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« Carnival of the Godless #14 The RantsAir America: Slightly Better than Nothing »

We Repeat: Aromatherapy is Bullshit
2005.06.07 (Tue) 00:21

As skeptics and promoters of rational thought, we have written about a wide range of topics on our site. More than any other topics, the paranormal/pseudo-science write-ups tend to attract some interesting readers who sit on the opposite side of the skeptical fence from us. Some have been perfectly nice people, while others have been outright loons. For example, we had one person chastise us for not believing that water has a memory in the same comment in which she instructed us on how to be more "credible." Seriously.

We recently received the following letter via our contact page. The author has asked that we refrain from using his name and contact information, but since he (we are randomly assigning gender here for ease in writing) only called himself "ABC," we think we're pretty safe using that. We'll present his letter in full without modification, but interspersed with our comments:

Hello there

I agree with most of what I have read so far in your site.
I am an atheist biologist, I live in the UK.

One item where I disagree with you is regarding aromatherapy.

Okay — ABC clearly says that he is an atheist biologist who agrees with most of what he has thus far read on our site. Since our site is all about applying science, reason, and logic to a multitude of issues, it follows that ABC is probably a scientific, rational, logical person. So why would he disagree with our stance on aromatherapy?

First, let's read our statement on aromatherapy (we have only one reference to it that we are aware of) so we know precisely what ABC is disagreeing with:

Aromatherapy encompasses the idea that certain scents have certain physiological effects, ranging from promoting circulation to eliminating toxins. While it is certainly true that scents may trigger pleasant memories and/or bring about general relaxation, the claims of more biological effects are pure bullshit.

That's pretty straightforward. We are stating that aromatherapy is based on claims that various scents have different physiological effects. We admit that scents may trigger pleasant memories and may aid in relaxation, but we state our belief that "more biological effects are pure bullshit." Now let's see how ABC disagrees with us:

Aromatherapy (despite its name) does not only involve smelling/inhaling concentrated plant oils known as 'essential oils', it also involves the application of these oils onto the skin.

'Essential' oils are extracted from various parts of various plants (the word 'essential' here meaning essence or fragrance) which have got various potential effects when adminsitered to a person.

We'll need to pause here since what ABC has stated is not at all our understanding of aromatherapy. While we agree that some aromatherapy treatments involve rubbing oils onto the body, our understanding of that practice was that it aided in the inhalation of the aromas (think vapor rub), not that the effects of the oils were gained through application to the skin. We checked a few sites that offer aromatherapy services, and found the following statements...

From Body Balance:

Aromatherapy — is the use of essential oils, which are extracted from herbs, flowers, resin, woods and roots. Essential oils have been used as a healing technique for thousands of years by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans aiding in relaxation, improving circulation, and helping to promote healing. They can affect mood, alleviate fatigue, reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. When inhaled, they work on the brain and nervous system through stimulation of the olfactory nerves. Therapeutic grade oils have antiseptic properties such as, but not limited to anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, anti-depressants and expectorants.

The emphasis is ours, but this place clearly states that the oils work when inhaled by stimulating the olfactory nerves. So, it seems that Body Balance is claiming that it is the inhalation that leads to the healing effects and not the topical application. They aren't the only ones; from A World of Good Health:

Aromatherapy is the art of using the fragrant essential oils of plants to treat ailments of the mind and body. The scent of the oils evoke a variety of different responses by stimulating the olfactory organs, which are linked to the areas of the brain which control emotions.

A series of chemical reactions, initiated by this stimulation then takes place, effecting a physical or emotional change in the body.

To us (and to the aromatherapy practitioners above), the act of rubbing the oils onto the patient's body is merely the means of delivery to the olfactory receptors — it's on your chest, so you are therefore breathing it in. The supposed effects come from inhalation, and not topical application. So, if your experiments involve effects resulting from topical application, then that is not aromatherapy — it is something else entirely, and should not be lumped in with aromatherapy.

This is hardly a new angle for quack medicine. Acupuncture is another great example of how the goalposts are constantly in motion for these types of bullshit claims. Originally, acupuncture was all about sticking sharp objects (like knives) into the body to affect the energy flows that supposedly governed all aspects of health and well-being. Now, the term acupuncture is used by some to include the delivery of electric shocks via very specific needles. When this methodology, including the application of electricity, is seen to have a physiological effect, "acupuncture" as a treatment is deemed validated — despite the fact that acupuncture is all about the "energy flows" and not about the effects of electrical stimulation. Expanding the meaning of aromatherapy to include topical ointments and salves is exactly the same ploy, and we completely disagree that it validates aromatherapy in any way.

To further illustrate what we mean, consider another example of misappropriating efficacy to validate a brand of bullshit: let's say that we believe that all ailments in the human body are caused by tiny little fairies that live all over the scalp. According to our hypothetical belief, any ailment can be addressed and cured by manipulating these Follicle Fairies with different cooking implements. For our first test, we decide that insomnia can be cured through an aggressive application of a cast iron skillet to the Follicle Fairies that live in the area of the right temple. We conduct some tests in which people who cannot fall asleep are whacked in the head with a skillet (made from proper cast iron), and we note that in the overwhelming majority of cases, these people almost instantly lose consciousness. We declare success, and annouce that our Follicle Fairy theory is thoroughly accurate.

