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. Essences release a unique fragrance when plants are crushed. Examples include lavender oil and rosemary oil.
You can absorb some essential oils through your skin, or they can have an effect on you through your sense of smell. Here are just some of the ways essential oils are used.
- Oils can be diluted with a carrier oil (such as almond 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) some oils.
- You can add oils to an aromatherapy diffuser or vaporiser.
Certain essential oils aren’t appropriate for everyone, especially if you have:
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- sensitive skin
- some types of cancer
Let your aromatherapist know if you have any of these health conditions. If you’re pregnant, ask them if it’s safe for you to have aromatherapy too, as 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. Your GP may be able to offer some advice on aromatherapy, but not always.
When you smell essential oils, it stimulates your olfactory system. This is the part of your brain that’s connected to smell. Some research suggests that certain essential oils may have an effect on your mood, which can make you feel relaxed or stimulated. The specialist massage often used to apply oils to your skin is also likely to have a relaxing effect.
Aromatherapy is used to help a variety of symptoms and conditions. It’s sometimes used by people with long-lasting pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia. Other things aromatherapy is used for include feeling sick after surgery, cancer, dementia, and pain during labour, but the evidence if it works varies. For more information, see ‘How well does aromatherapy work?’
You can buy some aromatherapy oils at pharmacies or health shops, or you can be treated by an aromatherapist. Your aromatherapist will talk you through your treatment before it starts. It may differ from what’s described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.
An aromatherapist should have some training in anatomy and physiology, as well as in the use of essential oils and massage. Aromatherapy is voluntarily regulated so 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 Resources below) – 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, while others provide treatments in sports centres and beauty clinics. Aromatherapy is also available in some hospitals, care homes and GP surgeries.
If you visit an aromatherapist, you’ll have a detailed consultation first. Your aromatherapist will ask you questions about your medical history, diet, lifestyle and health problems. You can ask any questions too. It’s important to know that aromatherapists cannot make a medical diagnosis as they aren’t trained to do so. But they can give you advice on a course of aromatherapy treatment.
Your aromatherapist might recommend a single oil or a blend of different oils. They’ll probably massage these essential oils (diluted in a carrier oil) into your skin. A carrier oil is usually extracted from vegetables, nuts or 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 around an hour, to an hour and a half. You might find that one session is enough, or want to continue with regular treatments. Ask your aromatherapist for more information about how long your treatment may last.
The scientific evidence for how well aromatherapy works varies. It’s lacking for some uses, and more research is needed.
- Anxiety. The research suggests that aromatherapy may help relieve anxiety but more studies are needed to know for sure.
- Cancer. If you have cancer, aromatherapy may possibly help to reduce any pain and anxiety you have in the short term. It might also help 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: Cancer and aromatherapy.
- Dementia. The research has looked at whether aromatherapy can help improve symptoms, such as agitation, and quality of life in people with dementia. The results from this research are mixed. As some benefit was found, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that health professionals consider it to treat agitation in dementia.
- Labour pain. Research has also looked at whether aromatherapy can help pain during labour. For more information see FAQ: Labour and aromatherapy.
- Insomnia. Some research has found that aromatherapy can help with insomnia and improve your quality of sleep and how long you can sleep for.
Whether aromatherapy is useful for other conditions, such as depression, is uncertain, because there isn’t enough information from the current research.
In general, aromatherapy appears to be safe. 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 because they can be toxic if you swallow them.
Don't use essential oils (other than lavender and tea tree oil) neat on your skin. It’s also important not to swallow oils or put them inside your body, such as 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 and may 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 your skin to burn more easily in sunlight.
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. If you're taking any medicine, let your aromatherapist know. And remember that aromatherapy is a complementary therapy, so don’t use it instead of any medical treatment you might need.
Get some advice from your pharmacist or a registered aromatherapist before you use essential oils at home to make 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
- 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, safe place. Treat them as you would conventional medicines and keep them out of the reach of children.
Some women find complementary therapies such as aromatherapy helpful during labour, but the evidence to show it works is limited.
There are lots of options for pain relief in labour. These include gas and air, a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine, an epidural and strong painkillers such as morphine.
Although some women decide to use aromatherapy for pain relief during labour, there isn’t enough evidence to prove it works.
If you're considering having aromatherapy to help with labour and birth, it's important to consult a registered aromatherapist. They can advise you on which oils would be best. Let your GP and midwife know that you’re thinking of having aromatherapy too so they can make any necessary arrangements. Some midwives are trained to give aromatherapy during labour.
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 isn’t a treatment or cure for 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 ease short-term pain and anxiety. Other research is looking at how well aromatherapy works for distress, quality of life and other physical symptoms in people with cancer.
Lots of cancer centres and hospitals offer aromatherapy to cancer patients. If you're interested in having aromatherapy, speak to your doctor or nurse about services in your centre or hospital and if it's suitable for you.
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 you book. It usually costs between £50 and £90 for a 60–90-minute session. Essential oils vary in price depending on their quality and on what plants the oils are extracted from.
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- Caesarean section. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, November 2011
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- Welcome to the complementary and natural healthcare council (CNHC). Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council. www.cnhc.org.uk, accessed 2 November 2016
- Cancer and palliative care. Oxford handbook of general practice (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2014
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- Insomnia. Physical aspects of care: nutritional, dermatologic, neurologic and other symptoms (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published June 2015
- Mental health (depression). Aromatherapy Research Council for Complementary Medicine. www.rccm.org.uk, published 27 April 2011
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- Terpene toxicity. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 14 April 2015
- Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, December 2014
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- Why people use complementary or alternative therapies. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, updated 3 October 2014
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, January 2017
Expert reviewer Dinesh Kotecha, Aromatherapist
Next review due January 2020
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