What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy uses essential oils for a wide variety of health concerns, from depression to digestive problems. It may also help with skin conditions, such as psoriasis and dermatitis.

When you inhale an oil’s aroma, it travels to special cells in your nose called olfactory receptors, which send messages to your brain. This triggers hormones that affect body functions, like mood or sleep.

Aromatherapy Basics

Aromatherapy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that uses essential oils to help manage symptoms and boost your mood. It involves breathing in the scents of these oils or applying them to your skin – typically diluted.

Your therapist might use different scents during each session to target your unique symptom. They may also play soothing music. They might ask about your health and medical history before recommending certain oils or aromatherapy techniques. For example, people who have a history of seizures should avoid hyssop oil. And those receiving cancer treatment should not use aromatherapy with oils that contain estrogen-like compounds.

Aromatherapy is generally considered safe for most people. However, it can cause irritation if the oils are used incorrectly or when applied directly to the skin. Some people may have allergic reactions to the oils. This is especially true if you have other health conditions or are pregnant. If this happens, your therapist might recommend trying a different technique or an alternate oil.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that contain the aromatic compounds that give plants their distinctive scent. They can be inhaled, added to a carrier oil for direct application on the skin, and used in household products to clean and sanitize (1, 2).

When inhaled, the molecules in essential oils travel up the nose and interact with scent receptors that send a message to the brain. In addition, when applied directly to the skin, the chemicals in the oils may be absorbed into the bloodstream (3, 4).

Because of their potency and concentrated nature, it’s important to use pure, quality-controlled essential oils that aren’t adulterated or synthetic. Look for a label that includes the botanical name of the plant, a reputable manufacturer, and information on how the oil was harvested and produced.


Using essential oils without adequate dilution can lead to irritation or sensitization of the skin, and can also cause other negative health reactions. For these reasons, it is generally recommended that you never apply undiluted essential oils to the skin.

Dilution is the process of taking a higher concentration solution and adding water to it in order to make it lower. This process is often used in science, such as chemistry and microbiology. Serial dilutions are common in these areas, as each successive dilution is made with the same ratio, resulting in an exponential decrease in the concentration.

Aromatherapy massage, body and facial oils are typically made up of a mixture of cold pressed vegetable or infused oils. These oils can include jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), sweet almond (Prunus dulcis) and grapeseed (Vitis vinifera).


Aromatherapy can help children relax, reduce anxiety and get a good night’s sleep. However, it’s important to use oils sparingly and properly to avoid toxicity and allergies.

Essential oils are highly concentrated and can be toxic if not used correctly. Always dilute with a carrier oil and do a skin patch test before using. Don’t put oil directly on your face, especially around the eyes, because it may cause irritation or make you more sensitive to sunlight.

Never apply essential oils near your genitals, mouth or nose and don’t ingest them. Some essential oils, like wormwood, pennyroyal and wintergreen, are toxic when ingested and should be avoided.

Pregnant women should avoid massages or aromatherapy in general because it’s not yet known whether essential oils will safely cross the placenta to reach the fetus. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recommends avoiding aromatherapy during pregnancy until further research is available.