However, we have failed to consider and test the other factors of our treatment, so we don't know what is actually causing the desired effect. Does the treatment work if the skillet used is teflon coated instead of cast iron? What about if we use a crock pot? Or an egg beater? Or a non-cooking implement like a hammer? What happens if we apply the manipulation to the area of the left temple instead of the right? Or to the base of the skull? Perhaps if we conduct proper scientific testing, we might even find that Follicle Fairies aren't real at all (wow!), and that the effects were a result of completely non-fairy-related phenomena. This is, basically, analogous to the scientific testing of alternative medicine, including aromatherapy.

To conduct a proper study of the effects of aromatherapy as it is generally defined, the effects of inhalation would have to be isolated and tested separate from the effects of topical application. This could be done, crudely, by applying the oils to a patient who is breathing from an alternate air source, then later allowing the same patient to inhale the oils without allowing them to come into contact with them. To our knowledge, there hasn't been a conclusive study which has done this. The same can be said for most forms of medical quackery, including acupuncture.

I can tell you with absolute certainty, because I have performed scientific experiments, that show that (at least in vitro) essential oils can and do have certain effects. For example, I found that lavender oil increases the release of potassium from erythrocytes (red boold cells). The mechanism for this is still to be deduced, but the effect is there and is measurable and observable.
So ABC's own studies have involved in vitro applications of essential oils, which would seem to indicate that he performed these experiments in a test tube. Since a whole person can't fit into a test tube, we'll assume that his tests weren't tests of either the effects of inhaled or externally applied oils, but rather more closely resembled an internal application, which all of the aromatherapy sites we visited were clearly against. So, without explicit knowledge of ABC's actual research, we can say that what he studied appears to have little relationship to any form of aromatherapy, and in fact bears more resemblance to injecting essential oils directly into the bloodstream. This is not aromatherapy, and we doubt that even the most starry-eyed practitioner of quackery would say that it is.

Let's keep marching through ABC's letter. He goes on to explain:

Whilst I'm not claiming that aromatherapy will cure cancers or AIDS (though one day we may find that it can be of use to treat them), I can tell you that certain effects claimed by aromatherpay such as relaxation, increased or decreased blood pressure, etc. may be correct.

Actually, our original statement about aromatherapy says something quite similar to this. We are perfectly comfortable saying that aromatherapy can assist with relaxation. In fact, any of the forms of medical quackery that we call bullshit can result in relaxation, including even the most incredible forms of lunacy. Along with general relaxation, a patient may also experience other physiological changes associated with being relaxed, including a temporary reduction in blood pressure. However, this does not indicate that any of these treatments are themselves effective, since a placebo can have an identical effect.

Here's another example of what we mean. Watching The Crow at night has the effect of making Tom (one of our members) go to sleep, even when he is restless. In roughly 95% of his trials, when he watches The Crow at night, he is asleep by the time Tin Tin is dead. It is almost uncanny how precise the exact moment can be. Does this mean that watching The Crow is an accepted means of relaxation for people in general? Does it mean that there's some chemical interaction taking place between Tom and the DVD player? Does it mean that others will have the same experience? No, it means that this particular activity helps Tom to relax in the same way that essence of lavender might cause someone else to relax. In point of fact, essence of lavender causes Tom to become quite perturbed and agitated since he's allergic to it. In further point of fact, we are pretty certain that Tom is allergic to most or all of the aromatic oils associated with aromatherapy, which means that none of them would have the intended effect on him. It's all subjective.

We also think it is important to note that while ABC may not make claims beyond relaxation as to the benefits of aromatherapy, there are plenty of people who do. The claims we have seen on various aromatherapy sites would have us believe that you can smell your way to health over such ailments as arthritis, allergies, asthma, bruises, bronchitis, colds, constipation, cold sores, cellulite, dyspepsia, earache, exhaustion, flatulence, flu, gingivitis, gout, headaches, irritable bowel, menopause, migraine, neuralgia, palpitations, PMS, periods (heavy, painful, scant, or irregular), rheumatism, scarring, shingles, sprains, sciatica, sinusitis, sore throat, stretch marks, toothache, vaginal thrush, varicose veins, warts, and wrinkles. Check out some of the lists we found online. Of course, there are others which keep the benefits more abstract, listing such things as relaxation and promoting general well-being — presumably to avoid lawsuits.

From here, ABC moves on to a discussion of the medical applications of plants:

Many modern medicines (and 'illegal' drugs) have a basis on chemicals produced by plants. Essential oils contain many such chemicals and thus can produce an effect on the human body.

We know that aspirin produces various effects on the human body. We know that cannabis produces various effects on the human body. Both aspirin and cannabis are derived from plants, plants produce the chemicals in aspirin and cannabis. Essential oils are also derived from plants and have plant chemicals in them and thus it is not unreasonable to suggest that essential oils (and aromatherapy) may also produce certain effects on the human body.

