Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, July 2011.
This factsheet is for people who are having aromatherapy, or who would like information about it.
Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that is based on the use of concentrated plant essences. This is where the term essential oil comes from. Aromatherapy is used to reduce the symptoms of a range of conditions and aims to improve both physical and emotional wellbeing.
Your aromatherapist will discuss your care before carrying out your procedure. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.
Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils therapeutically. Plant oils have been used as therapy and cosmetics for thousands of years with records going back to ancient Egypt, China and India.
The essential oils that aromatherapists use to treat conditions are complex substances containing many chemical components. The oils aren't concentrated from whole plant parts – unlike most herbal medicines – but are extracted from flowers, leaves, roots, peel, resin or bark.
Essential oils can be applied in a number of ways.
When you inhale essential oils, this stimulates your olfactory system – the part of your brain that is connected to smell. A signal is transferred to your brain's limbic system that controls emotions and stores and retrieves learned memories. This triggers chemicals to be released. These are thought to have different effects, 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 is used for many conditions including:
Although aromatherapy is used for many conditions, there is very little scientific evidence to show that it is effective.
You can choose to be treated by an aromatherapist, or you can buy certain oils at pharmacies and health shops and carry out the treatment yourself.
An aromatherapy practitioner should have some training in anatomy and physiology, as well as in the use of essential oils and massage. However, currently the title of aromatherapist isn't protected. This means that anyone can call him or herself an aromatherapist regardless of what training he or she has done.
There are regulatory bodies that aromatherapists can join, which set standards for the practise of aromatherapy. 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 Professional Aromatherapists website, which maintains a register of practising members.
Aromatherapy is widely available. Some nurses in hospices and nursing homes use it and many health clubs, sports centres, beauty clinics and complementary therapy centres now offer aromatherapy massage. It may also be possible to find a private practitioner who will come to your home.
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.
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. Your aromatherapist cannot make a medical diagnosis as he or she isn't trained to do so. However, he or she can advise you on a course of aromatherapy treatment.
Aromatherapists claim to treat you holistically. This means your treatment will take into account your mind, body and spirit. Your aromatherapist may recommend a single oil or a blend of two or three.
Your aromatherapist is likely to give you a massage using essential oils that have been diluted in a carrier oil. These light oils, mainly obtained from nuts or seeds such as almond or grapeseed, 'carry' the essential oils and provide lubrication for massage. It's important to tell your therapist if you have a nut or other allergy. He or she will advise you on other methods if massage isn’t suitable for you.
Your first session may last up to two hours because of the initial consultation. You may find that one session is enough or decide to continue with regular treatments at intervals of one to four weeks. Each of these will probably last about an hour to an hour and a half.
Although there is anecdotal evidence to support the use of aromatherapy, there is little scientific evidence. Research on whether aromatherapy can improve or alleviate health problems is scarce and results are conflicting.
Several studies have looked at the outcomes of different oils and aromatherapy techniques on a variety of diseases and conditions. Some of these have been controlled studies and may have involved using a placebo (dummy) treatment to see how it compares with aromatherapy. Other studies are less rigorous and therefore less reliable as evidence. The results of these experiments aren't conclusive and have led to conflicting views over how aromatherapy actually works, and even if it works at all.
Results from studies show that aromatherapy:
However, much of this work has been inconclusive and more research is needed to test whether it works.
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 aromatherapy oils carefully and always dilute them according to the product instructions. Ask your GP or midwife for advice if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
Aromatherapy may not be appropriate for everyone, especially if you have:
Aromatherapy oils can have side-effects. These are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure. Side-effects of aromatherapy may include:
Some oils, including citrus ones such as orange, grapefruit and bergamot, react with ultraviolet light and can cause your skin to burn more easily in sunlight.
Don't use essential oils neat on your skin. Exceptions are lavender oil and tea tree oil but only use these in small amounts and not for long periods of time. Applying lavender and tea tree oils to your skin over a long period of time has been linked to breast enlargement in boys who haven't yet reached puberty. This is thought to be because the oils may act in a similar way to the female sex hormone oestrogen.
Don't use essential oils on broken skin and it's important not to swallow oils or apply them directly inside your body (for example, inside your nostril or ear).
Some essential oils may either reduce or enhance the effects of certain conventional medicines. If you're taking any medication, always check with your GP or pharmacist before using aromatherapy.
It's important to get advice from your GP, pharmacist or a registered aromatherapist before using essential oils at home as they can have harmful effects.
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:
Always read the information leaflet that comes with your essential oil. This will 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.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
You can't put a value on your health. Bupa Health Assessments help you identify any current or potential health risks, meaning you can take action now. Compare our range of health assessments or call 0845 600 3458 quoting ref. HFS100.
Arrange a call back to discuss your healthcare needs. Alternatively you can call us on 0800 600 500 quoting ref. D323 to find out more.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the About our Health Information page.
Publication date: July 2011