Aromacosmetology – St Louis lecture


I have long put forward the view that Aromatherapy suffers from problems related to its definition.  The term Aromatherapy is today a place where many practices flourish and shelter. 

It seems like only yesterday that the large corporations, cosmetic and perfume houses saw Aromatherapy as a threat and something to be avoided.  Today few of those businesses disregard Aromatherapy and few do not have ranges that are not put under this term.  Aromatherapy has certainly lost its therapeutic base to commercial status. 

But fashions come and go in cosmetics and perfumery and I believe that Aromatherapy, as a practice, is here to stay for a while although within a decreasing hardcore community of practitioners who hold the essence of the past mode of operation.  At its heart, we could describe Aromatherapy as aromatic medicine or using aroma and aromatics for well being and homeostasis.  Such expressions are usually uncontentious and subject to agreement by those who practice Aromatherapy.  It is perhaps inconvenient to commercial companies who, maybe for a variety of reasons, do not like any term associated with medicine.  This is normally due to institutional or government legislation and regulation concerning medicinal claims.  But in practical terms, the basic concepts above are used for working purposes.

If ownership of the term Aromatherapy is ceded to the therapy, as I believe it should be – after all it is the practicing therapist who resurrected Aromatherapy in the early 1980s – then it should be their ideas that form the foundation of the terminology.  The term aromatherapist is in common use and in this room we all know what it means. 

Unfortunately people like to complicate relatively simple ideas.  In some countries, for example, body workers are not allowed by regulation to work on the face, this being the province of an aesthetician.  Of course, at the time this legislation was put forward Aromatherapy did not exist in its current form.  This can make life difficult if the therapy itself does not insist and fight for its own categorisation.  At the start of its life Aromatherapy was shunned by orthodox medicine, which is hardly surprising as it then claimed to be alternative or complementary.  As I have already said, we are not too popular either with the cosmetics and perfume industries because of the therapy’s implications for medicine. 

Aromatherapy around the world has tended to shelter under odd bits of legislation.  In recent times it has become subject to all manner of restrictions, rules and concerns. 

This is especially so in the European Union which at best is bureaucratic by nature and has subjected the tools of Aromatherapy, in addition to the therapy itself, to numerous directives, some of which are conflicting with themselves.  An amusing example of these is that an essential oil used to soothe an insect bite is probably OK but should not be referred to as calming it, which is a medical term.  Additionally, if the essential oil had been applied to ward off the insect before it bit, if it was not registered in the Biocidal Directive then it could not have been used.  As an aromatherapist one would perhaps use the same essential oil in all three circumstances.  But regulators have divided the same essential oil into contextual legislation.  This is really confusing and shows a complete lack of understanding of the therapy and in many instances a complete lack of understanding of essential oils and their uses.

I believe much of this is the fault of the therapist.  My experiences of the last twenty or so years leads me to the conclusion that Aromatherapy started with a number of caring individuals who were quite altruistic.  As time went on, and in particular as money began to be made, things changed.  There appeared to be a pattern of cohesion, then in the name of unity a pattern of disruption and the emergence of an education curriculum that lost the essence of the living plant in favour of some rather rather basic chemistry.

This isn’t so surprising as many practitioners are lay people without a good working knowledge of chemistry and many of whom work with the heart and intuition.  These are people who work by observation and experience.  They have tended to share their experience of what happens in real practice.  Some of these people work with feelings.  Most of them are women and Aromatherapy had been led in the main by women.  Aromatherapy itself seems to have many feminine characteristics.

The word intuition is for some sectors of society almost too much to take on board.  Religious fanatics see it almost as witchcraft and scientific dogmatists simply vilify the idea and become quite disparaging of those with notions that do not conform to so called science.  Aromatherapy, because it is popular, is being looked at by many different academic institutes around the world.  Aromatherapy has spawned a number of academic re-evaluations of things we thought that we knew.  Aromatherapy has spawned a new world of experts from both within the profession and without the profession.  Money and status have therefore become part of the Aromatherapy scene and in the late 1990s especially, perhaps the dominant theme.

