Aromatherapy is a popular alternative treatment; increased scientific i nterest could move it into the mainstream. Liz Hunt reports
THE CLEAR, yellow oil smells sweetly of lavender and camomile, disguising the more astringent odours of the juniper and black pepper extracts. A few drops in a hot bath or applied in a gentle massage promises relief from inflamed joints, stiffness and the pain of arthritis. The manufacturer says there are glowing testimonials to its effect. The secret of its success, according to the accompanying leaflet, lies in its special blend of essential oils, which permeate the skin to ''detoxify the body and improve circulation''.

Whereas orthodox medicine offers only pain-killing drugs with unpleasant side-effects, this gentle aromatherapy treatment, which is pleasing to the senses, has an undeniable appeal. Unfortunately, it is illegal. The Arthritis Oil, which costs pounds 8.50 mail order for just 100ml and is presented with medicinal flair in a small brown bottle, contravenes the Medicines Act 1968, according to the Department of Health, which bars such products from making medicinal claims.

The oil is unlikely to cause any harm and probably does aid relaxation, but its marketing is part of a growing trend which alarms orthodox medical practitioners, professional aromatherapists and scientists, who are researching the powerful effects of such oils. They fear their efforts are being undermined by cowboys and quacks, small companies which are exploiting a lucrative market, and untrained therapists who make claims they cannot substantiate.

Aromatherapy is now the most popular of all alternative therapies, says the Health Education Authority. There are more than 3,000 aromatherapists whose expertise varies from that obtained on a weekend course or at night-school, to the experts who have studied it for years. There are more than a dozen professional organisations, and about 50 schools of aromatherapy.

The consequence of this lack of homogeneity is confusion, according to Dr Michael Kirk-Smith, a reader in behavioural sciences at Ulster University who is at the forefront of the move to validate the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy in this country.

He is conducting a survey of practitioners to discover the sort of qualifications they possess, who they are treating and with what. ''It is,'' he says, ''a serious science with great potential. I would not be bothering with it if it wasn't.''

Dr Kirk-Smith, who is a molecular biophysicist and experimental psychologist, last week joined other ''serious'' scientists from around the world at a meeting in New York to present the latest findings on aromatherapy and the chemistry and uses of essential oils extracted from plants and flowers.

Among those present was Dr Gerard Buchbauer, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Vienna, and the acknowledged top scientist in the field. Other British representatives included Dr Stanley Deans, head of the aromatic and medicinal plant group in the department of biochemical sciences at the Scottish Agricultural College, whose presentation focused on the beneficial effects of volatile plant oils on fat metabolism, which is related to ageing.

One of the sponsors of the aromatherapy symposium was the Natural Oils Research Association (Nora), founded in 1990 by Bernie Hephrun, a former businessman now conducting his own research into the oils. ''There is lots of therapeutic evidence. It is just not collated. That is what we are trying to do. The medical profession dismisses it as 'nice smells'.'' He points out that the South Bank University now includes an aromatherapy option for students of nursing degrees.

It is a far cry from the general perception of aromatherapy as a ''massage with pleasant smelling oils'' usually promoted in beauty salons. Shirley Price, a respected international figure in aromatherapy and the author of a new book for orthodox healthcare professionals, particularly nurses and midwives who are taking it up, says that most serious practitioners don't have time to do massage anyway. ''Aromatology is what they are concerned about. It is a whole new branch of chemistry, a new science if you like.''

Essential oils have been shown to have a wide range of effects: many are antiseptic, some are anti-fungal, and others are sedative. Jasmine and lavender, for example, have been shown to affect mood, while tea tree oil is reported to help acne. There are hundreds of claims and plenty of anecdotal evidence. What is lacking is a scientific approach.

Eminent medical and scientific journals, including the Lancet, are, however, publishing papers on the physiological and psychological effects of the essential oils used in aromatherapy. There is little doubt that the powerful molecules in aromatic oils can affect cells in the nervous and circulatory systems to varying degrees, whether absorbed through the skin or inhaled. But of more interest to Dr Kirk-Smith is the impact of the oils on the olfactory centres of the brain. ''It is just two synapses [nerve cell junctions] away from the hypothalamus gland and a direct route into the limbic system, which is responsible for the powerful effects in the body.''

The essential oils used in aromatherapy are extracted from aromatic plants, usually by steam distillation in which the plant essence is heated, vapourised in steam and then cooled to separate into oil and water.

Different parts of the plant are used; eucalyptus for example comes from the leaves, ginger from the roots, juniper from dried berries, and camomile from the flower heads. Their medicinal properties have been recognised for centuries, particularly in ancient Egypt and the Nile Valley, which became known as the ''cradle of medicine''.

The Crusaders were the first to bring the medicinal effects of essential oils to Europe's attention. In the Middle Ages and Elizabethan periods, oils such as cedarwood, cinnamon, rose, sage and rosemary were popular as medicines and perfumes, but as manufacturers exploited the market and tried to cut costs, the quality of the oils deteriorated and their efficacy was doubted.

In the 20th century, a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, has been acknowledged as the father of aromatherapy. He was, in fact, responsible for the name ''aromtherapie''.

According to legend, he burned his hand while working in his family's perfume house and plunged it into lavendar oil. It healed quickly and the scarring was minimal, so Dr Gattefosse was inspired to study the therapeutic effects of these oils.

Other stories suggest that he was in fact inspired by the work of a 19th century French medic, Dr Chabenes, and that Gattefosse was already using the oils on soldiers injured in the First World War.

Aromatherapy was introduced into Britain by an Australian, Marguerite Maury, who was married to a French doctor and homeopath. Maury researched the ability of oils to penetrate the skin and maintain youthfulness. It was through beauty therapists that aromatherapy first became popular in this country, but in the past 10 to 15 years it has been taken up by alternative and orthodox practitioners.

There have been some concerns about the toxic effects of essential oils, particularly on pregnant women. Some should never be used during pregnancy and the labels should say so. Other oils should only be used by a trained therapist. The rules are well documented in The Essential Oils Safety Data Manual by Robert Tisserand, a leading authority in aromatherapy.

Overall, Dr Thurstin Brewin, chairman of Healthwatch, a monitoring organisation for alternative therapies, says he has no particular worries about aromatherapy. ''As far as we are concerned it is just one more example of a therapy which is booming but for which we think there is no good evidence for its effects.''

The orthodox professionals who use it now, such as Sheena Hildebrand at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Surrey, a cancer hospital, focus less on the therapeutic benefits as on its stress-relieving properties. ''It's not curative, but it can make an enormous difference to patients going through the trauma of chemotherapy and radiation treatment,'' she said.

That is not to say they doubt its benefits, but for many nurses, midwives and occupational therapists, the principle attraction of aromatherapy is that it allows them to ''touch'' patients, says Dr Kirk-Smith. ''It allows them to be healers, much more so than ever before.''

(Photograph omitted)