What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a holistic healing practice in which natural oils are used to support health and wellbeing. It is widely practiced by massage therapists, nurses, physiotherapists and doctors.

When inhaled, the molecules of essential oil reach the olfactory system and send messages to the brain. This can help relieve stress and anxiety.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that can be used in aromatherapy. They are found in many types of fragrant plants, including flowers, herbs, and trees. You can inhale essential oil, apply it to your skin with a carrier oil, or ingest them (although the latter is not recommended). Research on the use of aromatherapy with cancer patients shows that some scents may help improve mood, relieve anxiety and nausea, and boost your immune system.

Inhaling essential oils stimulates the olfactory nerve that connects to your brain, which sends signals that can influence emotions and physical well-being. Different oils have different scents and mind-body effects, such as calming, energizing, or promoting sleep. Some can even help ease headaches and enhance massage therapy. It’s important to choose a high-quality, pure, and therapeutic-grade oil. Some undiluted oils can be irritating, especially when applied to the skin or near your eyes. Others can be toxic if taken orally, and some are phototoxic, which means they may cause a reaction when exposed to sunlight.

How do I use essential oils?

You can use essential oils in a variety of ways, such as breathing them for their scent or putting them on your skin. But it’s important to remember that these are highly concentrated natural extracts that shouldn’t be ingested or touched directly on the skin without a carrier oil (like jojoba oil, sweet almond oil, avocado oil or grapeseed oil).

It’s also important to use high-quality oils and only apply a small amount — too much can actually have negative health effects. The best way to find a good oil is to buy one that’s labeled as ‘for aromatherapy’ or ‘for external use only,’ Nelson says.

Because each oil has a different chemical makeup, it can affect each person differently. So if you have any concerns, it’s best to speak with an aromatherapist or another trained professional, such as a nurse, doctor, physical therapist or massage therapist, before using these products, Johns Hopkins Medicine reports.

What are the benefits of aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy can help reduce anxiety and stress, boost mood and sleep, ease coughs or colds, relieve nausea and indigestion, improve the skin, relieve headaches and menopause symptoms, and more.

Inhaling the scent of essential oils may work by stimulating smell receptors in your nose, sending messages through your nervous system to your brain that influence emotions and behavior. Applied to the skin, essential oil chemicals may be absorbed through the skin and enter your bloodstream, where they can affect certain body functions like your hormone production.

Various studies suggest that aromatherapy may help or not help with different symptoms, but more research is needed. People with certain health conditions should avoid certain oils, such as eucalyptus and spruce oil for respiratory issues, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use essential oils that have estrogen-like properties, including lavender and tea tree oil. Other risks include airborne contact dermatitis and phototoxicity (sensitivity to sunlight). Talk to your healthcare provider before trying aromatherapy.

What are the risks of aromatherapy?

Although many essential oils are safe when used as directed, some may cause reactions, such as skin irritation or allergic responses. Before applying a pure essential oil directly to the skin, it is usually diluted with another substance, such as unscented lotion or jojoba oil. It’s important to buy high-quality oils from a reputable source. Oils aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so they aren’t subject to the same rigorous testing as pharmaceutical drugs.

Some aromatherapy products at large retailers or chain drugstores contain synthetic fragrance chemicals instead of actual essential oils, Squires says. It’s best to use a certified aromatherapist, who can guide you in the selection and application of therapeutic oils. Talk to your doctor before trying any new therapy, including aromatherapy, especially if you’re receiving chemotherapy or have a medical condition like high blood pressure or epilepsy. This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals was developed by the PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board, which is independent of the National Cancer Institute (NIH). It does not represent NCI policy.