Written and researched by: Martin Watt

Original version published in The Aromatic Thymes. Vol.3. No.1. 1995.
pp7,9,30. Article slightly revised 2012.

My response to criticism from the UK Aromatherapy organisations council of
my article is below.

Those training courses placing great emphasis on the actions of
essential oils being caused by single chemicals occurring in the oil are
wrong. Why?
See also later articles on this issue as well as links to others
with the same conclusion.

It is totally wrong to attribute potential actions and adverse effects of essential
oils based on broad chemical classifications. Essential oils are complex
mixtures of numerous natural chemicals. Many oils are so complex that they
cannot be fully re-created by chemists. Many contain unidentified chemicals
which by default have unknown actions.

It is often the trace chemicals that contain the most active fragrance and
flavour molecules, and it is a fair assumption that many highly active
therapeutic substances also only occur in trace amounts. Chemists can re-
create the fragrance of many essential oils. However, such products do not
contain the hundreds of trace chemicals (with their synergistic and perhaps
potent actions) as the real thing.

I have seen the following in course notes from so-called 'reputable' &
'recognised' courses:

• Alcohols:
Frequently cited in course notes as “relaxant”.

Note: When we look at the number of essential oils containing common
alcohols such as linalool, in fact we see that they can have very different
fragrances as well as actions. A good example is linalool type basil oil. The
fragrance is still basil-like and some would say it is a mild stimulant. It is most
unlikely that basil (linalool type) will achieve the same kind of mental
relaxation as an ordinary lavender oil containing similar, or even less volumes
of linalool.

Lavender herb has long been associated with relaxing treatments when given
as a tea, or tincture, and yet the fresh plant contains hardly any linalool.
Therefore, any relaxant action in the use of the herb, is NOT related to this
crazy theory of "alcohols having relaxant actions where they occur in essential
oils". All these actions found in books and on courses where the action of an oil
is do to the major chemicals in it, must therefore be considered as ill evaluated
and error laden theories.

Please see this link for confirmation that I was correct all those years ago:

"aldehydes are anti-inflammatory, alcohols are relaxing, ketones are

• Note: This classification system is still used on most aromatherapy training
courses, and yet it is extremely misleading and frequently potentially
dangerous. As far as I can ascertain, the origin of these crazy concepts are just
a couple of well known French therapists whose work has never been
adequately evaluated.

"aldehydes are more or less skin irritants".
• Note: This is wrong. Some aldehydes are common food ingredients, while
others such as cinnamic aldehyde are severe skin irritants. Aldehydes are a
vast group of chemicals occurring in plants. When they occur in cinnamon bark
oil for example, they are the opposite to the statement above. That oil can
burn the skin so it is hardly anti-inflammatory.

Frequently cited in course notes as “toxic”.
• Note: Our body makes ketones and they are also in most meats. The only
time they cause a problem is if our decontamination mechanisms are disrupted
through illness. They are commonly found in everyday foods and flavourings
permitted under various National legislation. As with all such statements on
toxicity, they are meaningless unless they are qualified by the volume used.
For example, drink a bottle of sage oil and you may be poisoned, on the other
hand, the oil used in the appropriate volume in massage or foods should not
give rise to neurotoxicity. Misuse of almost anything will lead to problems but
these pseudo science statements rarely take account of that.

"Terpenoid groups have particular therapeutic properties".
• Note: This is unbelievably silly, as terpenoids are a vast group of chemicals
with widely varying properties occurring in thousands of plants and foods.

Compositional variation: Genuine natural oils can have colossal variations in
their chemical make up, and yet there may be little difference in their
fragrance. So again how can you possibly rely on therapeutic actions based on
these huge variations in the chemistry of natural oils? The characteristic
fragrance of an essential oil is often found in the minute traces of odoriferous
chemicals, and not necessarily in the major components. The food and flavour
trades are well aware of this, and most of them only use the fractions
containing the most potent fragrance or flavour molecules. Frequently these
molecules only represent 0.5-5% of the whole oil.