There has been a tidal change to the approach of professional Aromatherapy too.  Possibly this has come about by the intervention of state education in Aromatherapy –in other words education coming from traditional orthodox sources, using existing information and applying it to Aromatherapy.  Whilst this has its uses, Aromatherapy is new and experiential so already set parameters do not necessarily aid development. 

For example, commerce – of which education is part (after all what would academics do without research grants) – sings the same old hymn sheet which roughly goes like this.  Some ignorant lay person, tribe or nation uses a plant for a specific purpose.  Some bright scientist collects it, observes that it works and analyses the plant to find the active principle.  The active principle is then put into an experiment that has to be replicable.  If it is repeated often enough, it works.  If it can’t be repeated it’s mumbo jumbo.  If the substance is shown to work, then it should be subject to Health and Safety Regulations and the public shouldn’t be allowed to use it as it is dangerous, i.e. active  If no one else is using the substance then it should be available to patent and blocks out competitors.  Quality parameters are defined simply by process technology and by quality controls for the principle based around analysis.  Definitions of purity and dosage are applied.  Having got this far, the PR machine usually starts up to say that the original material – the plant – doesn’t actually work, it’s a hit and miss affair and only the active principle from a safe scientific source is guaranteed to work or should be used.  If all this were true then the originating ethno botanists or scientists wouldn’t have pitched up in the first place, would they?

However, it’s a pretty standard hymn sheet and can be applied to Aromatherapy.  Increasingly, I am sure, over the last few years you would have been treated to more and more expertise on how and why Aromatherapy works.  Sometimes strangely, as practitioners know, the more you seem to know the less it works and indeed it loses popularity as the practitioner doesn’t seem to produce the result they used to.  There are two possible reasons.  The first is that maybe the material used has become standardised.  The law of supply is always that the market demands the highest price for the lowest quality.  In other words you have stockholders, people who want the highest profit.  The highest profit comes from screwing down the lowest supply costs and pushing the price at a competitive level.  This is basic economics and commercialisation of any product.  Rarely does quality as a notion of the consumer come into play except at the high end of the market, where more discerning consumers can usually be found. 

With so-called natural products, based mostly on industrial standards, the norm is to promote analysis as the tool of quality.  But to do that you have to have a therapy that is prepared to accept industrial analytical standards as their arbiter of quality.  Hence the subtle change that has taken place in Aromatherapy over the years.

The alternative is that there has been a change in purpose or attitude of the therapists.  They may no longer be working in an intuitive way.  Now this may sound very freaky to some, especially to those who are stuck in the furrows of nineteenth century chemistry!  We do however now live in the twenty first century and if we start looking at new biology and new physics rather than textbooks which peaked their knowledge in the 1920s we come to a different world view!  Chemistry and analysis are very useful standards and value but have limitations too if applied to field crops.

Some words are very important in Aromatherapy.  One is holism or holistic.  This is a word that you find everywhere but we must think very carefully about it.  Do we really believe that Aromatherapy is holistic?  In fact we could ask do we really believe that the capsule we have just bought in a health food store, that contains an active principle, is holistic? 

Holism is the philosophy that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, effects can come that are surprising or that when analysed the eventual effect is unexpected and cannot always be replicated.  If something is truly holistic then it would be absurd to attempt to prove it by normal scientific methods.  The idea of holism is similar to synergy which has to do with the co-operation of interacting items, elements or forces to produce unexpected and inexplicable results.  Many aromatherapists call their blends synergies so why on earth do they try to measure them by chemistry?  At best, such analysis can tell you what is in the blend but not how the synergy works.

