The Truth Behind Aromatherapy Schools of Thought

With all this talk about the "aromatherapy schools of thought," we've had that old Bee Gees song stuck in our head ...

Recently, the aromatherapy world has begun discussing the truth behind the so-called "French," "German," and "English" aromatherapy "schools" as if they actually existed.

I am thrilled to see this topic come up, because the idea of these “schools” has baffled me for some time now. I would definitely advise reading Gabriel Mojay's open letter to me on this subject here, but he says, "In a nutshell: the so-called 'French' and 'British' labels are being used to mislead and mystify."

In reality, depending on the need, there are only three methods to use essential oils: topical, oral, and inhalation (or external, internal, and environmental). Although, as Gabriel points out, the integrated therapeutic discipline of Aromatherapy should combine these methods. The different "schools" get the methods of aromatherapy correct, but that's about the extent of their accuracy. 

So where do these "schools" come from? To explain, I'll need to dive back into the history of aromatherapy.

Around 1910, a Frenchman named R.M. Gattefossé badly burned his hands and contracted gas gangrene, which he successfully treated with lavender essential oil. Afterwards, he coined the term "aromatherapy." He was not the first researcher to write about this form of therapy, but he was the first to recognize the therapeutic use of essential oils as a discipline in itself (more on Gattefossé here).

Later, Dr. Jean Valnet coined "aromatic medicine" and was also French (you can find his literature here and a brief biography here). Dr. Valnet has been made into the face of oral and undiluted use of essential oils, although his research was much more widespread and focused on aromatherapy and essential oils as treatments for illnesses. Gattefossé, nowadays hailed by many as the “father of aromatherapy," has been grouped with Valnet, thus building toward the idea of a French "school" that supports widespread essential oil ingestion.

As medicinal aromatherapy took root, it began to engage pharmacists and physicians in France and all over Europe; however, many were in France. In 1978, Dr. Paul Belaiche published on the clinical use of essential oils in treatment of infectious and degenerative diseases (more information on Belaiche here). Jean-Claude Lapraz, Christian Duraffourd, and Dominique Baudoux have all contributed enormously to the understanding of the medical activity of essential oils, as well. In 1980, French chemist Henri Viaud published the purity and quality criteria that essential oils have to meet to be suitable for medical purposes. Then, in the 1990s, Dr. Daniel Pénoël and Pierre Franchomme contributed the medical aroma text of the decade. Today, we have the Endobiogeny sector with Drs. Lapraz and Duraffourd for that purpose (learn more about that here). 

The contributions of these French and Belgian doctors and pharmacists have greatly added to the understanding of how to incorporate essential oils into medical treatments. This has become known as the "French method."

Meanwhile, I've seen Marguerite Maury associated with the British School, though she was Austrian-born and studied in France. Maury did train beauty and massage therapists in London, but she also trained therapists all over Europe. She was Valnet’s student, too, though she had different goals for aromatherapy and a different perspective. She wasn’t aiming to medicate in the way Valnet and his fellows were, but her teachings were just as valid and are most often used in conjunction with other forms toward the overall discipline of aromatherapy (more on her here).

The separation of aromatherapy methods into "schools" really began in the early 2000s when one of Dr. Daniel Pénoël's lectures included a joke that became truth.

Dr. Pénoël, whose speaking style is very charismatic and humorous, described the differences between the three schools in this way:

"The German system of aromatherapy (smell) is comparable to platonic love. You cannot make babies with platonic love. The English system is like flirting. You still cannot make babies. The French system of aromatherapy is like 'The Full Monty,' and it will make babies!"

So, although Dr. Pénoël's statement had a joking quality, it was taken very much to heart.

In addition, Pénoël had lectured previously in California in 1989 and 1990 and showed audiences his "living embalming" technique on a seriously ill girl. He saturated the woman's tissues with repeated undiluted applications every 30 minutes. We saw him drip large amounts of oils on her back and use a hair dryer to dry them on her skin. Many of my colleagues were witness to this. Not long after this event, Gary Young started spreading a similar method called Raindrop Therapy, which he supposedly learned from a Lakota medicine man named Grandfather Wallace Black Elk. Black Elk's children and tribe have since denied Young's claim, and you can read a direct letter on that subject here

After Pénoël spoke at the Young Living convention and had his book published by the company (Pénoël, D. & R. - Natural Home Health Care Using Essential Oils. Editions Osmobiose, La Drome, France 1998), Young Living began using the idea of different "schools" within their marketing campaign. It makes perfect sense from a business perspective; telling people to perform undiluted medical treatments like this and oral use, too, sells more oil than diluted topical or atmospheric use. This was the beginning of the "schools" myth, because the marketing campaigns purport that the French method is so superior to other, non-medically focused forms of aromatherapy. 

And so began the use of undiluted oils on spines to correct scoliosis and daily oral use in capsules or water to treat many serious medical conditions.  This is essentially the practice of medicinal aromatherapy by the masses, which I absolutely believe our beloved French aromatherapists never intended. Now all the other copycat companies repeat and repeat the same "joke" making it appear real to newbies searching on the internet!

One aspect that especially confuses me is how Pénoël came up with the idea of the "German" school. Some sites say it's because Germans find inhaling essential oils similar to walking in a forest with streams and brooks. But I think we all enjoy that, no? Why would this be relegated to a German school of thought? 

It’s all very confusing and unclear, in my opinion. After all, as The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy, I teach topical, oral, and inhalation, and I am not French, German, or British. I’m a USA born and bred Southern gal! I've also benefited from training all over the world with French, German, British, Australian, and American aromatherapists and leaders and experts.

Someone recently asked me which school I subscribe to, and my answer was this: None of them! I teach and use essential oils and other natural products internally, externally, and environmentally.

I will use essential oils and natural products internally if I’m ill, but not on a daily basis because there is no need and they contain no nutrients. I dilute my oils for skin use because it’s safer, more economically effective, and covers a wider area. I apply essential oils daily in creams and lotions, and I inhale daily in my environment. I’ll also inhale from a diffuser if I’m congested. I’m not any one school, because I’m all of the schools. Because all the so-called schools, together, make up aromatherapy. And no matter the particular method of aromatherapy, it's important to be well-trained in the safe use of essential oils.

But I'm baffled by this school myth mostly because it attempts to rewrite aromatherapy history in the United States—and I was there for much of that history, starting in the 1970s. I saw aromatherapy come to America via herbalists; we've had companies here since the '70s. I've worked with scientists and industry leaders like Martin Watt (UK), Dr. Trevor Stokes (Aus), Robert Pappas (Greek/American), Tony Burfield,(UK) and Michael Kirk-Smith (Ireland), just to name a few, and I was a part of the Purdue Initiative that ultimately led to the formation of the ARC (Aromatherapy Registration Council) exam.  See some stories on the Vintage Aromatherapist Blog.

I've been actively studying essential oils and essential oil safety for forty years and have been involved in the industry since early 1980, long before the idea of these schools ever took root. I will not allow aromatherapy history in the USA to be rewritten as long as I'm alive to recount my true experiences with it. 

So please trust me, you’re better off focusing on all aspects of aromatherapy and learning how to use each one safely and effectively. Don't worry so much about the schools! And help stop this myth from taking over our history. 

Learn more HERE.

Dedicated to those who tried to make the joke truth.

We can't help but say the joke is on you.