The Berlin Wall of Aromatherapy Must Fall for Advancement and Healing

Constructed beginning in 1961, The Berlin Wall was built to divide East and West Germany physically and ideologically following the conclusion of World War II. This wall was erected to protect against the principles of freedom and democracy seen as the enemy by Soviet-controlled Germany. It was a physical and mental way to maintain control. Similarly, proverbial walls are erected in the aromatherapy community to protect against what some see as the enemy to the status quo.

There is an entrenched group among traditional aromatherapists who see it as their mission to protect aromatherapy from “outsiders” no matter the consequences. They seek shelter from health professionals and researchers that have a passion for essential oils, from individuals and companies that market essential oils in a network marketing model, and most of all ideology that comes from an unfamiliar perspective and falls outside established paradigms.

Until recently, I felt like people on both sides of the Berlin Wall did in the 1970s—that the demise of the walls of aromatherapy would never occur. That all changed when I met a 40 plus year veteran and traditional aromatherapists, Sylla Sheppard-Hanger. Rather than reject me outright, we had multiple communications to seek a better understanding of one another. She epitomized the old adage “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Our conversations gave me hope and for the first time in my professional career, I felt respected by a long-time leader of the traditional aromatherapy community.

Unfortunately, this hope was immediately diminished by the sharp criticism I have come to know well and expect from the traditional aromatherapy community. Sensing the walls of aromatherapy were weakening, a group of traditional aromatherapists vehemently rejected the efforts of Sylla to unify aromatherapy and dug in their heels to maintain the existing state of affairs.

One proclaimed on Facebook “Really? Not a fan of Scott Johnson. These type of books [referring to my essential oil reference books] should be written by aromatherapists and other professionals who work in this field.” This statement is akin to the segregation practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries in America and is wholly inaccurate—I have a certificate in aromatherapy from an aromatherapy school. It is a judge the book by its cover mentality without even evaluating the information it contains. It is willful ignorance at its best. Indeed, no other person has added more evidence-based pages to aromatherapy and essential oils than I have in the last decade. Contributions that have largely been ignored or disrespected.

I have witnessed similar attacks against chiropractors and other health professionals who have made valuable contributions to aromatherapy. The reality is that these health professionals not only look at essential oils from a fresh perspective that can lead to innovations, but they are also likely more qualified to discuss clinical aromatherapy because of their greater knowledge of biology, anatomy, physiology, molecular mechanisms, cellular function, organ system function, and so forth.

The overwhelming majority of published papers on essential oils are written by scientists that are not aromatherapists. Does this mean we should reject their works too because they don’t abide by the unwritten rule that only writings from aromatherapists are valid? Indeed, it wasn’t a traditional aromatherapist that the medical community sought out when a chapter on essential oils was needed for a medical textbook. Instead, they chose me and my colleague to write the chapter because they recognized our evidence-based approach.

Another deep-rooted dogma among traditional aromatherapists is the belief that network marketing is ruining aromatherapy. Whether methods of use or sales model in general, many traditional aromatherapists abhor network marketing companies involved in aromatherapy.

In truth, network marketing companies have done more to advance the popularity and acceptance of essential oils—in both the general public and medical/scientific community—in the last decade than any other factor. They also tend to invest money into research that advances our scientific knowledge of essential oils and make sizeable donations to hospitals and medical centers that advances the use of essential oils in clinical settings.

Methodological differences exist, but network marketing companies aren’t too far from moderate methodology taught in aromatherapy. I have been called a “quack” and one who promotes “dangerous” practices because I take a moderate approach to essential oils. The biggest reason for this is my stance on oral administration and neat topical application. There is sufficient evidence (through published research and millions of user experiences) now to confidently say that ingestion of most essential oils is safe and an effective way to experience benefits. So much so, that insisting that you cannot ingest essential oils is not only obsolete it is anti-science.

When it comes to topical application, my books provide ranges of dilution, some of which allow for the neat application of essential oils. What people overlook is that I teach dilution is a more effective way to use essential oils because it improves absorption. I teach that dilution should be practiced in most cases and neat application reserved for a few instances such as toenail fungus, trace amounts on a bug bite, or application to a mouth sore. Most of the time, dilution up to 50% (depending on the oil being used and the purpose) is the best option for both safety and efficacy. Moreover, I was among the first—if not the first—to report that people with compromised immune systems are more prone to skin irritation by essential oils.

Sylla agrees that oral use and topical application I higher dilution above normal guidelines (up to 50%) is warranted, “I have learned in 40 years of practice on myself and others that sometimes higher dilution above normal (up to 50%) or internal use is called for.” She continues on the topic of safety, “Once we have the proper information and safety data we can make safe and effective remedies. There is no need to be scared to use our oils, just be scared enough to know your oils safety and use appropriately.” In other words, become properly educated on the composition, usage guidelines, and cautions of essential oils through an evidence-based book or aromatherapy certification to use them more confidently.

Other traditional aromatherapists consciously reject the truth—despite the preponderance of evidence—to pander to their prejudices. They argue until they are blue in the face, using much speaking to support their established beliefs even when inaccurate. For them, it is easier (or maybe an ego thing) to maintain paradigms than change (or maybe admit they were wrong).

Instead of building walls, I encourage both sides to build bridges. Let’s focus on our common love and passion for essential oils and other natural solutions. Together, we can work on more pressing issues than arguing with one another, like essential oil quality and adulteration, sustainability, maintaining medical freedom, and increasing the use of essential oils in mainstream clinical settings.

Sylla makes an impassioned plea to her colleagues, “For the good of the global aromatherapy community and the health of the world, it is time for us to come together, and learn what we can from each other instead of ‘othering.’  Let’s move forward together, it feels so much better and creates bridges instead of walls.”

Just like the Berlin wall fell in 1989 due to a series of revolutions by brave reformist-minded individuals, the walls of aromatherapy need to come tumbling down for healing and the advancement of essential oils. The demise of the aromatherapy walls, built over decades, will lead to improved collaboration and the advancement of aromatherapy and essential oils. As Ronald Reagan stated, “tear down this wall.” Make a commitment today to reach across the aisle and seek commonality and to understand one another. We will all be better for it.

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