Next comes vitalism.  Vitalism is an old chestnut in orthodox circles and its promotion can certainly get you shot in scientific terms (one hopes).  Nevertheless if you look at the original works on Aromatherapy, those seminal works that started the whole, the thrust of the therapy – if we look at the current writings of Patricia Davis or indeed of Valerie Worwood – and within the original Art of Aromatherapy by Robert Tisserand the concept of vitalism can always be found.  Vitalism is the doctrine that phenomena or substance cannot be explained in purely mechanistic or analytical terms.  Its existence is dependent upon some vital force in nature.  The vital force is viewed as some causative principle that provides life independent of chemical or physical process. 

If we put those two words together – holism and vitalism – and say that this is Aromatherapy then we have a real conundrum as to how it is being taught today.  I believe Aromatherapy has fallen into a trap – that of being frightened by itself.  After all, it is not easy to write something or stand on a platform and to be told that you are unscientific.  To be told how to do research, how research models should work etc.  Again, I say these are all valuable lessons but can draw you to standard conclusions. 

That’s not the problem.  The problem is believing that one is unscientific because one does something differently.  The two approaches are not necessarily in opposition.  Standard scientists can be very blinkered, like anybody else.  It is quite easy to write a big article in scientific terms and impress lay people and to build a career on that.  Providing the information is correct, there is nothing wrong with that approach either.  Just so long as we don’t become too dogmatic about something that is new and to a degree, inexplicable.  I find Aromatherapy quite individual and inexplicable.  I find essential oils highly variable in activity and aroma and I certainly do not subscribe to the view that “feminine intuition” is either stupid or silly.  There has to be a meeting of minds and mutual respect and a desire for understanding but not necessarily in normal patterns.

So where does Aromacosmetology ™ fit into all this?  First of all, when we devised the term we spent a long time debating whether to spell it as cosmetology or cosmotology.  I am sure you can see the implications of the difference.  We settled on the former for purely commercial terms  – we thought it would attract more people and sounded less spacey and indeed that has proven to be the case.  Cosmo, combined with other words, indicates the world or universe and I suppose that Aromacosmetology™ does deal with the world of Aromatherapy.  It looks at all sides, it’s a cohesive study of aromatics, principles and ideas without a dogma other than that one has to explore and respect contrary views.  I suppose this idea has come more from physics, which is my love rather than chemistry which as you can guess from the above, has never been my favourite subject. 

But hidden in the idea of Aromacosmetology™ is more than the face or decoration.  We chose the idea because the skin in Aromatherapy is as important as the nose.  Aromatherapists should be given more information about the skin.  After all, they see it as the transit vehicle for their products and in Aromacosmetology™ we try to explain that the skin is far more than we realise and it may begin to explain the interaction between givers and receivers in massage. 

If we take the word cosmeticos – the Greek to beautify – I see no reason at all why this should not be related to health.  If you look good, you feel good.  How people “look” expresses how they are.  We use the term every day – you look well, you don’t look yourself etc. – so in Aromacosmetology™ we are not talking about colour cosmetics but we are talking about aiding people to look their best and be their best.  Isn’t that what Aromatherapy is all about?  But the word cosmeticos also comes from another word – kosmein – which means to arrange.  This arrangement has not so much to do with facial beauty, because it itself is derived from cosmos which actually means order. 

Let us understand that when we talk to really good, dedicated aromatherapists who, it is true, may have difficulty in explaining their therapy, they will often use words like “well, I try to harmonise the person or bring them into balance and when that’s done their sore throat cleared up”.  This all sounds terribly unscientific unless you are a scientist and I mean a real scientist – someone who is an inquisitive observer and who has an open mind seeing what happens rather than what should happen.  Those readers with a more subtle turn of mind will notice that at that point I introduced the concept of participation within the experiment – get it!  If you haven’t got it then you are a good candidate for an Aromacosmetology™ course!!

