Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to improve your health or well-being. You may apply essential oils (properly diluted) to your skin through techniques like massage. Or, you may choose to inhale the aroma by creating a facial steam or using an essential oil diffuser. Possible benefits include reduced anxiety and improved sleep quality.

Overview

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It uses essential oils to manage symptoms or boost your well-being. It’s a holistic therapy, meaning it supports your whole self — mind, body and spirit. Aromatherapy involves inhaling essential oils or applying them (diluted) to your skin.

People around the world have used aromatherapy for centuries. In the U.S., aromatherapy often complements other treatments for people with conditions like anxiety. People also use aromatherapy to maintain wellness and feel better in general.

Healthcare providers who specialize in CAM or integrative medicine provide aromatherapy services in their offices or clinics. You can also use aromatherapy on your own, but it’s important to learn proper techniques for doing so. Talk to a healthcare provider before starting aromatherapy to learn how to do it right and make sure it’s safe for you.

How does aromatherapy work?

When inhaled, aromatherapy stimulates your nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves). This means aromatherapy starts a chain reaction of signals to your brain and chemical responses throughout your body. This activity begins once you start smelling an essential oil.

Essential oils (like all substances that smell) release tiny molecules into the air. When you inhale an essential oil, those molecules move into your nose. Special cells in your nose called olfactory receptors notice the molecules are there. In response, they send messages to your brain through your olfactory nerve.

These messages stimulate activity in your hypothalamus and your brain’s limbic system. Your limbic system is a group of structures (including the amygdala) that help control your emotions and store your memories. Your brain then releases hormones like:

These hormones help regulate many body functions like mood, sleep and digestion. The release of these hormones can help you in various ways, like lowering anxiety and reducing your perception of pain.

Researchers continue to investigate how aromatherapy affects your body.

What conditions are treated with aromatherapy?

There’s evidence that aromatherapy may help you manage:

Some research shows aromatherapy may help relieve dementia symptoms (like issues with behavior, thinking and mood). But other studies show no benefit. As a result, a review published in 2020 concluded there’s not enough evidence to show aromatherapy can help people with dementia.

You might hear aromatherapy can help with a specific condition you have. If so, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider. They have access to the latest research, and they can help you learn if aromatherapy has possible benefits for you.

Aromatherapy for anxiety

Aromatherapy may help manage anxiety, according to many studies. It seems most helpful in treating state anxiety, or an emotional state you feel when you perceive yourself as facing stress or danger. State anxiety is temporary and happens because of a specific situation you’re in. People sometimes feel it during medical situations. For example, you might feel state anxiety when you’re:

  • Having a test, like an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
  • About to go into surgery.
  • In labor.

Some research shows aromatherapy may also help with other forms of anxiety, including trait anxiety. This is a tendency to feel anxious that’s more constant in your life, and not something you only feel in certain situations. For example, trait anxiety can be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. People living with chronic diseases might also experience anxiety on a more regular basis.

Your healthcare provider can tell you more about the possible benefits of aromatherapy in your unique situation.

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What are aromatherapy oils?

Aromatherapy oils, or essential oils, are highly concentrated plant extracts. They come from various parts of plants, including flowers, stems and leaves. Manufacturers use different processes to remove these oils, like distillation and cold press. Many pounds of plant materials go into one small bottle of essential oil.

What are carrier oils?

Carrier oils, also called base oils or fixed oils, are substances made from plants. Their chemical makeup is different from that of essential oils. They don’t have a strong smell, and they don’t evaporate like essential oils do.

Carrier oils are a vehicle for safely getting essential oils into your body. People dilute essential oils in carrier oils. Because essential oils are so potent, you usually use a much higher percentage of carrier oil compared to essential oil. Carrier oils contain many ingredients that are good for your skin. These include antioxidants and essential fatty acids.

Here are just a few examples of carrier oils:

  • Coconut oil.
  • Rosehip oil.
  • Grapeseed oil.
  • Sweet almond oil.

Procedure Details

What are the techniques for aromatherapy?

Common techniques include:

  • Inhalation. There are many ways to inhale essential oils. You might create a facial steam by adding an essential oil to a bowl of hot water (up to six drops per ounce of water). Then, lean over the bowl with your eyes closed and breathe in. You may also choose to use a diffuser to spread the scent throughout your room or home. Be sure to follow the instructions on the specific diffuser you buy.
  • Aromatherapy massage. A qualified practitioner can give you a massage with lotion or oil containing essential oils. You may also choose to use massage at home. You should only use properly diluted essential oil. For massage, dilute your essential oil so it’s concentrated at about 1%.
  • Bath. You may choose to add essential oils to your bath. You should always mix the essential oil with a carrier oil (like jojoba oil) or dispersant (like solubol) first. Undiluted essential oil won’t mix in with your bath water, and it may irritate your skin.

Tips for using essential oils in aromatherapy

Essential oils are powerful substances. They come from nature but can still harm you if you don’t use them properly. Here’s some advice for using them safely:

  • Always dilute essential oils before putting them on your skin. This means you mix an essential oil with another substance, like a carrier oil or unscented lotion. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy offers guidance on proper dilution (how many drops of essential oil to add to another substance). You should never apply essential oil directly to your body from the bottle. You also shouldn’t add drops directly from the bottle to your bath.
  • Don’t use or store essential oils near open flames. They’re flammable, meaning they can easily catch fire when exposed to a flame.
  • Don’t drink or otherwise consume essential oils. It’s not safe to drink essential oils or add drops to tea or water.
  • Keep essential oils away from children and pets. These oils are toxic in large amounts. Make sure the bottles are tightly sealed. Store them out of reach of children, pets and anyone in your household who might unknowingly consume them.