Non specific chemistry: The natural chemicals making up essential oils
frequently display isomerism. This is another reason that it is wrong to say that
"because an oil contains thujone, that all oils containing thujone will therefore
be toxic"
. Thujone does not exist as one chemical; it has isomers one of which
is 4 times more toxic than the other. Some oils contain a lot of one isomer and
other oils a lot of the opposite isomer. Therefore, you must know precisely
which isomer exists in the respective oil, and what the precise actions of the
different isomers are. Even then, you cannot be certain of the effects of a
potentially toxic isomer due to the modifying effects caused by the numerous
other chemicals occurring in the whole oil.

The lesson to be learnt from this is consider the known data on the actions of
the whole essential oil first. Chemistry does have its uses when looking at
essential oils, but it should always be secondary to the knowledge of the
effects of the whole oil.

As stated above, students are being told that the action of particular oils are
due to this or that chemical. However, most aromatherapy schools do not
have a clue what the oil they are using actually consists of.
How is it
that some of these schools who are unknowingly using semi-synthetic oils such
as lavender and geranium, still seem to get good therapeutic results? Is it
perhaps because of utmost importance may be what the oil smells like, rather
than its precise chemical composition? The client-therapist placebo effect is
also of equal importance, but ‘placebo’ tends to be a rude word in
complementary medicine.

So, why fill students heads with a lot of theoretical chemistry when logic tells
us that in practice it can not be correct? I can answer my own question here; it
is that the people providing such material on their courses have not studied the
subjects they are teaching carefully enough. They follow trend-setters like
sheep, and employ none specialist chemistry teachers who have never even
worked with the oils trade. This is often done to fill time and have their courses
‘recognised’ by trade associations who provide fallacious validation.

Training in chemistry: The seemingly desperate need by training
organisations to delve into areas of chemistry which are of little relevance to
the use of natural essential oils is a terrible shame. It is leading us down the
same paths that conventional medicine and the pharmaceutical trades have
trodden. It would be more acceptable if real experts in the trades associated
with essential oils were used in aromatherapy training. People such as
scientists who have proved that synergistic action really does exist,
dermatologist's who work every day with cases of adverse reactions to
products including essential oils. No, many course providers would rather stick
to the pharmacists and others trained in the chemical sciences, who are not
expert in the specific sciences of essential oils.
"Well they are cheaper
aren't they"- "we must bear in mind our training course in Hawaii is going to
cost a lot"- "we must get that other house in the south of France this year, and
oh yes - don't forget we must go on the French aromatherapy holiday".

Latin naming of oils: Students from well-known schools tell me they were
told: "you can't be an aromatherapist unless you know the correct Latin
This is complete and utter nonsense as I have come across few
schools that knows the correct botanical name of even a fraction of their oils.
Most plants used for essential oil production whether they are wild, or
cultivated crops, consist of numerous sub-varieties that can have wildly
different chemical compositions. Therefore, if you are taught for example that
tea tree oil must be “Melaleuca alternifolia” this is not strictly correct. There
are a number of sub-varieties of alternifolia that are used for tea tree oil. This
is why the Australian government standard for Tea tree oil does not just specify
alternifolia but adds "oil of Melaleuca, terpinen-4-ol type".

Commercial developments in essential oil bearing crops have been going on for
well over a century, with constant developments of commercially superior
clones or natural varieties. Aromatherapy training schools and essential oil
importers are often years behind such developments. The names oil importers
give are simply the accepted trade norm and are not the actual botanical name
of the plants used to produce the oil. It is common that even the large
essential oil importers cannot find out what variety of plants are being used in
the country of origin. Bear in mind that the large customers for essential oils
are not particularly interested in such matters. They mainly want to know
"what is the chemical composition", "how much is it per ton", "can you keep up
regular supplies". For a long time, there has been a total separation between
commercial oil production and end users. The producers will often grow their
crops to meet the needs of their major customers in food, flavor and cosmetics

Why has all this misinformation come about?

The reasons are complex, but there are a number of reasons.

1. Aromatherapy grew as an offshoot of the beauty therapy business. That
trade is notorious for its misleading hype over the properties of their products.

2. Because of 1, most of the early practitioners trained in France. The tradition
developed (as with so many beauty products), that if it has a French name or
you did your training in France, then everything is wonderful. No one
bothered to check if the people doing the training really knew what
they were talking about.
An unfortunate aspect of the French connection
was not to bother to investigate the historical uses of essential oils in British,
US or other countries medical professions and their flavour and fragrance
trades. In fact there is a wealth of information from worldwide sources.