Today if we define science we would say that it is perhaps a systematic study of the material and physical universe based on observation, experiment and measurement and the formulation of laws to describe the given facts.  In archaic terms you could stop at observation.  Looking at the root of the English word it comes from the Latin scire, which actually meant to know.  Knowing something is not necessarily the same as being able to express it or to explain it.  It was dear old Descartes and perhaps even Newton who had so much trouble with this concept  and together set the tools of analysis that have stood us in such good stead for a good few hundred years. 

Perhaps however they have had their day and we should readdress the matter of holism.  Aromatherapy is certainly at the forefront of such thinking and is quite scientific in its many diverse forms.  I know that this is quite hard to comprehend when sitting in a university classroom, perhaps being taught dogma as fact, but then the world of experience exists outside the classroom, not within it. 

So the term Aromacosmetolgy™ was coined to combine a series of independent lectures and lecturers.  It was designed to give a more rounded view of science than was currently available to aromatherapists.  Very practical matters are addressed like the theory of detergency.  It is important to understand why a bubble bath is unlikely to work.  We feel it is important to use normal scientific methods of challenge, so as not to be duped by commerce, so we explore such matters as Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and its alternatives, and get to the real issues but always leaving the therapist with freedom of choice.  We look at formulation ingredients across the spectrum of bases – why do some gels work, why do some creams work, are they of real benefit, why does one thing work better with another thing?  All these are explicable. 

We also take on board, however, the inexplicable and advance some theories about why one therapist is better than another.  This requires an exploration of what nature is.  After all, Aromatherapy is supposed to be a natural therapy but like the very term Aromatherapy, natural means many different things to different people hence the exploration of so called natural bases or natural materials or extraction processes.  We are very committed to explaining fully the nature of essential oils.  We are very happy to cover in more detail the subject of GLC techniques but we also like people to be familiar with the idea of infra red spectroscopy and its value for functional groups and its ability to do things that GLC can’t do.  This takes us to the edge of advancing Aromatherapy, not using conventional commercial tools that obscure some of the realities of quality.

The idea of Aromacosmetology™ is to give a deep understanding of Aromatherapy and empower the therapist buy providing an education that can reinforce some of their feelings on the subject and our students enjoy it.

The first section always deals with the plant.  We explore what a plant is, where it comes from, why it exists, what it does.  We look at the biology and botany of a plant but above all we concentrate upon what life is and what these life forms do for us and how we can co-operate with them – whether that be a bacterium or a lavender.  This module underscores the naturopathic approach, the concept of letting the body heal itself, which the originators of Aromatherapy put forward.  We look at life from a cellular level.

As an example of what I mean, we can look again at floral waters.  Floral waters are an anomaly.  Few attempt to go beyond the rather obvious in trying to understand them and as stated, why should we if they work.  The therapist is working in the real world, the practical world and this is one quite acceptable approach.  It is far better than saying that floral waters can’t work because we do not know how they work, so they can’t work.  We are made mainly of water, we are watery creatures.  Many religions and atheistic scientists assign our origin to the sea, the deep waters that covered the dark earth.  Could we see water as a life?  It appears to be an original if not originating substance.  If motion is life and water moves, could we see water as living? 

Water is certainly an accumulator, transformer and transmitter of substances and energies.  H2O is deceptively simple.  Behind is a world of science.  There are two negatively charged hydrogen atoms and one positively charged atom.  It could be called an oxide of hydrogen.  Our interest lies in its ability to be the almost universal solvent.  It combines with an enormous number of elements and compounds.  Water dissolves and suspends and it assumes the characteristics of its combined inclusions.  It is found in all living things and constitutes most of our blood and the equivalent sap in plants.  Does it therefore assume our characteristics?  Blood is placed into convenient groups or types but no two bloods are actually identical.  They have a specific reference to the individual, so why not the same for plant species?  Individuality and individual reaction to treatment is a central theme in Aromacosmetology™.  Sap from plants is not dissimilar.. 

