Helen Keller once wrote, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odours of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odours, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”1

Our mind does not discriminate between a scent and how we should respond to it. Rather, our individual histories, locked within the recesses of our mind, govern our responses and our feelings. This theory, called “learned-odour response,” is why the same aroma can affect us each quite differently. A scent that triggers good memories for one person may revisit painful memories for another.

One of the most poignant photos I encountered this year was that of a soldier on the battlefields of Iraq. He was holding a letter to his face—a face shrouded by a carpet of mud created from sweat and desert sand. He was not looking at his letter, but smelling it. There were words of explanation captioned below, but truly no words were necessary. His face held a smile, and his body was relaxed with joy in a way that only the discovered scent upon his letter could have produced amid that intense backdrop.

Scientists, artists, spiritualists, physicians and business people are searching to better understand our sense of smell and how aroma interfaces with our minds, bodies and spirits. There’s no disputing that fragrance, in whatever form, can have an emotional effect on us. Yet, in our consumer-driven forum for aromatherapy, most of us are missing the experience of pure essential plant extracts, which is the basis of what a therapist refers to as “aroma-therapy”—the use of aroma, achieved with the use of pure essential plant extracts, oils, and often their floral waters (hydrosols), for therapeutic application.

The next level

Aromatherapists are healthcare specialists who have devoted advanced education to such studies as anatomy and physiology, pathology and all the principles of aromatherapy—from the agriculture of plants, to the chemistry of their by-products, to the psychology of scent. It’s essential they have a thorough understanding of how the body, mind, and emotions interface with health, as well as the phytotherapy potentials of essential plant extracts. They may also be trained in additional medicine and complementary therapies to assist their clients in living healthier, creative and satisfying lives.

Plants have been the major source of medicine for centuries. First employed in whole form, cultural evolution and modern technology have provided us ways to isolate and replicate primary components. Through extensive, controlled research we have identified components in plants that minimize, even eliminate, harmful microorganisms, fungus, viruses and infectious diseases. Where medicine synthetically replicates components of plants, herbalism and aromatherapy incorporate the whole of the plant or its plasma—its plant oil, its essential oil.

Aromatherapy has sparked a renewed interest in the potential of organically derived elements for health and well-being, however, it’s not recognized with the same stature as herbalism. Where we might consider supplementing or even replacing our prescription or over-the-counter drugs with herbs, the suggestion of using an essential oil in the same manner would surprise most people. There’s no connection made that essential oils are the infrastructure of herbal plants and are contained within the plant derivatives utilized for a vast majority of medicines. Technology, for all its contribution, continues to surround us with media-flash that encourages us to desire and rely upon what is conceived within a lab, rather than on what the Earth organically provides us. As technology advances, we’re working against the planet, placing it and ourselves in danger of health disharmony.

We resist taking aromatherapy to the next level, as a therapeutic enhancement, and I’m not certain why. We scramble to add scent to our environment and our bodies, yet we do not utilize it to perform a therapy for us as ancient civilizations once did. Rome, Greece, and Egypt have rich apothecary histories where fragrance was both an aesthetic delight and a medicinal benefit for its wearer. The Egyptians were devout in their belief that the nose was the main portal to the soul and to breathe scented air gave them veritable life. Perfume once was an adjective aptly used to describe the fragrance of a plant, flower, food, or drink. Today it more readily signifies the artistry of manufacturing. Perfume has become synonymous with aromatherapy, rather than being defined as “aroma-chology,” the science of scent, not the use of pure essential oil extracts.

In a time when simplicity and living a more organic lifestyle are becoming paramount, utilizing pure plant essential oils and their hydrosol is organic, it is simple. For years alternative therapists and traditional healers espoused the interrelationship between body, mind, emotions and health. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), a new branch of medical science in the last century, established through scientific credibility the links between emotional disharmony manifesting itself in physical symptoms, lowered immunity and disease. Acknowledging our new relationship with our noses, and how scent can affect how we feel, aromatherapy becomes a simple combatant to our whirlwind paces and the stresses that can result. Perhaps we’re not aware that conclusive research on the health benefits, emotional and physical, of multiple essential oils now exists? The combined efforts of scientists, researchers, clinicians, therapists, and even doctors, are dispelling many of the myths and misunderstandings that surround aromatherapy.

