Britons spend millions of pounds on it every year. Seventy-five per cent of people believe that the ancient Chinese practice of healing by essential oil odours works. But new research claims that aromatherapy is a waste of time and money. In fact, in the words of one expert, it is nothing but "bunkum".
The study has infuriated practitioners of the ancient art, who say that odours from essential oils can help lift moods, alleviate pain and ease the symptoms of a host of illnesses.
After years of being dismissed as new-age nonsense, aromatherapy has recently undergone something of an image makeover. Professional regulation will come in later this year, with the creation of a register of qualified practitioners. An aromatherapist has also been included on the board of the new Herbal Medicines Advisory Committee, an official government body set up to look at how complementary medicines are offered and policed.
Britons spent an estimated £210m on herbal, homeopathic and aromatherapy products last year and sales have soared by 27 per cent compared with five years ago. Three-quarters of the public believe that aromatherapy is effective, according to research.
Aromatherapists claim that the complex mixing of specific essential oils coupled with massage can relieve pain and help with a wide range of physical and mental problems. But scientists say that no reliable study has proven that the practice is beneficial.
Dr Neil Martin, a psychologist at Middlesex University, asked 60 men and women to suggest smells that were "pleasant" to them and chose the most popular, which turned out to be lemon. He then asked the participants to plunge their hands into a bucket of ice-cold water and keep them there for 15 minutes. A third of the group were put in a room with wafts of the pleasant lemon odour, while another third were subjected to the smell of machine oil. The remainder were simply left with no obvious aromas at all.
During the task, the participants were asked to rate their pain on a scale of 0 (no pain at all) to 11 (unbearable pain).
Five minutes into the ordeal, the people smelling the lemon odour and those being subjected to the smell of machine oil had an average pain score of eight, while those in the odourless room rated just six on the scale.
At the end of the task, the machine-oil group rated their pain at an average of eight, while the lemon group had fallen slightly to 6.5 and the odourless group was still lower at five.
Dr Martin said: "It showed that aromatherapy is more of a very good marketing ploy than a scientific subject.
"A lot of it is absolute bunkum. Our study showed that it did not alleviate pain and may have made it worse.
"There may certainly be a placebo effect where people feel better and it may temporarily elevate mood, but that may be due to other factors involved in aromatherapy, such as massage or relaxing music."
The use of essential oils dates back to ancient Chinese times, but the term aromatherapy was only coined in the early 20th century after a Frenchman, René Maurice Gattefosse, compiled the first dictionary of the practice in 1937.
Some GPs have now begun to refer patients to aromatherapists for help with pain relief and mood boosting and the profession hopes that regulation will mean it can soon become widely available on the NHS.
But practitioners are still annoyed by the fact that some in the medical and scientific establishment refuse to accept that it has benefits. They also claim that conventional scientific studies cannot be applied to their practices.
Carole Preen, secretary of the Aroma Therapy Consortium, said: "This research did not involve aromatherapy because they simply used a certain smell to try to gain an effect. Aromatherapy is so much more than that and I do not see how they can say this proves it does not work. It is not a cure and no one would ever make that claim, but there is a wealth of scientific research published in journals to show that it can be beneficial. It can lift mood, alleviate pain and helps very many people."