What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I keep a file of notes that I occasionally pull out and look at, so here’s one from the archives. A year or so ago there was a discussion of aromatherapy on Basenotes, in which it was asserted by some that aromatherapy is an effective treatment for various physical ailments. I made some notes at the time because there seems to be a lot of confusion about the use of herbs taken internally, applied locally, and inhaled. I can only conclude that some (obviously not all) of the aromatherapy crowd simply search for the name of a plant along with the term “medicinal uses”, and conclude that inhaling fumes of an essential oil will have the same effect as taking the substance internally or applying a poultice, cream, or salve to the skin. Granted, there are some herbs that can be smoked or otherwise absorbed through mucus membranes, but it’s not always the case that one route of administration is as good as another. There’s also the issue of dose.

Because aromatherapy is such a popular theme, cutting across many segments of the fragrance world all the way from conscientious, well-educated, bona fide natural medicine practitioners and natural perfumers to commercial candle manufacturers out to make a few bucks with a synthetic fragrance-oil-scented petroleum product with the word “aromatherapy” stamped on the label, it seems reasonable to take a critical look at what aromatherapy can and cannot do. This post is an expansion and revision of what I wrote in response to one of the posts on Basenotes.

I think everyone would agree that odors have profound effects on behavior since they provide signals for behaviorally relevant stimuli. We are attracted to the smell of a bakery or other source of food, just as any other living organism is. When we smell something rotten we feel compelled to find the source of the odor and clean it up or avoid it. Certainly no one would dispute the fact that odors can affect mood and produce conditioned responses. When I smell my dark roast coffee brewing in the morning, it never fails to induce a good mood and start waking me up even before I taste it. If I smell dog feces left in our front garden by the neighbor’s dog, it induces a bad mood and makes me heap curses on both the dog and the neighbor. Smelling perfumes almost always cheers me up, and there are some perfumes that I keep around just to smell rather than wear.

No one would dispute the fact that odors can affect behavior since they clearly attract or repel, just as no one would dispute the fact that odors can affect mood, but this is fundamentally different from claiming that simply smelling an odor can cure acne or diabetes or kidney stones. I think the problem is that no one ever really defines "aromatherapy" and some people use it in the sense of behavior modification, others in the sense of medical treatment, some in the sense of psychotherapy, and others in the sense of mood control, meditation, energy boosting, or relaxation.

The oft-repeated assertion that aromatherapy "works" is based on the universal observation that people generally feel better when they have pleasant odors to smell. This effect is undoubtedly due to subtle changes in brain state and neurotransmitter levels, so it is a real physiological phenomenon. Odor can act as a distraction so that attention is shifted away from a painful or unpleasant sensation, be it physical or psychological. The feeling of well-being induced by pleasant odors can have physiological effects such as lowered blood pressure, deeper breathing, muscle relaxation, and changes in patterns of brain activity. These uses of odors are all scientifically valid, and are not the same as claiming that odors can directly treat or cure specific diseases or conditions. A general lack of rigor when talking about aromatherapy is what sometimes makes it seem like a dubious snake-oil marketing industry instead of an art and science that potentially benefits us all.

What is your experience with aromatherapy?

[All images from Wikimedia]


  1. Hi Ellen,

    While I have not made a conscious effort to "cure" or modify the effects of illness by any kind of aromatherapy, I seem to have a stronger awareness of odors in perfume and in the environment after going through seven months of chemotherapy. While I have always found that certain fragrances help me to sleep better, during and after the months of chemo I discovered that many perfumes and the fragrance of certain oils would mitigate various symptoms, brighten my mood as well as help me to relax and deal with anxiety.

    I really don't care about the scientific validity of my own personal brand of aromatherapy or the rigor associated with valid studies or tests. I think that sometimes we have to believe in our personal and very subjective experience and, in the case of aromatherapy, centuries of "folk" knowledge and tradition. Aromatherapy is an art and science I would like to know more about, but until I am more knowledgeable I will just keep smelling the roses.


  2. I have a CPAP (constant positive air pressure) machine for help with sleep apnia. Room air is pulled in, humidified by passing over a heated basin of water, and pushed at slightly increased pressure into my nose and mouth. I've tried adding perfumes and single scents (orientals, florals, fougeres, chypres, vanilla, lavender, lily of the valley, jasmine – I don’t give up easily) to the water to try and improve my sleep. (Long story short - a year of hip pain screwed up my sleep rhythms.) Unfortunately, everything I've tried actually makes me sleep worse.

  3. Gail, I agree that centuries of folk knowledge and tradition are probably right on target. Unfortunately there are many products labeled "aromatherapy" that have nothing to do with that knowledge base, and those are the ones I am skeptical about. I also agree that the use of scents is highly personal and that if it works for you, that's what counts. By the way, I've been thinking that we need to get together in person some time since we're not that far away geographically.

    Ed, have you tried melatonin? I use it for jet lag flying east and whenever I have to get up earlier than normal for an extended period of time (morning class). I'm a night person, so early morning activities mean that I have to go to bed earlier than my circadian rhythm would like, if I want to get a halfway decent amount of sleep. I find that if I use one melatonin tablet, I go right to sleep and wake up almost exactly 6 hours later.

  4. Ellen, perhaps we could get together at an open house at your orchid nursery? I have wanted to visit your greenhouse for sometime now.

    Regarding those awful synthetic fragrance oils and candle shaped things: I've seen them on the back shelves at Rite Aid and Payless drug stores. Pretty scary stuff! I agree that the word "aromatherapy" should not be used to advertise these items. The problem here, though, is one of regulating language. What comes to mind is a recent EU snaffu, the one regulating the language that appears on bottled water (see the Telegraph, I think it was November 22?). This article was food for a lot of Thanksgiving day laughter at our house, but in reality the issue of language regulation isn't funny. The EU's desire to protect consumers has turned into a crusade against common sense. Does water prevent dehydration? Only the EU knows for sure! Are those scary candles "aromatherapeutic" or toxic? Gail

  5. Gail, I should try to organize an open house sometime this spring, when the weather's warmer. I'm sure the local orchid society would be up for that, too.

    I'm with you when it comes to the "crusade against common sense". It's idiotic to make statements of the obvious like "water can prevent dehydration" and it's even more idiotic to ban the statements. The Telegraph article is definitely fodder for another post.

  6. Ellen,
    Thanks for the suggestion of melatonin. The first night I tried it I went right to sleep but woke up an hour later. That's one of my common problems. But regular use may improve results.

    I think it's a really good idea to collect people's experience with aromatherapy. Which aromas worked for which problems and for how many people? I agree that the smells a person likes will make that person happier and that - whatevery the problem - it's better to be more happy than less happy. But I never got anything more specific when I asked the question on Basenotes a couple of years ago.

  7. Ed, I hope you can get the melatonin to work for you.

    I think the problem with collecting personal experiences is that you'll find that they're all over the place. Some people will feel better smelling one thing and others something very different. If I have sore muscles, they feel better right away just from smelling Tiger Balm. Talk about a placebo effect! Other people probably gag on the smell of Tiger Balm.

    Although there are some general principles (lavender and other aromatic herbs seem to be relaxing for most people, peppermint and eucalyptus are good for respiratory problems, etc) I think the bottom line is that you have to use trial and error to find what works for you.