The essential oils are very volatile and thus when one inhales them, one can inhale the plant chemicals in them. Through the nose, the chemicals enter the blood stream and can produce their effec(s).

When applied on the skin, the chemicals in the oil can be absorbed by the skin and enter the system, and go on to produce their effect(s). A nice little example of how oils can be absorbed through the skin is to rub fresh garlic (you may have to do it for a while, fresh garlic will not be as concentrated as an essential oil) onto the sole of your foot. A while later your breath will smell of garlic !

Thus, in summary, I would like to correct you on your statement that "Aromatherapy is bullshit".

Thank you.

We certainly agree that many drugs (illegal or otherwise) are derived in some way from plants. So, rubbing these oils on the skin can certainly have some effects. For one, we'd imagine that it could give you oily skin (thereby combating dry skin). Others may dry the skin. With just these two possible effects of topical application, we can imagine that some oils would work to clear up acne, while others may soothe rashes. But this is not aromatherapy.

What has been proven about the medical benefits of aromatherapy? The UC San Diego Medical Center addresses this very question on their site. After noting that there is no scientific evidence for the claims made by aromatherapy practitioners, they go on to state the following:

It is known that small traces of a scent can activate nerve cells in the nasal cavity that trigger the olfactory and limbic areas of the brain. The limbic system is the memory and emotion center of the brain. Most doctors believe whatever relief might be provided by aromatherapy stems from an emotional response to the scents rather than any physiological effects.

Bingo. Certain scents may evoke happy memories in certain people, which may lead to increased relaxation and the general effects that relaxation can bring. Of course, that same scent could evoke unhappy memories in someone else, thereby creating an atmosphere not conducive to relaxation. It's all subjective, and it isn't any more medically potent than shooting the shit with your friends and reliving the good old days.

We do know that our sense of smell is based on actually inhaling molecules of a substance (if you can smell it, it is physically in your nose — think about that the next time you walk into a public restroom) — so it is possible that inhaling these scents could carry some physiological effect, but so far there is absolutely no scientific evidence that any of these oils are thus effective. So we're not saying that aromatherapy has been proven wrong, we're simply saying "prove it." Prove that inhaling one or more of these oils — not application to the skin or injection — actually has a repeatable and consistent physiological effect and we'll listen.

Until someone does, we stand firmly by our statement that aromatherapy is bullshit.


Check out the Skeptic's Dictionary and Quackwatch for more information on aromatherapy.

— • —
[  Filed under: % Bullshit  ]

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Comments (26)

Skeptico, 2005.06.07 (Tue) 01:17 [Link] »

A couple of years ago I was at a party where some girl was trying to persuade me of the benefits of aromatherapy. She said it could cure "anything". Really, I said. Can it cure a broken leg? (I was just joking — expecting her to say, no not that, don't be silly.) She said yes. I just laughed and changed the subject.

True story.

Jeff of the Two Percent Company, 2005.06.07 (Tue) 01:20 [Link] »

I believe the correct response at that point is to break her leg, offer her a scented candle, and tell her to take a whiff.

Ed, 2005.06.07 (Tue) 02:10 [Link] »

Having once dated a girl in rapture to aromatherapy (who is now an acupuncturist...oh, the shame!), I can assure you that the sickly sweet odor of lavender not only doesn't calm me, it now makes me fly into a vicious fucking rage.

Tom from the Two Percent Company, 2005.06.07 (Tue) 23:26 [Link] »

So, let's see. According to aworldofaromatherapy.com, the stated effects of lavender oil are "calming, therapeutic." However, these are our observed results thus far:

Tom: Causes him to cover his nose due to strong association with allergic reactions. Eyes itch. Increased agitation associated with prolonged exposure. Verdict: Not calming.

Ed: Causes him to "fly into a vicious fucking rage" due to association with an old flame. Verdict: Not calming.

Truly, this is an impressive science.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.06.08 (Wed) 23:13 [Link] »

ABC dropped us a line via our contact page, and we wanted to share it in the comments. Below is his email as we received it, with our commentary inserted at appropriate points:

Hello again !

Thank you for your constructive and eloquent reply to my letter.

I will attempt to address the main points of your reply.

The literature I have researched (from various countries and in two languages) indicate that an aromatherapy treatment can and usually does include topical application of the essential oil(s), usually mixed with a base oil such as almond oil.

Essential oils are quickly absorbed by the skin.
The application on the skin is a way of delivering the chemicals into/via the skin to achieve a certain effect(s) which may be (and usually are) more potent than when the aromatherapy oils are inhaled.
They are not necessarily applied on the skin to stimulate the olfactory system.

So if the literature I have examined is correct (and it may not be if the links you provided are correct) topical application of essential oils is indeed a part of aromatherapy.

So here we seem to have a case of two sources of information (yours and mine) that disagree on what aromatherapy is !

Ideally we need to have a good definition of what aromatherapy does and does not encompass.
I welcome any contribution from other readers of your excellent site in regard to this.