3. Many of the people who have established their businesses supplying
essential oils, or in aromatherapy training courses, have had little if any
relevant training in the science of plants, essential oils, or medicine. Therefore
they have:

a) Trusted their suppliers statements about the quality of their oils.

b) Passed on to their students everything they got from suppliers. This is
because they have such a weak knowledge of how to check the accuracy of
such information.

c) Add to the above, the fact that with the Internet, anyone can set themselves
up with a flashy looking web site and immediately make money without
knowing anything about what they sell. That is why we are burdened with
thousands of web sites selling oils that are dangerous, along with often illegal
health care claims just to sell product to a gullible public.

4. People in the flavour, fragrance and cosmetics trades who are expert in the
production and chemistry of essential oils, have tended to keep aromatherapy
at arms length. Therefore, they have played little part in training aromatherapy
teachers. When such experts have taken an active role, it has often been the
cosmetic, fragrance and essential oil chemists, rather than the many other
experts available on olfaction, dermatology, microbiology, psychology, etc.

5. No one in aromatherapy has been prepared to fund, or share funding, the
large investment in time and money necessary to establish the truths or
untruths underlying the products and services they provide. Instead, the
general trend has been ‘let's get qualified and set up our own school or a new
association’. So again, they simply end up proliferating the mythology to a new
generation of students.

Qualifications - The History
The ‘leading lights’ established trade organisations, so that they could in effect
validate their own courses. Organisations such as the old A.O.C. & the
Aromatherapy Consortium in the UK; NAHA and the ARC in the USA; the CFA
and BCRC in Canada, as well as numerous beauty associations around the
world, had few members with real expertise on the subjects which they
claimed to be setting standards on. The gullible public, as well as Government
educational organisations, then assumed these organisations were evidence of
expert training. Such organisations got very upset when people like myself
started to question the whole basis of their knowledge, education, and
validation systems. Anyone who did that was left out in the cold, or in the case
of some organisations, the individuals removed from positions of authority.

The apparent success of these organisations in gaining recognition
from governmental and educational systems has little to do with them
providing evidence of accurate training standards. It seems that many
governments seem to think that trades can adequately regulate
themselves; such political dogma is extremely fault-ridden.
Historically, time and time again, many trades have had to be
regulated by legislation in order to protect the public from dishonest
traders and poor standards of service. It is extremely rare to find a
trade association, which puts the general public before its business
interests. So please, bear in mind, that the fundamental interests of
trade associations are self-protection.

Aromatherapy misinformation continued - Part 2
A further problem with aromatherapy education is found in the therapeutic
actions attributed to certain essential oils. Common examples are the so-called
"diuretic effects" of fennel and juniper oils. In addition the "anti cellulite
effects" of grapefruit oil, (beauty therapy con trick!!!)

There is no evidence, that essential oils when applied to the skin in the
amounts commonly used in massage, can be absorbed into the systemic
circulation in sufficient volume to cause any diuretic action. These claims
originate from two main sources:

1) When these oils are given as internal medication they will stimulate &
the kidney thus causing the release of more urine.

2) The traditional use of water or alcohol herbal extracts which are also given

On the other hand, there is sound evidence, that a diuretic effect can occur
simply as the result of ordinary massage. Haemodilution following massage
has been detected, which helps explain the common side effect following
massage, of a quick trip to the bathroom followed by thirst and the need to
have a drink. Ordinary massage has been shown to produce a number of
physiological effects on the body such as increase in b-endorphins, which play
a part in pain relief. There are also indications that massage can cause
alterations in hormone levels. Therefore, it may be seen that many of the
claims made by aromatherapy writers for their therapy can in fact be
explained by the effects of the massage, not by the effects of the
essential oils used.

