Expert reviewer, Dinesh Kotecha, Aromatherapist
Next review due July 2022

Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that uses essential oils to improve both physical and emotional wellbeing.


What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy – something that’s used alongside medical treatment. Plant oils have been used as therapy for thousands of years. Essential oils are made from essences found in the flowers, leaves, roots, peel, resin, seeds and bark of some plants. Examples of aromatherapy oils include:

  • citrus oils like lemon and grapefruit
  • frankincense
  • lavender
  • rosemary
  • chamomile
  • tea tree

You can absorb some essential oils through your skin. Some have an effect on you through your sense of smell and through breathing them in. Here are just some of the ways essential oils are used.

  • Oils can be diluted with a carrier oil (such as sweet almond, evening primrose, or black seed oil) and massaged into your skin.
  • You can add a few drops of oil to warm bath water.
  • You can add oils to unperfumed creams, such as moisturiser.
  • You can breathe in (inhale) vapour from some oils.
  • You can add oils to an aromatherapy diffuser or vaporiser.
  • You can add oils to an oil burner.

Certain essential oils aren’t appropriate for everyone, especially if you have:

Let your aromatherapist know if you have any of these health conditions. If you’re pregnant, ask your aromatherapist if it’s safe for you to have aromatherapy because some essential oils might be harmful to your baby.

Before you decide to have aromatherapy for a health problem, it's important to visit your GP. They can ensure your condition is accurately diagnosed and that you receive any conventional treatments you may need.

Benefits of aromatherapy

Some research suggests aromatherapy can boost and enhance wellbeing, with its relaxing and stimulating effects.

Aromatherapy benefits are reported to be wide-ranging and it’s used to help a variety of symptoms and conditions. Aromatherapy is sometimes used by people with long-lasting pain, anxiety, depression and poor sleep. Some people also use aromatherapy for feeling sick after surgery, cancer, dementia, and pain during labour, but evidence as to whether or not it works varies. For more information, see our section: How well does aromatherapy work?

You can buy some aromatherapy oils at pharmacies or health shops or you can have treatment by an aromatherapist. Your aromatherapist will talk you through your treatment before it starts.

What happens during an aromatherapy session?

If you visit an aromatherapist, you’ll have a detailed consultation first. Your aromatherapist will ask you questions about your medical history, lifestyle, general health and if you have any health problems. You can ask questions too. It’s important to know that aromatherapists cannot make a medical diagnosis because they aren’t trained to do so. But they can give you advice on a course of aromatherapy treatment.

Your aromatherapist will usually select and blend different essential oils, dilute them in a carrier oil, then massage them into your skin. A carrier oil is usually an oil extracted from nuts and seeds. They may also prepare products for you to use at home, such as oils to put in a diffuser or a cream.

An aromatherapy session should last for around an hour to an hour and a half. You might find that one session is enough or you may want to continue with regular treatments. Ask your aromatherapist for more information about how long your treatment might last.

How well does aromatherapy work?

The scientific evidence for how well aromatherapy works varies and more research is needed. Here are some of the health conditions and circumstances that have been studied.

  • Anxiety. There have been studies in patients undergoing treatment in hospital to see if aromatherapy can help to relieve stress and anxiety. Lavender oil has been studied to see if it can help people with anxiety disorders. The research suggests that aromatherapy may help relieve anxiety but more studies are needed.
  • Depression. Aromatherapy may be useful for depression, but there isn’t enough information from the current research to know.
  • Cancer. Aromatherapy may possibly help to reduce any pain and anxiety you have in the short term, but more research is needed.
  • Dementia. The research has looked at whether or not aromatherapy can help improve symptoms such as agitation and quality of life for people with dementia. The results from this research are mixed.
  • Labour pain. Research has considered if aromatherapy can help with pain during labour. While some women find aromatherapy helpful during labour, the evidence to show it works is limited.
  • Sleep. Some research has found that aromatherapy can help improve your quality of sleep but the evidence is weak.
  • Feeling sick after surgery. Feeling sick or vomiting is common after surgery under general anaesthesia and some people have used aromatherapy to address this. But more research is needed to show if aromatherapy can help.

Risks of aromatherapy

In general, aromatherapy appears to be safe if you use the oils in the right way. But it’s important to handle essential oils carefully and always dilute them according to the instructions on the bottle or leaflet. Keep them out of the reach of children and pets because they can be toxic if you swallow them.

In general, you can’t use any neat essential oil on your skin, although most people can safely use lavender and tea tree oil – ask your aromatherapist which ones you can use. It’s also important not to swallow oils or put them inside your body, such as in your eye, or inside your nostril or ear.

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

  • feeling sick
  • a headache
  • allergic reactions, such as a rash on your skin

Some oils, particularly those from citrus plants, react with ultraviolet light and can cause a skin reaction. Don’t go out in the sun after you use these oils on your skin, and always follow your aromatherapist’s advice on how to use them.

Ask your aromatherapist to explain how these risks apply to you, and any steps you can take to reduce these risks.

Aromatherapy and medicines

Some essential oils may either reduce or enhance the effects of certain conventional medicines. For example, they can affect antibiotics, antihistamines and sedatives. If you're taking any medicine, let your aromatherapist know. You might also wish to talk to your pharmacist. Remember that aromatherapy is a complementary therapy, so don’t use it instead of any medical treatment you might need.

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 aromatherapy massage. Aromatherapy is voluntarily regulated – this means anyone can work as an aromatherapist, regardless of their training. So, it’s important to choose someone who has met recognised standards.

You can find a registered aromatherapist on the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) website (see our section: Other helpful websites). The CNHC is the UK voluntary regulator for complementary healthcare. Aromatherapists on this register have demonstrated that they meet UK standards and abide by the CNHC’s code of conduct, ethics and performance.

Aromatherapy is widely available. Some aromatherapists practise at home, others provide treatments in clinics, hospitals, care homes and hospices.

The price of aromatherapy varies depending on how many treatment sessions you have. You should discuss costs with your aromatherapist and plan treatment together.

Using aromatherapy at home

Before you use essential oils at home, get advice from your pharmacist or a registered aromatherapist to be sure you’re using them safely. If you do decide to use aromatherapy at home, you’ll need to dilute the oils. You can:

  • put a few drops in your bath
  • add them to steaming water to breathe in the vapour
  • add oils to an aromatherapy diffuser or vaporiser
  • add them to unperfumed creams

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

Make sure you buy essential oils from a reputable source and always store the oils in their original packaging in a cool, dark place. Treat them as you would conventional medicines and keep them out of the reach of children.

Frequently asked questions

  • Inhaling essential oil vapours is generally safe and has a very low level of risk to most people.

    Inhaling high levels of essential oil vapour for an hour or more may lead to headache, vertigo, nausea and feeling like you’re lacking energy. If you have asthma, it’s probably not a good idea to directly inhale essential oil vapour.

    But for most people, essential oil vapours inhaled during an aromatherapy massage or from an essential oil vaporiser, are unlikely to be dangerous. This is true even in a relatively small room with the door closed and if the oil or mix entirely evaporates.

    Ask your aromatherapist for more information about the risks of inhaling essential oil vapours.

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, July 2019
    Expert reviewer, Dinesh Kotecha, Aromatherapist
    Next review due July 2022