Perhaps you or the readers have time to post a few links to information which clearly and conclusively defines what aromatherapy is (if at all possible).

To defend my case - my letter was written with the assumption that aromatherapy does involve topical application.
This assumption was based on the definition of aromatherapy from the various sources of information I researched (I will have to dig up the list of references I had, I do not have them handy unfortunately).

But I do have one book in front of me, it is written in Castilian (aka Spanish) "La nueva aromaterapia" by Enrique Bascunana, ISBN 84-7720-501-9.
This book states that topical application is a valid procedure and part of an aromatherapy treatment.

[link to Amazon book listing]

There are several aspects of your statements that we want to address. First, we agree that many aromatherapy sessions include topical application of the essential oils. However, saying that something includes topical application is not the same as saying that the effects of the topical application are what is important. As we said in our initial post, aromatherapy relies on olfactory stimulation through inhalation of the scented "stuff." Sometimes that inhalation is aided by topical application, and sometimes it is not (candles, etc.). The reference that you mention just seems to say that topical application is part of aromatherapy, not that it is the application to the skin that causes the effects. In a similar way, "laying down on a massage" table may be part of aromatherapy, but the effects of laying down on that table have nothing to do with the supposed effects of aromatherapy. See the difference? We understand that you are merely paraphrasing, and may have the reference slightly wrong, but we can only go with what we have.

That said, you also touch on another aspect that many pseudosciences have in common — the lack of consistent and well-defined definitions. If someone is receiving chemotherapy, there is an accepted medical definition that details what the procedure entails. However, if someone is undergoing aromatherapy treatment (or acupuncture, or magnet therapy)...well, it could be this thing, or that thing, or the other thing. That's just the nature of alternative medicine — everyone puts their own spin on it.

But just because someone may think that the effect of absorption through the skin is part of aromatherapy doesn't make it so. People also believe that adding electricity to acupuncture counts as acupuncture, but that isn't what acupuncture is. To take this a step further, if we came across a website that said that aromatherapy included injection of the essential oils into the bloodstream, would that also count as aromatherapy? What about if a website said that putting the oils into stoppered beakers and waving your hands over them without ever inhaling them or touching them was aromatherapy. Would that count? Why or why not? You know our answer.

So, while we understand that your letter was based on topical application, that's just not aromatherapy. As you noted, it is important to agree on a definition, and we are going to stick with the definition as we understand it for the reasons we have laid out above.

I have read the page opened by your link to the San Diego Medical Centre. I read with interest the following passage :

"What is the potential risk or harm of aromatherapy? Essential oils should only be used externally. Toxicity may result if the oils are swallowed. Prolonged exposure to essential oils may cause allergic reactions. Excessive inhalation of fragrant vapors can cause headache, fatigue and bronchial spasms. If you have asthma, consult your physician before using aromatherapy."

The way I interpret this that the San Diego Medical Center is stating that (excessive exposure to)aromatherapy can cause such symptoms/conditions as headaches, fatigue, bronchial spasms, allergies, toxicity, etc.

Unless the headaches, fatigue, etc are caused by "placebo" mechanisms then we clearly have physical and physiological effects that are caused by aromatherapy.

So if aromatherapy can cause such effects, is it not reasonable to hypothetise that it can also produce certain other (beneficial) effects ?

We agreed above that inhaling substances can have real effects — no argument there. What we said is that the supposed effects we have seen across numerous aromatherapy sites (and again, they differ widely because of the lack of consistent definitions, as we discussed above) have never been proven in any way, shape, or form. Of course inhaling things in general can have observable effects — anyone who's ever done whippets or sniffed glue can vouch for that. Those are well-documented physiological effects. Why are the supposed effects of inhaling essential oils not similarly well-documented? Again, you know our answer.

But as we said, most of the effects are subjective. As Ed noted, when he smells lavender oil, he gets pissed (not in the drunken sense, for those in the UK, but in the angry sense). When Tom smells lavender he becomes agitated. When Jeff smells lavender, he thinks of his grandmother's place down in Florida, which evokes either nostalgia or exasperation, depending on how recently he's seen his grandmother. These effects are based on our subjective life experiences and memories, as well as our beliefs, and are not based on anything more complex or medically sound. That is the placebo effect.

At the very least the question warrants some attention rather than dismissal.

I believe that more scientific research is needed in aromatherapy. Not enough has been done. I apparently was one of the few persons in the UK to apply scientific methods and scrutiny to it. Unfortunately, I am no longer in a position were I can continue with the investigations.
To reiterate, we definitely need more research.

If aromatherapy really is a load of nonesense then we will have the evidence.
And I will stand corrected. As a scientist and logical thinker I will alter my opinion when presented with scientific proof that contradicts me.

If it is not then we can begin to further investigate and exploit some of the potential claimed benefits.
And you guys can remove it from the "Bullshit" section. He, he !

