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Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that involves the use of essential oils. A complementary therapy is something that may be used alongside any medical treatment you might be receiving.

Aromatherapy may help to improve both your physical and emotional wellbeing. It’s often used for chronic pain (pain that lasts a long time), anxietydepression and insomnia.

Your aromatherapist will talk to you about your treatment before carrying out aromatherapy. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that uses essential oils which may help to treat a range of symptoms and conditions.

Plant oils have been used as therapy and in cosmetics for thousands of years with records going back to ancient Egypt. Essential oils are made from essences that are present in the flowers, leaves, roots, peel, resin and bark of some plants. Essences release a unique fragrance when plants are crushed. If essences are removed from plants in a natural way, essential oils are produced. Some examples of essential oils include lavender and rosemary.

Essential oils can be absorbed by your body through your skin or they can have an effect on you through your sense of smell. Some of the ways essential oils can be used are described below.

  • Oils can be blended in carrier oil and massaged into your skin.
  • You can add a few drops of oil to warm bath water.
  • Oils can be added to water and then you can soak a cloth in the water to apply compresses to your skin.
  • You can directly inhale some oils (if you have asthma you may be advised not to do this).
  • Oils can be added to an aromatherapy diffuser or vaporiser.
  • You can spray oils on to your furniture, bed linen or tissues.

When you smell essential oils, it stimulates your olfactory system – the part of your brain that is connected to smell. Some research suggests that certain essential oils may have an effect on your mood, causing you to feel relaxed or stimulated. In addition, the gentle massage often used to apply oils to your skin is likely to have a relaxing effect.

Aromatherapy might be used for a variety symptoms and conditions. It’s commonly used for chronic pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia. Other things that aromatherapy may be used for includes nausea after surgery, cancer, dementia, and pain during labour. Although aromatherapy may be used for some of these conditions, the evidence varies to show if it’s effective.

See ‘Benefits’ for more information.

You can choose to be treated by an aromatherapist, or you can buy certain oils at pharmacies or health shops and carry out aromatherapy yourself.

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  • Finding a practitioner Where can I find an aromatherapist?

    An aromatherapist should have some training in anatomy and physiology, as well as in the use of essential oils and massage.

    There are several regulatory bodies that aromatherapists can join, which set standards for the practise of aromatherapy. However, it’s important to remember that aromatherapy is voluntarily regulated; this means that anyone can work as an aromatherapist, regardless of their training.

    You can find a registered aromatherapist on the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) website, which is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners. You can also search for an aromatherapist on the International Federation of Aromatherapists website, which maintains a register of practising members.

    Aromatherapy is widely available. Some aromatherapists practice at home, while others may provide treatments in sports centres and beauty clinics. Aromatherapy may also be available in some hospitals, care homes and GP surgeries. It's important to visit your GP before having aromatherapy, to help diagnose your condition and to ensure that aromatherapy is an appropriate treatment for you.

  • The procedure What happens during aromatherapy?

    If you decide to visit an aromatherapist, you will first have a detailed consultation. Your aromatherapist will ask you questions about your medical history, diet, lifestyle and health problems. You can also ask any questions you might have. Remember, it’s important to talk to your GP first to get a diagnosis before having aromatherapy. This is to ensure that aromatherapy is an appropriate treatment for you. Aromatherapists cannot make a medical diagnosis as they are not trained to do so. However, they may be able to advise you on a course of aromatherapy treatment.

    Your aromatherapist may recommend a single oil or a blend of two or three. They’re likely to give you a massage using essential oils that have been diluted in a carrier oil. A carrier oil is usually extracted from vegetables, nuts or seeds.

    One session of aromatherapy should last around one hour. You might find that one session is enough or you may decide to continue with regular treatments. A full series of treatments might include around 10 sessions of aromatherapy. Ask your aromatherapist for more information about how long your treatment may last.

  • Benefits Is aromatherapy effective?

