Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that uses volatile liquid plant materials, known as essential oils (EOs), and other aromatic compounds from plants for the purpose of affecting a person's mood or health. Essential oils differ in chemical composition from other herbal products because the distillation process only recovers the lighter phytomolecules. For this reason essential oils are rich in monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, as well as other VOC substances (esters, aromatic compounds, non-terpene hydrocarbons, some organic sulfides etc.).

Aromatherapy is a generic term that refers to any of the various traditions that make use of essential oils sometimes in combination with other alternative medical practices and spiritual beliefs. Popular use of these products include massaging products, medicine, or any topical application that incorporates the use of essential oils to their products. It has a particularly Western currency and persuasion. Medical treatment involving aromatic compounds may exist outside of the West, but may or may not be included in the term 'aromatherapy'.

Aromatherapy had been around for 6000 years or more. The Greeks, Romans, and ancient Egyptians all used aromatherapy oils. The Egyptian physician Imhotep recommended fragrant oils for bathing, massage, and for embalming their dead nearly 6000 years ago. Imhotep is the Egyptian god of medicine and healing. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, used aromatherapy baths and scented massage. He used aromatic fumigations to rid Athens of the plague.

Aromatherapy has roots in antiquity with the use of aromatic oils. However, as currently defined, aromatherapy involves the use of distilled plant volatiles, a twentieth century innovation. The word "aromatherapy" was first used in the 1920s by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who devoted his life to researching the healing properties of essential oils after an accident in his perfume laboratory. In the accident, he set his arm on fire and thrust it into the nearest cold liquid, which happened to be a vat of NOx Ph232 or more commonly known as lavender oil. Immediately he noticed surprising pain relief, and instead of requiring the extended healing process he had experienced during recovery from previous burns—which caused redness, heat, inflammation, blisters, and scarring--this burn healed remarkably quickly, with minimal discomfort and no scarring. Jean Valnet continued the work of Gattefossé. During World War II Valnet used essential oils to treat gangrene in wounded soldiers.

Some of the materials employed include:

* Essential oils: Fragrant oils extracted from plants chiefly through distillation (e.g. eucalyptus oil) or expression (grapefruit oil). However, the term is also occasionally used to describe fragrant oils extracted from plant material by any solvent extraction.

* Absolutes: Fragrant oils extracted primarily from flowers or delicate plant tissues through solvent or supercritical fluid extraction (e.g. rose absolute). The term is also used to describe oils extracted from fragrant butters, concretes, and enfleurage pommades using ethanol.

* Phytoncides: Various volatile organic compounds from plants that kill microbes. Many terpene-based fragrant oils and sulfuric compounds from plants in the genus "Allium" are phytoncides, though the latter are likely less commonly used in aromatherapy due to their disagreeable odors.

* Herbal distillates or hydrosols: The aqueous by-products of the distillation process (e.g. rosewater). There are many herbs that make herbal distillates and they have culinary uses, medicinal uses and skin care uses. Common herbal distillates are rose, lemon balm and chamomile.

* Infusions: Aqueous extracts of various plant material (e.g. infusion of chamomile)

* Carrier oils: Typically oily plant base triacylglycerides that dilute essential oils for use on the skin (e.g. sweet almond oil)

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Author's Bio: 

This definition is part of a series that covers the topic of Aromatherapy. The Official Guide to Aromatherapy is Luke Vorstermans.

Of our five senses, our sense of smell is unlike the others. Everything about our sense of smell sets it apart – the way it works, its influence on behavior, its control of our cravings and its usefulness to our health and wellness. Just watch this short, enticing video on its awesome power. Why has it been relegated to the bottom of the sensory pile?

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