Anyone who wants to do so is welcome to research the effects of aromatherapy. And if anyone comes up with sound scientific evidence for any of the supposed effects of inhaling essential oils, we will listen with an open mind. If the data holds up, we will gladly remove that phenomenon from the bullshit bucket. It is also important to note that proving the effects of one claim does not a science make. Should it one day be proven that inhaling lavender oil causes euphoria the same way that whippets do, that won't mean that the entire sphere of aromatherapy is validated, only that this one claim is valid (and note that the effect we picked isn't even one that the aromatherapy sites we've visited link with lavender oil, which means that they would be deemed wrong in relation to their predictions about lavender oil). But in general, if there is a valid scientific study to be found, we'll listen. To date, we haven't seen that kind of evidence for aromatherapy, and from the sound of it, neither have you.

The difference is in the approaches we seem to employ in the face of this lack of data. While you have decided to alter your current opinion that aromatherapy is feasible when presented with proof to the contrary, we have decided to alter our current opinion that aromatherapy is bullshit when presented with proof that it is effective. These are two different approaches to the phenomenon, and neither is empirically more right or wrong, but we have no intention of changing our approach. Why? Because doing so would mean that logically we would have to believe in all manner of things that haven't yet been proven to be false. For example, no one has yet proven that tree fairies don't live in the willow tree in the park. Should we believe in that theory until someone does the proper research? How about the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus? All of this is further complicated by the often quite mobile goalposts associated with pseudoscience. Even if we manage to prove that aromatherapy (or mediums, or any other quackery) doesn't work in one instance, some huckster will just change the definition, or invent a silly reason why it didn't work, and we'll be right back to having no proof. Because of these issues, it isn't even possible in our opinion to disprove this kind of thing — check out our earlier post on this subject for more information.

In summary I would like to say that as aromatherapy has not been scientifically researched enough, and as it does warrant further scientific research, we cannot definitively say that it is "bullshit" and we cannot definitively say that it is a valid medical treatment. Please note that I am not saying that we should apply this to things like homeopathy, etc which are clearly a load of nonesense.

What I am saying is that aromatherapy is an exception to the others due to the fact that it does involve treatment with substances which clearly do have an biochemical/physiological effect (good and/or bad) and are used at sufficiently potent concentrations to produce such effects.

We are not testing any supernatural (and thus untestable) events here. This is a matter of biology and biochemistry and thus testable.

This is perhaps the most common argument that we've heard when discussing issues of faith (which is how we classify aromatherapy since there is no proof). Almost invariably, people who believe in some form of faith-based concept will scoff at other faith-based concepts that have exactly the same amount of supporting evidence as the issue they fervently believe in — namely, zero. Now, we aren't calling you an aromatherapy true-believer, but your approach here sounds a lot like many believers we've come across. Think about some Christians who scoff at psychics, homeopathy, and magnet therapy, but then firmly believe that their god created the earth in seven days, and that the Grand Canyon was caused by Noah's flood. As Penn & Teller said, "Everybody got a gris gris," meaning that everyone has some illogical thing that they compartmentalize and believe in, even when they are otherwise logical people. (Penn & Teller are no exception — they're staunch Libertarians.)

Homeopathy, the pseudoscience that you dismiss as "nonsense," is also not paranormal (according to many believers), so why not believe in that as well? Or magnet therapy? Or reflexology or chiropractics? Again, you know our answer.

And I again kindly request that you remove it from the "Bullshit" section. You guys are logical and critical thinkers. Hopefully you can now accept my argument and until we have clear evidence for or against it, we can put aromatherapy on "the fence". Perhaps you can open a new section in the website called "Under further investigation" or some such thing and place aromatherapy there.

Well, we said it once, we repeated it in the post above, and we stand by it now — aromatherapy is bullshit. If we were to move aromatherapy to the "on the fence" bucket, then by our logic, we would also have to move everything that's currently in the bullshit category to the "on the fence" bucket as well since each of them has the same amount of proof and disproof as aromatherapy does. So, we do not accept your argument, and we hope we've explained why in sufficient detail. For our part, while we hope you understand our argument, whether or not you accept it is not really our concern. In our opinion, you are not someone who is causing harm with aromatherapy, and you are welcome to your beliefs (not that you need our approval).

Thank you for reading.

Take care.

Ditto. If you don't agree with our conclusions, we at least hope you see the logic behind them. We welcome your continued comments, should you decide to stick around.

Ed, 2005.06.10 (Fri) 03:44 [Link] »

I was thinking about this post this morning. I had an 'incident' with some charming locals a few weeks ago, who posited the idea that I give them my wallet and phone. My counter offer was for them to go fuck themselves. In the end, we settled for them giving me a right kicking. I ended up with a few cracked ribs (and a scar on my forehead I've rather grown to like).

While the ribs are mostly healed, the connective tissue and muscles are still quite sore. So I use a pain-relief gel on them, particularly when I wake up. It has a strong odor to it...menthol, camphor, that sort of thing.

So is it the smell that makes it work? I doubt it, but I personally don't have proof to the contrary. I can't help but inhale the 'aroma' though...so maybe I'm using aromatherapy. Or maybe I'm using a heat gel that happens to think. Whether you believe in the healing power of smell, or the healing power of heat and topical medicine, will likely decide your answer.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.06.10 (Fri) 14:36 [Link] »

Well, Ed, it's always fun to experience local customs first hand. Sorry about the lingering pain, though.