Essential oils are being studied as enhancements to learning and productivity, and possible factors in our buying behaviours. And even though the remedial potential of essential oils is being investigated, their unequivocal mastery still lies in their fragrance.

An essential oil gives the plant its fragrance and can be found in the roots, rhizomes, leaf, flower, stem, bark, wood, fruit rind and seed. It’s housed within specialized pockets, canals, cells, and reservoirs. It functions as our own plasma does—complex and concentrated, supporting metabolism, feeding and protecting against infectious invasion, contributing to the health and very life of the plant.

Although extracting an essential oil expends the life of the plant, it remains alive, resonating with active molecules. A single essential oil can contain between 70 to 300 recognizable chemical constituents. In physical form these oils appear to be liquid, when they’re in fact vaporous, expeditiously permeable to our skin and our nose. They have distinctive aroma, texture, density, color, and even “flavour.” Yes, we use both our sense of smell and taste to completely savour the full aromatic value of an essential oil—fragrance through our nose, and flavour if our tongue detects the impulses of bitter, sweet, sour, or salty.

Aestheticians and spa specialists, whose study traditionally is steeped in European philosophy and science on the benefits of phytotherapy, were some of the first to work more closely with holistic aromatherapy in the U.S. They utilized essential oils and hydrosols to help repair and stimulate new cell growth and skin regeneration, set up a barrier to bacteria, prevent environmental invasions, and preserve elasticity, thus warding off the effects of aging.

Massage therapists also are learning how essential oil products can effectively augment and enhance the strokes and movements of nearly every form of massage, be it Swedish, shiatsu, reflexology, Hellerwork, jin shin, polarity, Thai, Alexander Technique, or lymphatic drainage. Beyond the therapeutics of therapists’ manipulations, the subtle, yet profound diffusion of scent can engender feelings of joy, relaxation and an inner sense of well-being for clients.

Bodyworkers become essential oil connoisseurs and artists as they train themselves in the art of organoleptics (the linguistics of scent) and blending. And practitioners become scientists as they research to understand more completely the molecular composition of essential oils and relate them to the therapeutic actions they may be seeking for various pathologies. Aroma-massage provides ingenuous support for healing and health, for advancing therapists’ skills, for their own personal satisfaction, as well as what they’re able to offer their clients, and for the practicality of financially growing their business.

Quality and therapeutic value are key terms when applied to the success of holistic aromatherapy. As with food, it’s not always necessary to purchase essential oils with organic verification. Many plants are grown wild and unfettered. However, others, such as citrus, are generally grown with pesticide sprays and processed for their essential oils through methods most often not employing the benefits afforded by distillation. When this is the case, organic becomes necessary. Another exception is hydrosols, which, in my opinion, should be from organic plants.

Finding reputable vendors is ideally a rudimentary goal. Building a reliable network of like-minded, goal-oriented professionals is a place to begin this exploration. Devote the time to interview your suppliers before purchasing their products. Do they have gainful knowledge on all the variables of their product? Request to sample their product, to experience the aroma, application, and how their product is presented. Companies offering therapeutic essential oils and hydrosols are generally proud of their product and exhibit this with meticulous bottling and labelling. Many suppliers provide a certificate of analysis distinguishing chemical composition and other variables, however these too require advanced training to decipher, and are not always reliable.

I recently read a fascinating article by Charles Spence, lecturer in experimental psychology at Oxford University, that not only put a name to, but also reinforced my belief in holistic aromatherapy being able to enhance health. By adopting a “multisensory” approach to life, becoming more conscious of all the dimensions of our senses, we live with more awareness and can be healthier. He suggests that by living in an environment that depletes one, or several of our senses, we create imbalance that can have a direct effect on our health. Not just with our auditory, tactile, or visual senses, but also with our sense of smell.

