Aromatherapy: Legit or Bogus?

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Odd topic for Day 29 of the Idea Machine Project: Argue for/against the legitimacy of aromatherapy.

Curious about the Idea Machine Project? Scroll down for an explanation.

5 Reasons Aromatherapy Works

1. Smell is part of an animal’s survival mechanism.

Humans are animals, too.

The sense of smell plays a role in survival. Smell is one way we differentiate between something that is probably not harmful versus something that might be harmful.

If we take the survival aspect of smell to its logical evolutionary conclusion, it’s likely that humans would evolve to prefer pleasant smelling fragrances over the nasty-smelling stuff.

And we would begin to identify appealing fragrances with certain types of health benefits, perhaps relaxation or focus. It doesn’t matter if there’s a biologically-verifiable response. The placebo-effect is quite extraordinary.

2. Pheromones are chemical signatures that animals use innately.

It’s well-established through scientific research that humans rely on imperceptible scents of pheromones in selecting mates and responding to other humans.

Feliway is not just for cat therapy—we humans have our own version.

If we humans respond to pheromones, we also can respond chemically to more obvious forms of fragrance, such as flowers or essential oils.

3. Fragrance Exists To Aid In Pollination & Seed Dispersal

Nature was designed to facilitate reproduction. Flowers have fragrance to attract pollinators.

We humans play a role in the dispersal of pollen and seeds as we gather flowers and harvest fruits. We are more likely to gather flowers and fruits that are good for us and generate positive emotional responses.

We help the flowers reproduce by gathering and moving them around, and we get positive health benefits in return.

4. The Placebo Effect is Real

Even if there’s no verifiable scientific evidence that aromatherapy has a definite chemical effect, it’s enough if we believe the effect is there.

I don’t have time to find all the studies that verify the placebo effect, but here’s a summary from Scientific American.

5. Western Science Has Trouble Measuring & Controlling All Variables

It’s almost impossible to design a double-blind study that controls for exposure to all odors except a control and a specific fragrance being tested for an effect.

We humans might be able to comply with a study protocol to “not eat” something, but it’s impossible to “not smell” something that wafts through the air.

Here’s another example revealing the difficulty of controlled experiments involving aromatherapy:

Let’s say that health researchers are studying the calming effects of lavender in the workplace. So they assign half the subjects to work in an office with a lavender candle burning and another half to use a candle with no obvious fragrance. Unless the workplaces have precisely the same carpet, paint sources, and other indoor sources of pollution, it will be impossible to parse out the “noise” (statistical error)  caused by the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other indoor air pollutants that interfere with any possible efficacy of the lavender aromatherapy product.

5 Reasons Why Aromatherapy Does Not Work

1. The Source is Synthetic

Although the chemical industry claims there’s no meaningful or perceptible difference between synthetic fragrances and natural fragrances, I argue that it’s not so easy.

Just because science cannot (or chooses not to), at present, measure the difference between synthetics and natural, does not mean there’s not a subtle biological impact of a synthetic fragrance compared to a naturally-derived fragrance.

2. Volatile Organic Compounds Cancel the Effect

Indoor air pollution is, today, usually worse than outdoor air pollution, thanks to the presence of volatile organic compounds and other toxic materials and allergens (biological, chemical, fungal, etc.).

As I point out in number 5 in the “aromatherapy works” set of ideas, scientific researchers have difficulty designing a controlled environment to measure the impact of essential oils. Artificial lab experiments in this context would be akin to how observation changes the behavior of a subatomic particle. And it’s nearly impossible to control for all the natural variables in a field study (in home/in office) on the effects of aromatherapy.

3. The Source Is Impure or Watered-Down

Presumably, a well-designed, well-funded study would be able to control for purity-of-source variables. But most academic researchers do not have access to the funding and rely on over-the-counter aromatherapy products.

Consumers have even less control over the quality and purity of the aromatherapy products they are purchasing.

In my cover photo, I include a bottle of Mrs. Meyers Hand Soap. The label lists some items that are NOT present in the product. But I have no way to verify whether there’s any basil essential oil in the formula.

Similarly with the blue bottle of peppermint oil. It smells like peppermint, but is it natural and pure? I don’t know.

4. What Does the Subject Believe?

Generally speaking, we humans can shape our chemical responses more than we realize. Someone who does not believe a particular therapy will be efficacious will get that result. Others, who think a treatment will work (any type of treatment), will probably see some benefits of the treatment.

5. How Keen is the Sense of Smell?

Some people have more sensitive sniffers than do others. I’m one of those folks with a sensitive sniffer. If I find it necessary to use a public restroom and the “aroma” is less-than-ideal I have to cover my nose and work fast or simply turn and leave to avoid gagging.

Although most people will have some degree of similar response, my mom is often astonished by how I respond to bathroom smells that she can easily tolerate. Likewise, I can be driving down the highway and detect horrible chemical pollution smells that no one else in the car can smell.

The point is that some people are more sensitive to fragrance than others. It might be a biological difference or it might be due to temporary conditions, like a head cold or recent dietary intake.

All humans are different and we respond to fragrance and odors in different ways.


I’m blogging my way through Claudia Altucher’s book, Become an Idea Machine [Amazon affiliate link].

Today’s prompt is an exercise in the benefits of arguing the pros/cons of something and the topic is aromatherapy.

James Altucher says:

Ideas are the currency of the 21st century.”

I’m inclined to agree, although I have less public “clout” on this matter than does James.

His wife Claudia wrote a book about the daily practice of generating ideas.

About Sheree

Change Catalyst, Idea Explorer, Dot-Connector, Square Peg