In the way you described, we all tend to lean on scents to trigger memories, to relax, or just to cover up that nasty smell in the basement. No need to worry, though — that's not aromatherapy. It's just manipulating your sense of smell for your own benefit. Aromatherapy is the stimulation of the olfactory system by specific essential oils to achieve specific results. You, on the other hand, are just smelling the topical gel which you rubbed on your chest.

Let's focus on one aspect of what we said above. Aromatherapy is supposed to be about the scents of "essential oils" which are extracted from plants. Nothing about the gels we found online seems to indicate that they contain essential oils, so we don't believe that they can be said to have any connection with aromatherapy. In addition, the aromatherapy sites that we've seen don't talk about the effects of the active ingredients (camphor, menthol, methyl salicylate). So it is pretty clear to us that the use of your gel is in no way aromatherapy.

In addition, when looking up gels similar to the one you mentioned, all of the literature indicates that the gel is to be applied to the affected area. The Bayer cream copy even says that the relief will come "at the point of application." This leads us to believe that the topical application is important, since that's what the manufacturer stresses. None of the sites say anything about how nasal congestion (or lack of nose, etc.) will decrease the effect of the gel. This leads us to believe that stimulation of the olfactory system is not important.

But can we rule out the inhalation of the scent of the gel (lack of "essential oils" aside) as the cause of the pain relief provided by your gel? Well, unless we run tests (which most of us don't do in our daily lives, especially when first waking up), we can't say for sure. For all we know, the pain relief could also be due to the effects of simply rubbing your chest completely independent of the gel. Or it could the extra two minutes of sitting/standing/laying down while you apply the gel that leads to extra healing. Or something else entirely. Without proper testing, we can't say for sure.

So, to check for ourselves, Tom is planning to buy some of the gel and apply it to one or more of his aching muscles (he has plenty lately). Throughout the process, he will keep his nose firmly plugged to avoid any olfactory interaction. We'll let you know whether or not the gel still works.

Tom from the Two Percent Company, 2005.06.13 (Mon) 10:31 [Link] »

With a swimmer's nose plug firmly clipping my nostrils shut, the Bayer Muscle and Joint Cream still worked as advertised. It wasn't a miracle salve or anything, but it helped to ease the muscle pain in my lower back even though I couldn't smell it at all.

Grendel, 2005.06.15 (Wed) 17:39 [Link] »

I am chagrined that a 'scientist' believes that absorption through the skin is a better method of delivering the active chemicals in 'aromatherapy' treatments than inhalation. In fact, inhalation is the much more efficient method of introduction.

When chemicals are introduced through the skin, a much higher percentage of the chemical never reaches the blood stream for travel to the allicted areas as compared with introduction through the lungs via inhalation. This is precisely why smoked and inhaled crack cocaine is so much more addicting than injected or snorted cocaine.

Also, when a chemical enters our bloodstream through the skin, the circulatory system carries it through the liver before it carries it to the brain, and the liver, which judges all foreign chemicals to be toxins, will remove a certain percentage of it. Conversely, when a chemical is introduced via the lungs, it enters the bloodstream at such a place in our circulatory system that it goes to the brain before it goes to the liver, and is therefore more efficient.

This assumes, of course, that the chemical in question works better if more is delivered than less, but since the typical oils and compounds common to 'aromatherapy' contain multitudes of assorted chemicals, one would be hard pressed to establish that, by coincidence, the active chemicals all work better in the lower delivered doses afforded by the less efficient inhalant manner of introduction.

Something smells funny to me.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.06.16 (Thu) 22:54 [Link] »

Good point, Grendel, and one we didn't really touch upon in our reply. Unless we're talking about direct results of topical application in the immediate area of application (like making an itch go away, or moistening skin, or feeling warm), inhalation is a much more effective means of introducing most chemicals into the body.

No matter how you slice it, though, aromatherapy is still bullshit. As you say, something smells funny indeed.

Grendel, 2005.06.17 (Fri) 09:54 [Link] »

I suspect that so-called 'therapies' like aromatherapy, magnetic therapy, etc., are tried by those with pretty minor afflications. I have tried to discern a coherent list of those afflictions for which aromatherpay is indicated, but have found only that red flag of most quack therapies -depending on where you look -claims differ from practitioner to practitioner, aromatherapy is purported to cure or improve just about every thing under the sun. Every site seems to describe a different list.

I don't think even the blindest of bleevers would, upon being informed of a cancerous brain tumor, immediately hit the Yellow Pages for an aromatherapist to treat it. I think that aromatherapy is where people go for 'fun' rather than treatment, similar to how some go to a hypnotist more for the outre experience than for efficacy of treatment. I'd expect that those who go to aromatherapists would go there with some pretty minor issue to 'treat', the sort of issues most affected by placebo.

