Other common name(s): holistic aromatherapy, aromatic medicine
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Aromatherapy is the use of fragrant substances, called essential oils, to alter mood or improve health. These highly concentrated aromatic substances are either inhaled or applied to the skin. Essential oils are distilled from plants, and approximately forty are commonly used in aromatherapy; among the most popular are lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, chamomile, marjoram, jasmine, peppermint, lemon, ylang ylang, and geranium.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that aromatherapy is effective in preventing or treating cancer, but its use may enhance quality of life. Early clinical trials suggest aromatherapy may have some benefit as a complementary treatment in reducing stress, pain, nausea, and depression.
How is it promoted for use?
Aromatherapy is promoted as a natural way to help patients cope with stress, chronic pain, nausea, and depression and to produce a feeling of well-being. Proponents also claim aromatherapy can help relieve bacterial infections; stimulate the immune system; fight colds, flu, and sore throats; improve urine production; increase circulation; and cure cystitis, herpes simplex, acne, headaches, indigestion, premenstrual syndrome, muscle tension, and even cancer. Fragrances from different oils are promoted to have specific health benefits. For example, lavender oil is promoted to relieve muscle tension, anxiety, and insomnia.
There are different ideas as to how aromatherapy may work. Scent receptors in the nose are known to send chemical messages through the olfactory nerve to the brain’s limbic region, which influences emotional responses, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. Some proponents say these connections explain the effects of essential oils’ smells. The effects may partly depend on a person’s previous associations or recalled experiences with a particular scent. Others say the oils are absorbed directly into the system through the skin.
What does it involve?
Aromatherapy is either self-administered or administered by a practitioner. Many aromatherapists in the United States are trained as massage therapists, psychologists, social workers, or chiropractors and use the oils as part of their practices.
The essential oils can be used individually or in combination and may be inhaled or applied to the skin. For inhalation, a few drops of the essential oil are placed in steaming water, atomizers, or humidifiers that are used to spread the water vapor and oil combination throughout the room. Sometimes the oils are placed in a heatproof dish over a candle or other flame to diffuse the scent.
Essential oils can be applied to the skin during massage, or they can be added to bathwater. For application to the skin, the oils are combined with another substance (a carrier), usually vegetable oil. Some essential oils can sometimes be used directly on the skin. Oils may also be used to make salves, creams, and compresses. Some people also apply drops of certain essential oils to their pillows.
What is the history behind it?
Use of aromatic, perfumed oils dates back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, China, and India. In Egypt, such oils were used after bathing and for embalming mummies. Thousands of years ago the Chinese compiled an encyclopedia of information on the uses of plants, herbs, and different types of wood. In ancient India, aromatic massage was part of Ayurvedic medicine. In addition, the Greeks and Romans used fragrant oils for both medicinal and cosmetic purposes. However, it was the medieval physician Avicenna who first extracted these oils from plants.
René Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, originated modern aromatherapy and even the term itself. After burning his hand in a laboratory accident, he used lavender oil to soothe the pain. His hand healed quickly with no scar, and he attributed this outcome to the lavender oil. He published his first thesis, titled "Aromatherapie," in 1928 and published a book under the same title in 1937. Aromatherapy was revived in the 1960s by French homeopaths Dr. and Mme. Maury. In the 1980s, aromatherapy began to grow in popularity in the United States. It is fairly well-established in England, France, Switzerland, and New Zealand.
What is the evidence?
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that aromatherapy cures or prevents disease; however, a few clinical studies suggest aromatherapy may be a helpful complementary therapy. In Britain, there are reports of the successful use of aromatherapy massage in people who have cancer to reduce anxiety, depression, tension, and pain. However, some studies show no difference in outcome between massage with aromatherapy oils and massage without them. There are also reports that breathing the vapors of peppermint, ginger, and cardamom oil seems to relieve the nausea caused by chemotherapy and radiation. However, these claims are not supported by available scientific evidence. Laboratory studies suggest that the oils can affect organ function, although whether this can be useful is not yet clear.
Clinical research on aromatherapy is in its infancy. Early trials suggest aromatherapy may help patients cope with chronic pain, stress, nausea, and depression.
In one controlled clinical trial, inhaling the vapors from black pepper extract reduced the craving for tobacco and improved participants’ moods. In a second controlled trial, the use of citrus fragrance by twelve depressed patients made it possible to reduce the amount of antidepressant medicine they needed.
Another study of aromatherapy suggested that the scent changed a person’s memory of pain, even though the patient’s perception of the pain’s severity while it was happening did not change. There was no difference between the aromatherapy group's and control group's pain ratings during a procedure, but after the fact, the aromatherapy group reported that the event was less distressing overall than the control group did.
There is also some evidence that the power of suggestion may explain at least part of the effect of aromatherapy. For example, in one study, the salt water placebo was just as effective in reducing nausea as the essential oil. In another study, the oils were more likely to produce the effect about which the subjects were told, regardless of whether it was the normally predicted effect. Several controlled studies using essential oils have shown no measurable effect.
In a randomized clinical trial of patients with bald patches on their scalp or skin, a daily scalp massage with essential oils was shown to be a safe and effective treatment for hair loss resulting from alopecia areata, a condition in which the patient’s immune system damages the hair follicles. This treatment has not been evaluated as a treatment for hair loss related to cancer treatments. Other laboratory and animal studies have looked at the ability of essential oils to kill or control certain germs and viruses when the oil is placed in direct contact with the germ.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Aromatherapy is generally safe. However, essential oils usually should not be taken internally as many of them are poisonous. Some oils can cause an allergic reaction. Some may cause irritation if applied undiluted to the skin. Aromatherapy oils have been reported as causing headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Anderson LA, Gross JB. Aromatherapy with peppermint, isopropyl alcohol, or placebo is equally effective in relieving postoperative nausea. J Perianesth Nurs. 2004;19:29-35.
Buckle J. Use of aromatherapy as a complementary treatment for chronic pain. Altern Ther Health Med. 1999;5:42-51.
Campenni CE, Crawley EJ, Meier ME. Role of suggestion in odor-induced mood change. Psychol Rep. 2004;94:1127-1136.
Cawthorn A. A review of the literature surrounding the research into aromatherapy. Complement Ther Nurs Midwifery. 1995;1:118-120.
Cerrato PL. Aromatherapy: is it for real? RN. 1998;61:51-52.
Ernst E, ed. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. New York: Mosby; 2001.
Fellowes D, Barnes K, Wilkinson S. Aromatherapy and massage for symptom relief in patients with cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;(2):CD002287.
Gedney JJ, Glover TL, Fillingim RB. Sensory and affective pain discrimination after inhalation of essential oils. Psychosom Med. 2004;66:599-606.
Hay IC, Jamieson M, Ormerod AD. Randomized trial of aromatherapy. Successful treatment for alopecia areata. Arch Dermatol. 1998;134:1349-1352.
Komori T, Fujiwara R, Tanida M, Nomura J, Yokoyama MM. Effects of citrus fragrance on immune function and depressive states. Neuroimmunomodulation. 1995;2:174-180.
Nelson NJ. Scents or nonsense: aromatherapy’s benefits still subject to debate. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1997;89:1334-1336.
Rose JE, Behm FM. Inhalation of vapor from black pepper extract reduces smoking withdrawal symptoms. Drug Alcohol Depend. 1994;34:225-229.
Soden K, Vincent K, Craske S, Lucas C, Ashley S. A randomized controlled trial of aromatherapy massage in a hospice setting. Palliat Med. 2004;18:87-92.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 11/01/2008