    The scientific evidence for how effective aromatherapy is varies and in some instances it’s limited and more research is needed.

    Evidence suggests that aromatherapy is likely to be effective for back pain. Research also suggests that it may have a positive effect on anxiety. It might also help to reduce your anxiety before surgery, but more research is needed to see its effects in the long-term.
    There’s also a lot of interest in how aromatherapy may be able to help treat conditions such as cancer and dementia.

    If you have cancer, aromatherapy may help to reduce any pain and anxiety in the short term. It might also be beneficial to you as a palliative treatment. This is when a treatment is given to you to help reduce the severity of your symptoms. If you want to know more about how aromatherapy may help you if you have cancer, see our FAQ.

    Other research has looked at whether aromatherapy can help improve symptoms, such as agitation, and quality of life if you have dementia. However, more research is needed before any clear conclusions can be made, as the results from this research were inconsistent. Because some benefit was found, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggests that it might help treat agitation if you suffer from dementia.

    Whether aromatherapy is useful for other conditions, such as insomnia and depression is uncertain, because there isn’t enough information from the current research.

    Research has also looked at whether aromatherapy can help pain during labour – see our FAQ for more information.

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  • Risks What are the risks?

    As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with aromatherapy. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your aromatherapist to explain how these risks apply to you.

    In general, aromatherapy appears to be safe. However, it’s important to handle essential oils carefully and always dilute them according to the instructions. Don't use essential oils neat on your skin, with the exceptions only being lavender and tea tree oil, It’s also important not to swallow oils or apply them directly inside your body (for example, inside your nostril or ear).

    Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy and it shouldn’t be used instead of any medical treatment that you might be receiving.

    Ask your GP or midwife for advice if you're pregnant as most essential oils can’t be used during pregnancy.

    Certain essential oils may not be appropriate for everyone, especially if you have:

    Some essential oils can have side-effects. These are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having aromatherapy and may include:

    • feeling sick
    • a headache
    • allergic reactions
    • skin irritation

    Some oils, such as orange, grapefruit and bergamot, react with ultraviolet light and can cause your skin to burn more easily in sunlight.

    Some essential oils may either reduce or enhance the effects of certain conventional medicines. If you're taking any medication, always check with your pharmacist before using aromatherapy.

  • Using essential oils at home Using essential oils at home

    It's important to get advice from your pharmacist or a registered aromatherapist before using essential oils at home to make sure you’re using them safely.

    If you do decide to use aromatherapy at home, it's important that you dilute the oils. Some of the ways you can use them include:

    • putting a few drops in your bath
    • adding them to steaming water for inhalation
    • using them in an essential oil burner to give fragrance to a room
    • adding them to unperfumed creams

    Always read the information leaflet that comes with your essential oil. This should tell you how it should be used and give recommended dilutions where necessary.

    Make sure you buy essential oils from a reputable source and always store the oils in tightly-sealed containers in a cool, dark place. Treat them as you would conventional medicines and keep them out of the reach of children because they can be toxic if swallowed.

  • FAQs FAQs

    Can aromatherapy help with pain management in labour?


    Some women decide to try complementary therapies such as aromatherapy during labour. But the evidence to show its effectiveness is limited.


    There are a number of options for pain relief in labour including gas and air, a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine, an epidural and strong painkillers such as morphine.

    Some women decide to use complementary therapies, such as aromatherapy, for pain relief. However, there isn’t enough evidence to prove its effectiveness for pain during labour. Research does suggest, however, that it can help to reduce anxiety so it may benefit you in this way.

    If you're considering using aromatherapy oils to help with labour and birth, it's important that you consult a registered aromatherapist. He or she can advise you on the most suitable oils. You should also discuss aromatherapy with your GP and midwife so that the necessary arrangements can be made for your labour. Some midwives carry out aromatherapy during labour.

    Is aromatherapy massage beneficial for people with cancer?