Bodyworkers naturally create this multisensory environment for clients both through their touch and the tone or atmosphere they create in their therapy rooms, which typically includes scent to stimulate the sense of smell. Essential oils are most often incorporated diluted into massage oils and lotions, applied with a hot or cold compress, and inhaled by misting the air using a professional diffusion unit, or even dispensing through steam in a bowl of warmed water placed under the face cradle. It can also be added by the mist of hydrosols to linens or incorporated through the use of essential oils in the products practitioners apply.

A blossoming future

We’re becoming more physically isolated as technology provides us with a variety of means and excuses to stay indoors rather than out-of-doors. Touch is often viewed more with a negative connotation than recognition of physical nurturing. It only stands to reason that our need for these altruistic holistic therapists becomes more evident, more vital. We live in times when our bodies reach for touch well beyond a hug, a kiss, to all variety of creative athletics and bodywork, and our nose reaches not only for fresh air but for pleasant, multi-layered scent. Once considered pampering, holistic aromatherapy has become vital and necessary. It’s as essential to nourish our bodies, brains, and souls with touch and smell, as it is to fuel them with food.


Indigo Oxygen
Uplifting, balancing, refreshing, clarifying, and supremely anti-infectious infused with aromatic antioxidants. Bright and bracing, initiating the color spectrums of blue-green. An aromatic interface between the Alps and sea.

12 drops lavender (angustifolia)
6 drops lavindin (grosso)
6 drops yuzu (Japanese lemon)
6 drops white grapefruit
6 drops pine (sylvestris)
4 drops seaweed

*To enhance aroma and application, incorporate lavender hydrosol to your mister recipe

Venetian Rubies
Nurturing, strengthening, comforting and empowering. Relieving a state of exhaustion, anxiety, and disconnection and establishing harmony, balance, fortitude, and sensuality.

12 drops mandarin
8 drops blood orange*
8 drops geranium
8 drops frangipani
4 drops angelica
2 drops ylang ylang (complete)

*Make certain your blood orange is non-synthetic. If unobtainable, add other rich citrus oils. To enhance aroma and application, incorporate Bulgarian rose hydrosol to your mister recipe.

Bella Jazz
Sumptuous, motivating, warming, and deeply sensual. Spicy voluptuous aromatic musings of Latin America filled with verve, confidence and spark.

16 drops clary sage
6 drops ylang ylang (extra)
8 drops black pepper
4 drops coriander
2 drops violet leaf
2 drops patchouli
2 drops clove bud

*To enhance aroma and application, incorporate ylang ylang hydrosol to your mister recipe.

Himalayan Song
Centering, stabilizing, resolving, enlightening, deepening breath and strengthening chi. A sacred, deliberate blending inspired by aromas of forest, cathedral
sanctuaries and a Bordeaux caramel shop.

8 drops spruce
6 drops myrtle (red)
6 drops champa (Michelia)
4 drops spikenard
4 drops frankincense
4 drops cedarwood (atlantica)
2 drops cistus
2 drops myrrh
4 drops cinnamon (zeylanicum)

Place onto tissue, on diffusion unit, or as accupoint therapy. Best used in low-percentage blending.

*To enhance aroma and application, incorporate neroli hydrosol to your mister recipe.

Eva-Marie Lind-Shiveley has specialized in holistic aromatherapy for over 15 years. She has practiced as a clinical aromatologist and held the position of program lead and department dean at private career colleges with accredited programs on natural health therapies, massage, spa, and fitness training. She’s also worked in research and design for several holistic aromatherapy product-based companies. A resident of Portland, Ore., she now lectures and writes on the uses, product design, and eco-concerns of medicinal and aromatic plants and can be reached at Excerpt from and article originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2004.

image: aromatherapy oils via Shutterstock