“We’ve got to clear this up right here.”

We knew she was getting serious.

After a day and a half of classes, the joking and feel-good fun aside, she was about to tell us something really important.

“I’ve got to debunk this Functional Group Theory myth …”

Sylla explained the basic idea of Functional Group Theory, which is that you can tell the action of a chemical constituent based on its structure. Then she told us why we need to take that with a grain of salt.

To a budding aromatherapist who didn’t have much of an understanding of the chemistry to begin with … the idea of debunking something that I didn’t have a grasp of yet was hard to wrap my brain around.

But now that I’ve been in the aromatherapy field for almost a decade, I see what she was saying.

Sylla was referring to statements heard throughout the world of aromatherapy education:

“Monoterpenes are ‘stimulating’ and ‘detoxifying.’” (Don’t even get Sylla started on that.)

“Ketones are toxic.”

“Esters make you feel good.”

These are great conventions to begin with—to have a conceptual framework for the chemistry of aromatics.

But at some point, you need to realize that the world of chemistry is more complicated than, “These things that look the same … act the same.”

I mean, jeez, imagine if I said that about a group of people. Chemistry, like people, is more complex than that.

Just because constituents have similar structures that we can identify doesn’t mean they are going to have the same action.

Since the 1990’s, Mom’s been saying that we as an industry need to take a look at this assumption. She used to be the only one (that I knew of ) talking about it.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard her say, “We can’t say, ‘All ketones do this,’ or ‘All sesquiterpenes do that.’” I’m glad to see this coming to light now.

This has always been a subject of discussion in our Aromatherapy Practitioner Course. Those of you who are already our students can turn to page 179 to find more information. If you’re not a student and want to learn this multi-dimensional approach to aromatherapy, contact us to get started.  

Though it can seem like splitting hairs, the truth is this: if you’re going to study aromatherapy, you want to know how deep you’re willing to go. You might wear the floaties in the beginning, but eventually you need to be able to swim on your own if you’re going to understand the chemistry beyond this oversimplification.

Sure, maybe not every home-user needs to know the difference between thujone and verbenone, or why phenolic compounds are irritants. But we also need to not base generalizations on things that are … well, just generalizations.

Here’s what Sylla has to say:

We may need to learn what this Functional Group Theory is all about in order to unlearn what we may have thought.

Here are some resources for more information:

We wanted to write about this because it came up in our Blue Tansy Deep Dive that is in the Inner Sanctum Library. If you’re interested in going deeper with your study of essential oils, this lifetime access to the Library is for you.

Now, we’d like to know:

How does this insight change your view on essential oil chemistry? What is one thing you can do moving forward to nurture a deeper understanding of essential oils?

Let us know by leaving a comment below!


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