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A Brief History of Essential Oils

Posted by Lydia Noyes on

A Brief History of Essential Oils

Plants and people have long been intertwined, and rarely is that more evident than the history of essential oils. These potent plant compounds do more than smell great; they can influence your moods, boost concentration, and promote other wellness benefits.  

Cultures worldwide have reaped their rewards for thousands of years, and today’s essential oils carry this legacy into the modern age.

Early History of Essential Oils

Plants have traditionally taken the place of honor in human ceremonies and health endeavors. Some of the world’s oldest burial sites show evidence of aromatic herbs, and cave paintings in France that date back more than 20,000 years depict early humans treating each other with medicinal plants.

The first recorded instances of extracting botanical compounds for use as essential oils come from ancient Egypt. Along the Nile River delta, plants were cultivated, collected, and processed with animal fats in a process known as enfleurage. The resulting oils were then used for perfumes, medications, and even embalmings.

The ancient Greeks and Romans built off this knowledge and used essential oils in baths and massage for their mental and physical benefits.

China and India also developed technologies for essential oil extraction, and the 3,000-year-old Ayurvedic medical system roots itself in plant-based remedies. Today, we credit the 12th-century physician and pharmacist Ibn al-Baitar as the first person to record the ways essential oils were made and used for centuries throughout Asia and the Middle East.

By the Dark Ages, essential oils gained a reputation for pagan ceremony in Europe. They were largely banned by the Catholic church, though many people continued to use essential oils to treat disease and even camouflage body odor between their infrequent baths. Crusaders often carried their herbal remedies with them into battle, and essential oils and medicated vinegars were often burned in public places to ward off the Bubonic Plague.

Even so, essential oils were considered equivalent to witchcraft throughout Europe and were all but forgotten. The knowledge of essential oils returned with fervor in the 1500s when scholars rediscovered the works of doctors from antiquities like Hippocrates, who praised their health benefits in his records.

Gattefosse and the Origins of Aromatherapy

The 20th century saw the start of treating essential oils as a science, thanks to French chemist and perfumer Rene Maurice Gattefosse.

While working in his laboratory in 1910, Gattefosse burned his hand. He treated it with the first compound within reach, which happened to be lavender essential oil. To his surprise, the oil immediately soothed his pain and even sped up the healing process, leaving his hand free of infection and scarring.

Gattefosse spent the next decades diving deeper into research on the health properties of plant extracts, eventually coining the phrase ‘aromatherapy’ in 1937 to describe the growing field. His research led lavender oil to be used throughout French hospitals as an antiseptic during the Spanish influenza outbreak and for the treatment of battle wounds during WWII.

Essential Oils Today

The powers of plant extracts faded from public knowledge over the following decades before their revival in the late 70s, thanks to a renewed interest in natural medicine. Millions started using them in their daily lives in diffusers and by blending them with carrier oils for skin treatments.

Here at Auravive, we’re proud to carry on the tradition of essential oils into the 21st century. We are a woman and family-owned business committed to providing you with wellness products formulated from the highest organic grade of botanical plants available. Just as essential oils have shaped civilizations in the past, we’re here to help you discover their benefits today.

We love what we do and take pride in our safe, sustainably-manufactured essential oils. Consider experimenting with our oil collection to learn how to tap into centuries of tradition and discover the power of plant extracts for yourself.