So why are aromatherapy books full of so called "researched"
information on the use of essential oils which does not stand up to
scrutiny ?
The answer is that few writers have had any education in the
botanical and phytochemical sciences. Due to their weak knowledge of the
subjects, they write about, they do not have the ability to differentiate
between the use of an herbal extract and an essential oil. Numerous examples
can be found in popular aromatherapy books of medicinal claims being made
for an essential oil based on information gleaned from old herbals. Such herbal
information being mainly on the internal use of water or alcoholic extracts. This
type of extract contains hundreds of compounds that do not appear in the
same plants essential oil. These water-soluble compounds can exert profoundly
different actions to the essential oil.

The next myth is that an essential oil represents "the life force" in the plant.
This is complete and utter nonsense, how can any life force reside in a product
that has been processed and cooked to the degree of an essential oil? If
that were the case, how is it that we do not benefit from the "life force"
present in the huge volumes of animal fats that are extensively consumed?
Any life force, which is inherent in plants, is much more likely to be found in
herbs or vegetables eaten raw. This question of life force being transferable to
humans is no different in principal, to the old tribal beliefs, that you could
inherit the power of an enemy by eating his brain.

It must be "organically grown". I would always wish to support this method
of production, and if you wish to pay the premium to support this method of
production, then that is a fine thing to do. However, there are vast volumes of
essential oils traded as being "organically grown" that are not. So, make sure
your supplier can prove their sources, or you may be putting your money in
the pocket of con artists. As with aromatherapy, there are many OG
certification organisations which are simply trade associations. Some oil traders
pay a membership fee, get a certificate, and use that to fool their customers
into thinking the oils supplied are all organically grown - beware of these
scams and ask for proof of claims.
For example, ask the certifying authority
what inspections they make of the growers at home and especially oils
produced overseas. If all they do is rely on documents do not trust
anything they say.

The oil is "field distilled". Any such crude methods of distillation will
generally not produce such a good oil, as one that has been produced under
the controlled conditions of a modern processing plant. There are of course
always exceptions to this general rule, for instance plants such as peppermint
and rosemary, where carefully controlled local water and steam distillation is
preferable to avoid the volatile 'top notes' escaping.

"It is not an essential oil unless it has been steam distilled". This
concept is based on outdated oil trade criteria and not on reality. The best
quality essential oils are cold processed. Steam distillation can destroy or
change many valuable components in essential oils. Certainly, the highly
volatile chemicals that play an important part in the therapeutic effects of
freshly gathered herbs are substantially reduced by hot distillation. There are
only a tiny number of oils which require hot distillation in order to produce
naturally derived beneficial chemicals such as azulenes.

The perfumery and food flavouring trade are well aware that hot distillation
damages delicate chemicals in aromatic extracts. Due to this, they are
increasingly turning to cold extracted essential oils, in particular carbon
dioxide, or molecular extracts.

If the concept of "it must be steam distilled" is followed to the limits, then
aromatherapists should not use; rose absolute (commonly sold as rose oil) and
jasmine absolute. In addition, according to their own doctrine, they should not
use the floral absolutes originally produced exclusively for the fragrance trade,
but which aromatherapists are constantly requesting from their suppliers.
Absolutes may stand a marginally higher chance of producing skin irritation
than the equivalent steam distilled oil. However, due to their price, most people
can't afford to use them at levels that are likely to produce such a response.

So, compare what is written here, on which sound evidence exists,
with what is said in aromatherapy books, on courses and in the verbal
or printed literature from some essential oil suppliers.

© M. Watt 1994. Revised 1996, 2006, 2012, 2021.

An unpublished letter in response to a letter from the AOC, following
the appearance of my article in The Aromatic Thymes. Vol.3, No.1.
1995 .

A.O.C.=Aromatherapy Organisations Council, UK. (Represented training

A.T.C. =Aromatherapy Trades Council (Represents essential oil suppliers).

Dear Pam,
I have just seen a copy of a letter sent to you by the AOC in response to my
article "where aromatherapy training is going wrong". This letter contains
several misleading statements and still completely fails to address my
contention that the AOC has totally failed to set adequate standards on the
QUALITY of aromatherapy education.

Page 1. Para 1. Yes they did send a response to Aromatic Thymes, but that
failed to address my challenges as stated above. In addition, I also made
another reply to their letters in a subsequent edition.

