Models for Aromatherapy: French, English, and the Emerging New Model

by Jade Shutes

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“It could be argued that the explanatory model of disease that a practitioner uses is the most defining characteristic of that practitioner.”
– James Snow

This is my all time favorite quote regarding the impact of explanatory models of disease. It is from a course I took last semester at the Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH). James Snow is the academic director for the Integrative Health Science Department at MUIH.

Explanatory models of disease are basically frameworks that provide a practitioner with the following:

  1. A concept of disease – For instance, in the Ayurvedic model disease could be viewed as an imbalance of a dosha or doshas.
  2. An aligned approach based for assessment – Ayurveda utilizes pulse diagnosis as well as other observations to assess imbalances occurring within the individual.
  3. An aligned treatment strategy – Ayurveda utilizes lifestyle changes, herbs and food to ‘correct’ imbalances.

There are many explanatory models of disease including Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Unani, Western Biomedicine, Biopsychosocial medicine, etc. Within the field of aromatherapy specifically, we could say that there are currently two core models for aromatherapy: the French and the English. I know some say there is a third, the German, but it has been my experience that the Germans utilize essential oils in a similar manner as the French.

The reason I am writing this is to develop an understanding of the differences between the French and English models for Aromatherapy and potentially open the door to a more rationale and objective understanding of the differences (and similarities) between these two models. I believe we are at a pivotal point in the world of aromatherapy where the merging of these two models will create a new model that integrates both the internal and external applications of essential oils. My goal being to shed light on a safe and effective understanding of different methods of application and to address the many misconceptions of utilizing essential oils internally.

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Although some have stated that there is no difference or schools of thought, I would have to disagree. There is a difference in all 3 of the above stated aspects of an explanatory model for the French and English models.

It is important to remember that different models are not better or worse, rather different models simply lead to different ways of approaching ourselves or our clients within the concept of disease or ill health.

As a traditionally trained aromatherapist (I received my education in England 25+ years ago), I would say that the explanatory model I was trained in was one based upon the impact of stress on the body/mind. The English model utilizes applied kinesiology, iridology, and/or reflexology as its diagnostic tools and massage or the external application of essential oils as its treatment strategy.

The French model, on the other hand, is based more on the concept of infectious disease or other biomedical concepts of disease. For French herbalists (and a growing group of English and American herbalists) utilizing essential oils, pulse diagnosis, iridology, muscle testing, etc. are used as their diagnostic tool/s and both external and internal applications of essential oils are used in their treatment strategy (along with herbs and flower essences, of course).

I find it of immense interest that some aromatherapists fail to recognize that the coining of the world ‘aromatherapie’ by Rene Maurice Gattefosse was very much linked to his use of essential oil both externally and internally and was very much based upon medicinal applications of essential oils. Indeed, looking a bit more closely at Gattefosses application of lavender to treat his infection caused by the burns he suffered during a laboratory explosion, we could surmise that he used lavender undiluted with great success.

Later Margeurite Maury developed her own approach to utilizing essential oils externally, most likely due to the fact that she could not recommend them internally due to laws in France that continue to exist today. Maury developed an external application of essential oils via the use of massage and skincare that became the English model of aromatherapy.

The English model of aromatherapy has been widely adopted throughout the world and it emerged here in the United States and Canada early on in the development of aromatherapy in North America. As I reflect on the evolution of aromatherapy in North America, I would share that aromatherapy has gone through several layers of development. First it was a part of the gift industry (recall the days of placing lavender sprigs in bottles of oil and low dosage of essential oil), it was then integrated into massage therapy and esthetic practices (this continues today), and over the past few years essential oils are being integrated into general body care products (hence many aromatherapists find themselves creating product lines). Over all these years there has been the creation of the stand alone aromatherapy practitioner/consultant and/or clinical aromatherapist (to be discussed at another time) who performs consultations and creates customized aromatherapeutic products for their clients.

The English model has long been against the internal use of essential oils and indeed this is the stance which I believe has planted so much confusion and misinformation regarding the internal use of essential oils. From fear to misinformation, we are in a place today where it is difficult and challenging to even mention the subject of internal use and yet, in my personal opinion, there has never been more important time to discuss this subject rationally and with the desire to understand rather than to continue down the path of anger, confusion, attack and dismissal. In providing education or in opening up discussions regarding the French model of aromatherapy, I believe we will reach a new and better understanding of the safe and effective practice of utilizing essential oils internally and that it will expand not only the herbalist tool kit but also the aromatherapist tool kit.

Ingesting essential oils is a topic at the center of one of aromatherapy’s culture wars.
– Kurt Schnaubelt

To say the internal use of essential oils is dangerous and/or simply to dismiss it is a true tragedy because often these statements/perceptions are based upon the misuse of this method by some multilevel marketing distributors and the fact that little education has been provided regarding its safe practice. To say that one needs to be a medical doctor or pharmacist to practice it or use it, in my personal opinion, is simply a form of propaganda designed to disempower and put fear into an approach that, when understood, is of incredible value.

My personal opening of discussions on internal use and providing education does not mean you or anyone else needs to use essential oils internally. However, just because you don’t agree with this does not mean those that do should be attacked or dismissed. The internal use of essential oils is one potential tool herbalists and aromatherapists could add to their tool box of healing tools (along with herbs, flower essences, etc.) that may come in handy when circumstances present themselves where the internal use of essential oils just may be the most effective route of application. Perhaps for me, the most important thing is that this is not done willy nilly, so to speak, but rather done after one has gained appropriate education and understanding. This is the difference!