Scents and aromas: Photo credit, istockphoto
Scents and aromas: Photo credit, istockphoto

Scent plays a strong role in both aromatherapy practice and perfumery. It is with the nose that we first are aware of (both consciously, and perhaps sub-consciously) of the presence of an essential oil. However, describing an essential oil can be a tricky business – each person may distinguish different, subtle aromas in a scent. If you are just starting out in aromatherapy – and/or perfumery – here are five common terms used to describe the aroma of an essential oil.

Balsamic Scent of an Essential Oil

Balsamic aromas are reminiscent of resins; they have a soft, warm scent. Examples of balsamic aromas in essential oils include:

  • frankincense (Boswellia sp.)

  • myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)

  • sandalwood (Santalum sp.).

Citrus Scent of an Essential Oil

Citrus aromas are usually easy to distinguish; they are the familiar scent of lemons and oranges! Most citrus scents belong to the Rutaceae plant family. Citrus aromas are close to – although not the same as – fruity aromas. It is worth remembering that fruity aromas – such as apples, pears and blackcurrant – do not produce an essential oil (although it is possible to find blackcurrant bud absolute which is used for natural perfumery purposes). Citrus aromas include:

  • grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi)

  • lemon (Citrus limon)

  • lime (Citrus aurantifolia)

  • orange – bitter (Citrus aurantium var. amara) and sweet (Citrus sinensis)

  • mandarin/tangerine (Citrus reticulata (blanco)).

Green Scent of an Essential Oil

Green aromas are fresh and “grassy” – although the term green can be used to describe the freshness of a forest aroma, too. It is worth checking what the term green means to various people. Bear in mind also that most oils have various “notes” – for example, undertones and overtones. Therefore, the “green” aroma might not be as strong as you think. within In aromatherapy practice, essential oils with green aromas include:

  • thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

  • yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Sweet Scent of an Essential Oil

Sweet aromas can be sickly-sweet or reminiscent of an aroma such as vanilla. Some essential oils have a slight sweet aroma whereas others are more dominant in their sweet aromas. Examples of essential oils that possess a sweet scent include:

  • Peru balsam (Myroxylon balsamum var. pereirae)

  • vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) – actually an absolute, although a CO2 extracted essential oil is now available too

  • ylang ylang (Cananga odorata).

Spicy Scent of an Essential Oil

Many people are familiar with the scent of spices; spices are used in a lot of culinary dishes. Some of these same spices are used in aromatherapy and perfumery too, as an essential oil. Spicy aromas include:

  • cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)

  • clove (Syzygium aromaticum)

  • ginger (Zingiber officinale)

  • nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).

Identifying the Aroma of an Essential Oil

Identifying the different aromas of essential oils takes practice and time. It is an exercise which students are given on the Sedona Aromatherapie Foundation Course in Aromatherapy. Most students find it a fun practice and are often surprised by what they learn!

If you want to learn more about this course, and others in the Sedona Aromatherapie Home Study Aromatherapy Course Program, visit the courses home page. I hope to see you soon!


  • Lawless, Julia, 1995, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, UK: Thorsons

  • Penny Price Academy of Aromatherapy

  • Author’s own experience and training as a certified aromatherapist

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