In that many 'alternative' medical practitioners buy into all sorts of other woo-woo stuff, I can see a scenario where the aromatherapist 'diagnoses' some sort of new agey nonsense like "your personal aura field energy flow is disrupted... I'm not sure we can help with your mild depression, but I'm pretty sure we can get that aural energy imbalance back in line."

Translation: Reduction of symptoms of mild depression are measurable -as is the failure to reduce symptoms, so we'll weasel around that. For "aural energy imbalances" this client is totally reliant on me to: 1) diagnose a problem the client cannot measure, and to: 2) fix the problem the client cannot measure.

Good gig.

One of these days I'm going to be in charge of the Cosmos, and brother, there are going to be some changes made.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.06.17 (Fri) 11:55 [Link] »

Yep, different "results" for the same "treatment" are a hallmark of quackery. Other things to look for include calling a treatment an "effective healing modality," and also mentioning that "recent scientific tests" have proven that a treatment works while carefully avoiding any specifics of those tests.

We also concur that aromatherapy is probably on the low end of the totem poll as far as quackery goes, and most people probably try aromatherapy for relatively minor issues. However, when we read about people dying because they relied on naturopathic remedies that fly in the face actual medicine, it leaves a really bad taste. And if people buy into that crap to cure serious illnesses, who's to say that they aren't sniffing candles for similar cures?

To our way of thinking, people should be made aware of which treatments are sound, and which are based on absolute bullshit before they take their health and their life into their hands. Somehow, we think you agree, Grendel.

Grendel, 2005.06.20 (Mon) 14:12 [Link] »

Oh, I do, I do.

I add only that there are many people who opt for quackery despite having all the required information, sometimes due to weishing to avoid stigmas attached to a given condition, sometimes out of pure denial, etc.


euclid's child, 2005.06.21 (Tue) 22:53 [Link] »

I like your site. The only thing I question is why does it bother you when morons kill themselves by believing bullshit. I am disturbed when people subject their children to quackery, but if adults refuse to listen to reason there should be consequences. There are too many "believers" out there. We can't convert them by providing sound, logical arguments backed by repeatable experimental evidence. My dream is that they all die off refusing accepted medical treatments for their afflictions. Keep up the good work.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.06.22 (Wed) 00:06 [Link] »

For the most part, we agree that people are responsible for their own bad decisions. So, if someone decides to forego actual medical treatment and instead tries to cure their cancer using, say, magnet therapy, then they deserve what they get. There are some exceptions, though.

First, when quackery is allowed to wear the trappings of science, that bothers us immensely. It's one thing for someone to wittingly rely on something that they know is based solely on faith, but it's an entirely separate thing for them to think they are using a scientifically sound approach when in fact they are not. Some quick examples include attempts to say that "scientific studies" validate quackery, or calling chiropractors "doctors," or having hospitals that offer quackery without making it clear that it is based on absolutely zero scientific evidence. These approaches might make it seem to otherwise rational people that they are justified in believing the pseudoscientific crap, which could lead to highly detrimental outcomes. So, call it "magic" or something similar, and let those who believe in fairy tales dive right in; but call it "science," and you'll get our blood boiling.

Second, when parents force their bullshit beliefs on a child and endanger the health or life of the child, we find that completely unacceptable. Yes, parents should be allowed to raise their children according to their own beliefs, no matter how silly those beliefs may be, but if they deny their children proper medical care, we believe that they should be charged with child abuse — plain and simple. It sounds like you share this position with us, euclid's child, at least in general.

In short, we're not trying to convert the diehard morons and true believers out there. We are trying to cut through the bullshit for the "casual" observer, provide a resource for those with questions, and do some of the legwork so that others don't have to. And if the quacks out there still want to off themselves by relying on silly pseudoscience, so be it — it's no skin off our asses. At least they won't be able to say that no one ever warned them.

Grendel, 2005.06.22 (Wed) 14:41 [Link] »

It is accurate to say that the responsibility for silly bleefs rests with the bleevers.

It is not accurate to assume that only the bleevers themselves pay the price for the results of such bleefs. If required, I can list hundreds of specific examples where the nonsensical bleefs of one person or set of persons caused undue harm, including death, to others.

On the more practical side of things, I'd like to think that, when the day inevitably comes that I flop over on the sidewalk with a heart attack, the person who first finds me calls 911 instead of sitting on my chest with a crystal on a string swinging over my heart trying to realign my cosmic inner qi into a healthier energy flow.

Countering ignorance always counts.

Grendel, 2005.06.30 (Thu) 16:54 [Link] »

It is Thursday, June 30, 2005.

I would like to report at this time that Aromatherapy is still bullshit.

That is all.

Please return to your regular activities.

cBH, 2005.07.07 (Thu) 05:50 [Link] »

Laughin my ass off @ GRENDEL

As of july 8, one more skeptic is soothed with sweet logical rhetoric. I applaud you for all your hard work calling 'bullshit'.

I've recentky given up myself, you won't even catch my eyes rolling in disapproval of morons and their barnyard learnin'! Reading this gives me strength to counter BULLSHIT!!!

New Directions Nacional, 2007.04.11 (Wed) 13:47 [Link] »

[This comment pretty much qualifies as spam, but since it does — peripherally — represent a sort of "opposing viewpoint," we're loath to simply delete it. In the interests of not giving idiots a chance to shout "Oppression!" we'll leave it up, sans commercial links, for posterity — Ed.[

We run a Aromatherapy company in Portugal, and we can guarantee the success stories of many clients.

We have many products in aromatherapy, and they are used even in a normal shampoo at your home.

Take a look:
New Directions Nacional - Aromaterapia e Oleos essenciais

Jason Spicer, 2007.04.12 (Thu) 01:53 [Link] »

I hadn't stumbled across this post before, so I enjoyed reading the whole thing. ABC seemed a pleasant enough correspondent.

I am scratching my head, however, at the image of somebody inducing euphoria by snorting a largish racing dog. Unless you mean inducing euphoria in those watching the attempt.

Jeff from the Two Percent Company, 2007.04.12 (Thu) 02:11 [Link] »

Exactly, Jason — reading through the thread when the new comment came in brought the same thing to my mind: ABC was easy to converse with, even if he didn't agree with us. This post is a good example of something to point to the next time we get one of those inevitable and baseless claims that we "insult and swear at anyone who disagrees" with us. Then we'll insult and swear at the person who made the claim.

As to your confusion, apparently you've been a "good boy" for too long, man: in this context, "whippets" (I've also seen it spelled "whippits") are hits of nitrous oxide, often extracted from the cartridges found in whipped cream cans with the aid of a sharp tool and a balloon (though some people prefer using a soda siphon, more commonly known as a "seltzer bottle"). The resulting high is very brief (about a minute or two at most) but incredibly intense. As a note: don't try to hit the cartridge that comes with the siphon — as it turns out, that's usually just carbon dioxide.

Unless you already knew all this, and were just fucking with us. In which case I found your reference to racing dogs terribly humorous, and wasn't fooled for a moment. Not at all.

Jason Spicer, 2007.04.13 (Fri) 23:30 [Link] »

Thanks for the enlightenment. I'd never heard the term (except in reference to the dog), though I've known people who have wasted some perfectly good Rediwhip. Before I posted here, I looked for "whippet" on wikipedia/wiktionary, my usually reliable source for word-on-the-street definitions. The only entry for "whippet" was about the dog, which appears to be a quite charming breed.

Now that you've tipped me off, there is a wikipedia entry for "whippit", including, helpfully, the chemical formula, in case you have some N2's and some O's laying about and care to roll your own. Perhaps ZigZag makes a special kind of papers. Oddly, there isn't a definition on wiktionary. Perhaps you could cut and paste your definition there.

My only experience with the stuff was at the dentist once. Almost made getting jabbed with needles and drills worthwhile. Well, more worthwhile than getting to lie back in a recliner for an hour in the middle of the workday while somebody scrapes the barnacles off my teeth.

I still want to see somebody snort a dog. I'd even settle for a hot dog. OK, without mustard.

Kevin, 2008.04.01 (Tue) 12:23 [Link] »

with all due respect, are you denying the fact that A.B.C' s biological explanations are scientific? After all, you are looking for a scientific based answer aren't you? I'm sure A.B.C would prove to be more proficient in this area of study seeing that his statement regarding inhalation of oils will have similar effects to "normal" drugs (for example eucalyptus oil and telfast).

im sure others would understand how people with legitament scientific knowledge, would be able to deduce logically viable explanations.

The Two Percent Company, 2008.04.01 (Tue) 15:56 [Link] »

No, Kevin, we aren't saying that. The "scientific" merit of ABC's approach wasn't what we specifically addressed. What we're saying is a lot simpler: ABC's studies actually have nothing to do with aromatherapy. He has studied the internal delivery of essential oils, which is clearly not aromatherapy. He also postulated that topical application could cause physiological effects, which, as we pointed out, is not aromatherapy either. We also agreed that inhaling some "things" certainly can have physiological effects, but that in no way means that aromatherapy, as it is defined, is anything other than bullshit.

We're not sure if we answered your question or not. If not, please feel free to go ahead and restate it. But we think that both our post and our lengthy reply to ABC's subsequent correspondence (in the above thread) detail our views pretty thoroughly. To wit: aromatherapy is bullshit.

TimmyAnn, 2008.04.01 (Tue) 16:10 [Link] »

ABC's arguments don't even address the issue at hand. He made claims about the effects the oils would have when absorbed through the skin. Aromatherapy is all about the aromas being inhaled. So, whether his explanations are scientific or not doesn't enter into it. He is off topic. If I came here and started discussing evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs, it would be very scientific, but it would have nothing to do with aromatherapy. As far as inhaling the aromas, all even he can attribute to that is relaxation which The 2% Co. already admitted can be an effect of aromatherapy if only as a placebo effect.

TimmyAnn, 2008.04.01 (Tue) 16:13 [Link] »

Oops, I guess I need to type faster next time (and not watch Jeopardy as I post!). Now my reply is redundant! Oh,well...

Yeah, what they said!

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