What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy uses essential oils, which are highly concentrated, fragrant plant oils. They can be used in many ways, including a diffuser, dry evaporation (aroma sticks) or steam inhalation.

Aromatherapy is also used by massage therapists, beauticians, nurses, physiotherapists and doctors. Some of the benefits claimed by advocates include relieving depression, indigestion, headaches and reducing stress.

How it works

Aromatherapy uses essential oils (concentrates extracted from parts of plants such as seeds, flowers and bark) that are inhaled or diluted and applied to the skin for health benefits. It is based on the idea that scents can affect our emotions and our physical well-being.

For example, frankincense oil (also known as olibanum) is said to promote mental clarity and focus. It also boosts immunity and reduces pain. It’s derived from the resin of the Boswellia carterii tree, which is indigenous to Somalia and Iran.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used aromatic spices and herbs to improve their lives, according to Kelly Fowler, an aromatherapist and an instructor at the Soma Institute in Chicago. But it wasn’t until the 1900s that science began to support the healing properties of plants. French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse coined the term “aromatherapy” in 1928, and by the 1950s, massage therapists and nurses were using it to help patients heal from burns, wounds, gangrene and infections.


Aromatherapy uses extracts from flowers, herbs, and trees to improve physical health and mental well-being. When inhaled or applied to the skin, they stimulate certain areas of the brain and can cause specific effects.

Some oils, such as sage, lavender, and jasmine, are known to reduce depression. They are not recommended as a stand-alone treatment for depression, however, and should be used as a complementary therapy to professional counseling and treatment.

Citrus oils have been shown to help restore stress-induced immunosuppression and normalize neuroendocrine hormone levels. Lavender oil is particularly good for relaxing and promoting sleep. It can be incorporated into a massage or added to a bath. Alternatively, a pre-mixed blend of oils can be purchased and applied to pressure points on the wrists or forehead with a rollerball. A certified holistic aromatherapist can create a customized blend for specific needs. It’s important to use high-quality, 100 percent pure essential oils and avoid those containing synthetic ingredients or additives.

Side effects

The use of aromatic oils in medicine dates back more than 2,500 years. Hippocrates recommended aromatic baths, and in the 1800s French and German medical professors used botanical extracts in studies. Aromatherapy with essential oils was popularized by Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who studied the healing properties of lavender oil. Today, many beauty therapists, nurses, physiotherapists, and doctors offer aromatherapy.

The side effects of aromatherapy are usually mild and short-lived, but they can vary depending on the type of oil and how it is used. Some people may have a rash or asthma from some of the oils. It is important to dilute the oils with water or a massage oil, and avoid putting them near your eyes. It is also important to avoid ingesting the oils, as they can be toxic if swallowed.

People with high blood pressure should avoid stimulating oils, such as rosemary and spike lavender. Oils containing estrogen-like compounds, such as fennel, aniseed, and sage, should be avoided by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some essential oils can interfere with the action of certain medications, so it is important to tell a trained aromatherapist if you are taking any medicines.


Essential oils contain chemical compounds that can have a variety of side effects, some of which can be toxic. It is important to understand these properties when applying aromatherapy. This is especially true for nurses who might use aromatherapy for symptom management or for critical care. Common safety considerations include flammability, dermatitis, phototoxicity and oral toxicity. The vapors or ingestion of certain oils can trigger asthma and can be dangerous for people with high blood pressure, as they can raise heart rate. Some oil compounds may act as estrogen, so a woman who is pregnant should not use them.

A trained aromatherapist, nurse, physical therapist, doctor or massage therapist can provide proper guidance for using these products. This helps reduce the risks and increases the benefits. It is also important to follow product instructions carefully. For example, the oils should never be applied neat to the skin and must be diluted with a carrier oil or base lotion before use. It is also important to be aware that some essential oils can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight.