Humankind has always used aromatic plants for nutritional, cosmetic and medicinal purposes. Prehistoric man consumed juniper berries; Australian Aborigines used tea tree leaves in around 40,000 B.C. Terracotta stills were used in Pakistan in around 5,000 B.C. to produce essential oils. Methods of distillation were gradually developed; active ingredients were isolated and classified.
France has played a leading role in the contemporary history of aromatherapy. Montpellier was the historical birthplace of perfume, where alcohol was first used in perfumery. In the 14th century, the city witnessed the creation of Eau de la Reine de Hongrie, the oldest known alcohol-based perfume, formulated with an alcoholate of rosemary and turpentine essence.
The word “aromatherapy” comes from the Greek words aroma, meaning fragrance and therapia, meaning treatment. It was first used by the chemist and perfumer René-Maurice Gattefossé in the first half of the 20th century. In 1937 he published a work codifying the major properties of natural aromas: wound-healing, antiseptic, calming, invigorating, etc. Aromatherapy became a genuine science reserved for specialists, contrary to what the many books and websites full of homemade recipes would have us believe; some essential oils may even be toxic.
Essential oils are useful in cosmetics thanks to their antibacterial properties; they help to preserve the products. They are very popular in anti-acne products (aspic lavender), anti-wrinkle products (rosewood), as well as in the prevention of stretch marks (carrot) and cellulite (palma rosa). Some offer unparalleled aerial diffusion, such as officinal lavender used to counteract anxiety.