    In the UK, up to a third of people with cancer use a complementary therapy, such as aromatherapy, at some time during their illness. Aromatherapy won’t cure your cancer, but some research suggests it might help to control some of your symptoms and improve your quality of life.


    If you have cancer, having aromatherapy might help you feel relaxed. And if you’re feeling more relaxed, it may help you to cope with your cancer treatment. It might also help you to feel in control, giving you a more active role in your recovery. A skilled aromatherapist can provide support during and after your cancer treatment.

    Some research suggests that aromatherapy may help to reduce any pain and anxiety in the short term. There is also research being carried out to look at how effective aromatherapy might be for distress, quality of life and other physical symptoms in people with cancer.

    Many cancer centres and hospitals offer aromatherapy to cancer patients. If you're interested in aromatherapy massage, speak to your doctor or nurse. They can give you more information about services in your centre or hospital and whether it's suitable for you.

    How much does aromatherapy cost?


    The cost of aromatherapy treatment will vary according to the type and duration of the treatment you have. It usually costs between £20 and £60 for a 60–90 minute session. The cost of essential oils will vary depending on what plants the oils are extracted from and the quality of the oil.


    It's important that you choose a qualified aromatherapist who is insured and registered with a professional body. You can find a registered aromatherapist on the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) website. You can also search for an aromatherapist on the International Federation of Aromatherapists website.

    The price of aromatherapy can vary depending on how many treatment sessions you have, but this is something that your aromatherapist can plan with you. Confirm the cost of the treatment before booking.

    Essential oils vary in price depending on their quality. If you're using aromatherapy at home, always buy essential oils from a qualified aromatherapist who can advise you on how to use them.

    Keep your essential oils in a cool, dark place and away from sunlight in tightly closed containers.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Aromatherapy. Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council., accessed 31 October 2013
    • Complementary and alternative medicine. PatientPlus., published 19 April 2012
    • An aromatherapy treatment, Aromatherapy at home, Overview of professional IFA courses & training, Using essential oils safely, What is aromatherapy and find an aromatherapist, carer, teacher or course. The International Federation of Aromatherapists., accessed 12 March 2014
    • Ernst E, Pittler MH, Wider B, et al. Oxford Handbook of Complimentary Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008:48–9
    • Oxford University Press. Concise colour medical dictionary. 3rd ed. Oxford, 2002:482, 505 (printed version)
    • Aromatherapy. Cancer Research UK., published 23 January 2013
    • Why people us complementary or alternative therapies. Cancer Research UK., published 31 December 2012
    • Forrester L, Maayan N, Orrell M, et al. Aromatherapy for dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 2. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003150.pub2
    • Hines S, Steels E, Chang A, et al. Aromatherapy for treatment of postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 4. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007598.pub2
    • Smith C, Collins C, Crowther C. Aromatherapy for pain management in labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 7. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009215
    • Jones L, Othman M, Dowswell T, et al. Pain management for women in labour: an overview of systematic reviews. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 3. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009234.
    • Fayazi S, Babashahi M, Rezaei M. The effect of inhalation aromatherapy on anxiety level of the patients in preoperative period. Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res 2011; 16(4):278–83
    • Shin E, Lee S, Seo K, et al. Aromatherapy and massage for symptom relief in patients with cancer. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 6. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009873
    • Kiecolt-Glaser J, Graham JE, Malarkey WB, et al. Olfactory influences on mood and autonomic, endocrine, and immune function. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2008; 33(3):328–39. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2007.11.015
    • About aromatherapy. Aromatherapy Council., accessed 31 October 2013
    • Complementary, alternative, or integrative health: what’s in a name? National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine., published October 2008
    • What is aromatherapy? National Cancer Institute., published 16 October 2012
    • Control of pain in adults with cancer: a national clinical guideline. Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (Sign)., published 2008
    • About CNHC. Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council., accessed 11 March 2014
    • Dementia: supporting people with dementia and their carers in health and social care. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)October 2012.
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