Water can come in three states – the liquid we are familiar with, ice at low temperatures and gas vapour or steam at high temperatures.  Pure water without inclusions (distilled water) has high resistance to an electric charge.  Pollution of water is measured by its increased capacity to transmit a charge.  Electrolysis – the conduction of electricity through pure water – needs a catalyst such as an acid to be added.  The resultant mixture is called an electrolyte.

When distilling essential oils, the steam not only takes with it the volatile elements to be released on condensation but maintains within itself the weak aromatic acids that it dissolves.  These mixtures are the floral waters or hydrolats that can now readily be seen as electrolytes.  The pH of these waters is around 4.5 corresponding to the natural pH of the skin.  Such waters are therefore potentially active and skin or biocompatible.

The nature of the water used may too have a very important relevance.  Essential oils are children of the sun and are therefore raised in areas where there are water shortages.  Commonly industrialised reservoir water, perhaps further purified by deionisation is used in the large distilleries.  Small distilleries or mobile stills have an advantage if they are dependent on spring water.  Similar situations exist in the whisky industry where the nature or impurity of the water gives the distinctive flavour or aroma to the end result even if distilled whisky making as we know is an art and mystery!.

The two types of water are not the same in some properties.  True spring water has better drinking quality than surface water.  What we may not realise is that it is the exposure of water to the sun, as in a reservoir, changes the character and the energy of that water.  Aromatherapy, which we can define as an n energy medicine, should give strong regard to the origin and sources of water.

Distillation takes place with water as the basic solvent.  Water is added into the still, but there may still be residual water in the plant (sap).  If the material is fresh – it rarely is but it does happen – then the floral water will have a very different characteristic from similar material derived from reservoir water steaming through dry material. 

The technology of essential oil production and floral water production is also extensively explored in Aromacosmetology™.  In our illustration on floral waters we may well consider the matter of cohabation, where in some instances the same water is distilled over and over again.  This is specific to some types of production as in rose waters.  In other cases, water shortage demands such use.  Technology has an impact upon quality.

This brings us to what floral waters may contain which is the unending question of the analyst.  Among other things we find that the key components are small volumes of largely unidentifiable weak aromatic acids.  Their activity, however, seems to go beyond this small quantity.  In my personal experience I often find that floral waters behave like their originating counterparts – the essential oils.  But as we know, in molecular terms they are not present in the water.  However water is “funny stuff”.  If we define Aromatherapy as an energy medicine, as we do in Aromacosmetology™ studies, then it is perfectly possible to see that water may contain with it the memory of the originating source.  We could then expect to see floral waters behaving almost like homeopathic substances and that is what we find in practice.

Of course even putting forward the idea of the memory of water can from some quarters of the scientific community bring about very strong reactions, mostly of the nature of “that’s a stupid idea and I don’t want to hear about it”.  What we should be concentrating on is the phenomena and the results and that is what the practicing aromatherapist does.  Why something works in one instance or for one person rather than another has yet to be resolved.  In this phase of Aromacosmetology™ what we aim to do is provide a rationale, present alternative views and leave the individual to make the choices as to which side of the fence they may sit.  What we do, however, stress is that it is the result that matters. 

Quite how a healing process takes place is a very individual concern.  What we try to do is reduce people’s thinking to a cellular level and then to start thinking in terms of the communication.  Although very tiny, cells are a universe to atoms and molecules and we have to start thinking about how communication can take place not only by a direct hook up but over some distance.  We of course are made of cells, each of which are communicants and as a whole form part of our immune system.  Our disease or illness may well be because for some reason we have become invaded by a foreign body such as a bacterium or bugs.  Our illness may simply be due to wearing out, the failure of our communication, a reduction in energy and so on.  This cellular communication was hinted at by Margaret Maury, the modern day originator of Aromatherapy and certainly referred to in her book The Secret of Life and Youth.