Aromatherapy oils and other products are easy to find online and in stores. However, their ease of access may falsely suggest anyone can do aromatherapy and reap the same benefits. Talking to a healthcare provider before you start can help avoid common pitfalls. Your provider will also help you select high-quality essential oils that have the greatest chance of helping you.

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Risks / Benefits

What are some potential aromatherapy benefits?

Aromatherapy may help you manage stress, anxiety and other health issues that affect your daily life. Many people choose aromatherapy because it:

  • Uses natural, plant-based products.
  • Can be tailored to your preferences (for example, the specific scents you enjoy).
  • Can be used along with other treatment methods, like psychotherapy.

What are the risks of aromatherapy?

There are many different essential oils available. Each one has unique risks based on the plant it comes from and its chemical makeup. A healthcare provider can tell you more about the risks of specific essential oils and help choose the best ones for you.

In general, possible risks of using essential oils on your skin include:

  • Skin irritation.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis.
  • Skin discoloration when you’re exposed to sunlight (photosensitivity).

The risks are low when you use essential oils properly (for example, when you dilute them in carrier oils). Some essential oils have a higher risk of irritating your skin because they contain higher levels of natural chemicals called phenols. Examples include clove oil and cinnamon bark oil.

Talk to a healthcare provider before using aromatherapy in any form if you:

  • Are pregnant or could become pregnant. Aromatherapy is generally safe during pregnancy. But your provider may tell you to avoid certain essential oils or techniques.
  • Have any diagnosed medical conditions. Aromatherapy may not be safe for people with certain conditions like epilepsy, asthma and some skin conditions.
  • Take prescription medication. Aromatherapy uses natural, plant-based products, but those still can interact with medications. Just as you should talk to your provider before taking herbal supplements, you should also tell them about any plans to use aromatherapy. They’ll make sure it’s safe for you. Also, keep in mind that aromatherapy doesn’t replace medication, and you should never stop taking a medication without talking to your healthcare provider first.
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Recovery and Outlook

Does aromatherapy work?

The evidence is mixed and depends on the context. Some studies show aromatherapy is effective in certain situations, like managing anxiety or insomnia. Other studies conclude aromatherapy doesn’t help with certain symptoms. For example, a study published in 2022 finds aromatherapy doesn’t reduce symptoms of depression in people with cancer.

In some cases, researchers conclude there’s not enough evidence to say aromatherapy works or doesn’t work. For example, a review published in 2018 looks at the role of aromatherapy in easing nausea and vomiting after surgery. It concludes aromatherapy may help, but there’s not enough evidence to say for sure.

You might wonder why the findings can be so different. There are several reasons:

  • Combined therapies. Some researchers combine aromatherapy with other therapies (like massage or music therapy). So, it’s not always clear if the essential oils have benefits on their own.
  • Research methods. Different studies use different methods, so it can be hard to compare their results. For example, one study might examine the effects of aromatherapy on people with cancer, while another might look at aromatherapy in labor and delivery. Studies also use different types of essential oils (like lavender vs. lemon) or use them for different amounts of time.
  • Essential oil quality. Even studies that use the same type of essential oil might still have different results because of the quality of the oil. The chemical makeup of a specific oil can vary based on where the plant grows and how people extract the oil from the plant. Storage methods also play a role. Essential oils can break down over time from exposure to air, sun and heat.
  • Expectation bias. This is when a person in a study believes a certain result will happen. For example, you might believe lavender essential oil will help you relax. So, in a study, you’d perceive yourself as calmer and less anxious even if the oil didn’t cause changes in your body. In research, it’s hard to erase this tendency.
  • Individual factors. Researchers can’t control all the factors that influence how essential oils affect a person. For example, your age and skin health help determine how your body responds to aromatherapy. It’s hard to predict these factors in research or level the playing field to make effective comparisons.
  • Small sample sizes. Many aromatherapy studies use small groups of people to draw their conclusions. This sometimes means the results can’t represent aromatherapy’s effects in larger populations.
  • Lack of research. In some cases, there isn’t enough evidence to prove aromatherapy’s benefits for certain conditions or groups of people. Researchers continue to design new studies to get more information on how aromatherapy can help you.

When To Call the Doctor

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Essential oils can sometimes irritate your skin, especially if they’re not diluted enough. Call your healthcare provider if you notice signs of skin irritation or allergy. Your skin may look red, discolored or blotchy. You should also call your provider if you notice changes to the color of your skin after being out in the sun. Your provider may advise you to stop using the essential oil that caused the problem or dilute it further before use.

A more serious situation is when children or others drink essential oils from the bottle (or otherwise consume them). If this happens, call a poison control center immediately. They’ll advise you on what to do.

Additional Common Questions

What are aromatherapy candles?

Aromatherapy candles are products you can buy that may help you relax. Some aromatherapy candles are made with essential oils but often contain other ingredients, too. Candles, along with other products like soaps, lotions and bath bombs, might smell good and improve your mood. However, some professional organizations (like the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists) don’t view the use of such products as aromatherapy treatment.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Aromatherapy appeals to many people because it’s natural. But just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. Aromatherapy certainly can be safe, and it may improve how you feel, but only if it’s done correctly.

The best way to get started with aromatherapy is to talk to a healthcare provider who delivers complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). They’ll explain the benefits and risks of aromatherapy for you based on your medical history and current health status. They can provide aromatherapy massage and other forms of care in their office while also teaching you how to use aromatherapy at home.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/21/2023.

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