Aromatherapy has gone cosmetic. But do the treatments do anything other than smell nice? Adele Lovell wonders
The promise of a nice smell that goes a bit deeper than any other - and whose benefits supposedly range from "revitalising the senses" to helping HIV patients - created a market worth pounds 10m in the UK last year. With its 66 per cent growth since 1991, aromatherapy has become the fastest-growing of alternative remedies.

And as a glance around Boots, the Body Shop or Superdrug - with their new ranges of shampoos, soaps, bath preparations and body mists - proves, a large part of this success is due to the boom in aromatherapy cosmetics. But many traditional aromatherapists are sceptical. "In our opinion," says Shirley Price, "the term 'aromatherapy' has been thoroughly degraded."

Aromatherapists fear this commercialisation. They practise individual treatment, measuring - drop by drop - a custom mix of essential oils to meet specific ailments, and then apply it by any means from massage to rectal insertion. "We see aromatherapy as a complementary treatment," says Nick Davies of Shirley Price Aromatherapy. But because essential oils are solely and officially classified as cosmetics, not drugs, anyone who wishes can market them in either ready-mixed cosmetics or as single, ready-to-apply commodities.

The question of quality vs profit is a key issue. Therapists maintain that only the purest essential oils give the best results. However, because the oils are also used by the perfume industry, which is highly cost- conscious, quality varies a great deal. Shirley Price says: "The price of lavender oil varies from less than pounds 20 a litre to more than pounds 100, rose oil from pounds 600 to pounds 4,000. Now, a part-synthesised oil can give a comparable aroma to that of a true essential oil, but it simply will not have the same effect ... but it is relatively cheap compared to those that are already adulterated with components obtained from other essential oils."

If aromatherapy cosmetics lack quality oils, the effects on the traditional aromatherapists are twofold. First, they lose sales, because a lower-quality cosmetic will probably be cheaper. Second, they lose the sale because if the cosmetic has little effect, the consumer is unlikely to try another brand, which may do the trick.

A greater concern is product safety, particularly that of single oils. Aromatherapists claim that oils are absorbed into the bloodstream via the olfactory system, and certain oils can be highly toxic if misused. Reported cases include that of an 18-year-old American woman who took 1oz of Pennyroyal oil to induce abortion, and died six days later. Eucalyptus and Citronella have caused death by poisoning in children. Special care is also needed when using oils on infants, pregnant women and epileptics.

Sylvia Baker, secretary of the Aromatherapy Organisations Council, fears the lack of knowledge among consumers and retailers could be dangerous. "It concerns me when I see essential oils on sale without an informed person there to advise."

Still, while aromatherapists' fears about the abuse of single oils are valid, concern about pre-mixed, mass-market cosmetics are usually groundless, simply because of the low dilution involved. The ingredients are so low, in fact, that the product cannot have the supposedly therapeutic effect the customer might imagine to be its main function.Legally, such cosmetics cannot claim to be aphrodisiac, or assert stress-relieving properties, though some sail close to the wind.

Robert Tisserand, of the Tisserand range, has worked in aromatherapy since 1969. He says the field is a victim of its own success. He would like to see "a differentiation between treatments for home use, medical use and massage by a therapist. Cosmetics containing essential oils have useful but superficial effects ... while they will not do any harm, neither will they cure anything."When it comes to relaxing or reviving abilities, essential oils may not be that essential.

"Certain essential oils such as lavender can relax you," says Martin Watt, a medical herbalist. "There is more evidence to support this than there is to support aromatherapy's more medical claims. However, essential oils aren't unique in this. Lily of the Valley, which is not available as an aromatherapy oil, is also a proven relaxant."

Mr Watt can't understand what the fuss is about. "If you think something smells nice, it will probably have some positive effect."