So we have found the study of Aromacosmetology™, which clearly lays heavy emphasis upon energies and energy, to be increasingly popular among therapists who want to know more but don’t want to get drawn into allopathic treatments or orthodox ways.  Aromacosmetology(TM) has a set pattern of study and yet itself being holistic, can be joined at any point.  As mentioned above, one group of modules specifically deals with practical, scientific cosmetic matters such as the nature of emulsions but all still aim to bring the therapist back to understanding nature and plants. 

Plants are proposed as living entities with specific purpose, not only built into their DNA but also brought into their field, their electro magnetic space if you like.  Mankind’s present interest in the manipulation of genes and DNA has taught us many things.  One of the most important is that genes alone do not account totally for all the variety that we find around us.  So there is something yet to be discovered and understood.  The known and the unknown accounts for biodiversity and species barriers.  Perhaps this is the biggest danger when we look at genetically modified material, where only taking the obvious into consideration perhaps ignoring the reason why Nature has not, so to speak, done this before. 

Aromacosmetology™ closely relates plants to the skin and activity in the skin and on the skin.  This requires a better understanding of new biology and why, for example, we have so many nerves and nerve endings bundled into a tiny area of skin.  Conventional anatomy does not provide an answer.

Aromacosmetology™ sees aromatherapists as skin care specialist.  The aromatherapist’s massage is working always with the skin.  Their holistic approach enables them to see that most disease is as a result of cellular ageing so particular attention is given to skin care, hence the emphasis on understanding the nature of cosmetic bases and particular the care of the skin using essential oils and other aromatic substances.  The skin acid mantle is reviewed in the light of a better understanding if its complexity, the acidic environment and the amino acids which form the building block of proteins and are part of the skin’s natural moisturising factor.  These are closely allied to aromatic substances and on the basis of cellular communication appear to work in a synergistic form that enables the aromatherapist to work against premature ageing.

This means that the skin is seen as an immuno modulator but we are dealing with very sensitive communicant molecules.  And again, we have to emphasise that any active such as the essential oil is only a few percent of a formulation or synergy, whether that be massage oil or some other cosmetic formulation.  Whatever the base is, it must not act against the actives.  Bases must perform a function and should be biocompatible and themselves contain moisturising and conditioning effects.  To read cosmetic journals, one could be led to believe that the skin is little more than an envelope and that there are only certain types.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Skin is individual.  As with anything else, we can make generalisations from which we can make assumptions.  Perhaps most of these assumptions are based upon skin colour and therefore its response to sun exposure.  This is a valuable way of looking at things but is not the way that most people view their skin, which they describe usually as oily, normal, dry, delicate etc.  Notice too how our own view is directed towards our facial skin.  Skin covers the whole of our body and Aromacosmetology™ emphasises this important fact.

At the end of the day, Aromacosmetology™ introduces a great deal more expertise into our understanding of nature and our position within it.  It is designed to empower the therapist by providing information that returns soul to chemistry. 

A proper understanding of Aromacosmetology™ enables any therapist to better understand the role of science in Aromatherapy, in particular to have a proper regard for chemistry, keeping it in its place but using its values for the benefit of client or patient.  In a world that is ever divorcing itself from nature and where mankind begins to play God, there is a need for an unhurried view of nature.  It takes time to learn and to understand.  There are such things as flashes of inspiration but in a technological age of sound bytes and web sites, we are beginning to become to committed to short termism.  Nature always takes time, healing takes time, giving an Aromatherapy massage takes time, popping an Aromatherapy pill takes no time.  To be a therapist takes time and costs money.  Time is money.  Professionally trained therapists are able to see through these issues.  Aromacosmetology™ plays its role within Aromatherapy, trying to taker a position that is inherently classical, emphasising mood, emphasising aroma, emphasising the reality of nature, the need for quality raw materials and the invaluable role skin plays in functioning as an organ that is addressed as a communicant by essential oils and other aromatic substances.

© Jan Kusmirek 2002

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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