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The "Ancient" History of Essential Oils (Or not)

The "Ancient" History of Essential Oils (Or not)

Essential oils have been used for over 5,000 years, or 3,000, or maybe just a very, very long time. Truth is, nobody is really sure.

The history of essential oils has been documented in interestingly undocumented fashion by many writers on the subject of essential oils and aromatherapy. There is evidence of primitive stills that may have been used for the distillation of... something. It’s OK, and likely more accurate, to say essential oils do not have a history that goes back thousands of years. It’s not necessary to have a thousands-of-years history to use essential oils. The modern use of essential oils has a more recent and dynamic history.

Early herbal medicine

There is solid evidence that throughout human history there has been a use of plant-based medicine along with a varied use of aromatic plants. Archeologists will take you back 50,000 years to support the use of aromatic plants as food spices, medicine, and ceremony. The spice trade is ultimately responsible for the development of aromatic plant use beginning in India, China, and Java, and introduced into Persia, Arabia, Northern Africa, and Europe.

This is where the oft-repeated essential oil history regarding Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Bible stories is derived. Spices and aromatics were used extensively in these areas during the time of the spice trade, though in the form of unguents, incense, and other extracts. There is a possibility some distillation was used, producing mainly hydrosols, though unlikely in any significant way. 

The real history of essential oils

Ancient history of aromatics does provide great value to the use of essential oils. It is a guide to the medicinal, therapeutic, and ceremonial potential of the oils used today. Much of the therapeutic properties known about essential oils can be explored from this historical perspective. The greater meaning of this legendary use is the concept of nature treating nature.

Humans, through evolutionary development, have a direct relationship with plants as food and medicine. This is an intimate connection that begins with an understanding of the purpose for which the plants produce the aromatic compounds. There’s more to this phenomenon that is nectar for another time.

Popularization of essential oils for perfumery 

Essential oil distillation advanced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Distilled oils were mainly used in perfumery and flavoring at this time. In the 1800s there was a growing interest in the scientific chemical study and research of essential oils.

In the 1920s a French perfume chemist, René Maurice Gatefossé, began an in-depth study into the chemistry, science, and medicinal properties of essential oils. He coined the word Aromatherapy, leading to the current use of essential oils.

Essential oils for medical use

Gattefossé set in motion a medical application for essential oils which grew throughout France, Germany, and Switzerland during the 1950s into the 1970s. At this same time the use of essential oils was also introduced in massage, using dilutions, and in skin care by Marguerite Maury. In the mid 1970s Robert Tisserand inspired the magnificent growth that aromatherapy has experienced today, after translating into English a book by Dr. Jean Valnet, one of the leading medical doctors advancing the use of essential oils.

Essential oils go mainstream

Today there is an aromatherapy mash-up going on throughout the world. France continued the clinical and medical use of essential oils, which continues with some heavy restrictions today. Medical application inspires the so-called French method of essential oil use: internal and high dose. For most of the world, essential oils are sold and used for topical use, inhalation, and in skin care.

The real history of essential oils

England, the United States, and Australia have been leaders in the essential oil and aromatherapy growth. With this growth came an interest in the scientific study and research of essential oils and their chemical compounds. Today there is a good foundation of scientific evidence of what and how essential oils can do for health, healing, and medicine.

Enter: the MLMs

The mid-nineties introduced essential oil network marketing companies. The multi-level model of sales created a huge market for essential oils: 85 percent of essential oil sales in 2016. There is some conflict and controversy among the established aromatherapy associations about the ways in which essential oils are presented through network sales, mostly the undiluted and internal use by untrained consumers.

In reality, the differing opinions of proper and safe use is inspiring a diverse world of essential oil practice. Essential oils are presented in an over-the-counter “drug like” way (this oil for this ailment), as well as the more holistic concepts utilizing knowledge of the multi-target function of essential oil compounds, the olfactory system, and biology.     

The future of aromatherapy

Along with the aforementioned countries, there is a growing market in China, Japan, and other countries throughout the world. The biggest issue with this growth is sustainability and availability of the high consumption of essential oils. It’s important to treat essential oils with respect and concern for their sustainability and environmental impact.

This is an exciting time for essential oils and the potential they present for health, medicine, enjoyment, and careers. Essential oils are used in versatile and interesting methods that include Ayurvedic, naturopathic and traditional Chinese medicine. Oils are used by anyone interested in self-healing, in skin care and cosmetics, emotional healing, and environmental fragrancing.

The world of essential oils is still in its early stages. Its history is now the future.