The AOC assertion that "they represent the largest slice of the aromatherapy
trade in the UK" is simply not true. Therefore, by default, it must be untrue
that “they have achieved all embracing trade self-regulation”. The largest slice
of the aromatherapy trade is in fact those numerous courses run by none AOC
organisations particularly those in the beauty sector. These appallingly poor
courses are subsidised by the UK Department of Education because they are
run in establishments built and run from the UK taxpayers pocket. Yet, the
AOC claim they deal with the Dept. of Education on "setting trade standards",
yes maybe, but for what proportion of the trade?

Para 4. The standards promoted by the AOC have been those accepted as the
norm by the trade. That is where the heart of the problem lies in that 'trade
standards' do not by any stretch of the imagination represent truth or honesty
in educational matters. They are simply standards that an extremely poorly
educated (in aromatherapy) majority are happy to accept. Of course it was
"trade interests" that set the standards, that is the very nature of the AOC,
their members all run training courses, so is that not a trade interest?

The fact the UK Department of Education seem prepared to accept standards
set by a trade body should be no surprise to anyone. Their civil servants have
always had a leaning to accepting standards set by trade organisations,
provided 'procedures and protocols' are followed! One must wonder how many
students in other trades are similarly burdened with lousy quality of education
because of trade standards being generally accepted as "good enough".

I would challenge the AOC that "their members are well-qualified in the art and
science of our therapy". If their members were so well-educated, then why did
many of their members need to purchase my safety data manuals, (around
2000 copies sold starting around 1992). Why was it (if their members were so
well educated), that it was in fact a trade organisation that first asked to me
research toxicity issues?

Why, if their members were so expert, was it that it was me writing about the
dangers of cinnamon bark, expressed bergamot and verbena oils, that
persuaded many of their members to stop promoting those oils in their courses
and in some cases suppliers from selling them. If their members were truly
well-educated on essential oils, then all my work on safety issues would not
have been needed. Regretfully, due to the huge fallout rate of therapists in the
trade, many of those I helped educate have dropped out. Due to this, we once
again have emerging the kind of idiotic advice from trade approved teachers
that I had hoped had been put a stop to years ago.

Page 2. Para 1. All these quoted standards accepted by these various
organisations can in no way be deemed to mean that the material being taught
is accurate. The main activity of the AOC has been to promote procedures,
codes of conduct, methodology, etc.

It has never examined in any depth if the teaching materials being
used, or if the basic concepts underlying the therapy are founded in
truth or fiction. Most are the later.

Para. 2. It is absolutely useless to insist that a teacher is trained in teaching if
the material being presented by the teacher is packed with errors. Certainly
this is the case with many of the members of the AOC and I have their course
notes to prove it.

Para. 3. The ATC has historically never attempted to protect the consumer
from the commonest form of fraud propagated in the trade, which is the sale of
phoney essential oils. After many years of dragging their heels, it seems some
kind of analytical scheme may now be up and running, but doubtless any
results will be kept confidential and away from public scrutiny. They should
however be applauded for insisting member companies packaging is adequate
and safe, but that’s about all. They claimed in their literature to be an
appointed agent on behalf of the UK Medicines Control Agency to police the
literature of essential oil traders. Yet, at one time, one of their leading
members was making totally unfounded and illegal medicinal claims in her
literature while at the same time telling other traders they could not do that.

Para. 4. The 1968 Medicines acts and subsequent legislation were in fact
enforced by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society acting as agents for our
Medicines Control Agency. Any "code administration" undertaken by the ATC is
without any force of law behind it and can only apply to those companies in the
ATC. Please don’t forget that the vast majority of people selling essential oils in
the UK are not members of the ATC.

Please note that it was not my doing in putting details about my training
activities at the end of my article. All of my articles are always written as
separate items and it is usually the editors of the respective journals who insist
on providing a bibliography. The final part of this paragraph is scurrilous; I
have never set myself up as an expert in essential oils or aromatherapy (I
need five more lifetimes to be that). My activities are aimed at seeking out
accurate verifiable information about our trade and then publishing it or
teaching it. If that activity has proven what a load of rubbish is being taught
within main stream aromatherapy, then I will do all in my limited means to
disseminate that knowledge and expose the people teaching nonsense. If that
means indicting a very large part of the trade, then so be it.
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Essential Chemistry for Safe Aromatherapy