All About Aromatherapy: Uses, Health Benefits, and Risks

Medically Reviewed By Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT
Was this helpful?
4

Aromatherapy uses essential oils to alleviate certain physical conditions and manage general well-being. Inhaling or absorbing essential oils into the skin are the two most popular aromatherapy methods. Essential oils come from various parts of a plant, including the flowers, leaves, seeds, and woods. The oils contain the “essence” of the plant’s fragrance.

This article will explain aromatherapy and essential oils and the benefits, risks, and safety precautions to consider. It also lists essential oils and their benefits and discusses aromatherapy options.

Essential oils

Research suggests essential oils may offer some benefits. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor these oils for purity and quality. Always discuss new products with your doctor and thoroughly research the brand before using them. 

Aromatherapy and essential oils explained

oil diffuser on table in bedroom
Martí Sans/Stocksy United

Essential oils come from steam distillation or mechanical cold press of the plant or part of the plant. As such, essential oils consist of hundreds of various molecules. Some of which produce the oil’s scent.

Aromatherapy is a complementary health approach. Common aromatherapy methods include massaging or inhaling diluted forms of the oils.

With inhalation, your olfactory system senses the molecules and produces a physiological response via a complex interaction between your brain and body systems. A 2021 article notes essential oils exert effects through your respiratory system as well.

People use aromatherapy to improve their spiritual, mental, and physical well-being, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). People with cancer use it to improve their quality of life.

Evidence for aromatherapy benefits

Many use aromatherapy, a common and historical practice worldwide, to heal various health concerns. But what does the evidence say regarding the benefits of aromatherapy?

Digestive symptoms 

According to a clinical aromatherapy review in The Nursing Clinics of North America and a 2021 review of spearmint in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, essential oils may:

  • relieve trapped gas  
  • stimulate and support digestion 
  • limit inflammation
  • relax muscles 

Insomnia, depression, or anxiety

There is some evidence that aromatherapy may:

  • reduce anxiety 
  • relieve headache
  • have a sedative effect 

Pain 

Essential oils and aromatherapy may help:

  • heal wounds and burns
  • relax the uterus 
  • calm the nervous system, which mediates the sensation of pain

More specifically, aromatherapy is beneficial for painful menstruation and physical symptoms during labor and delivery, according to a systematic research review prepared for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cancer symptoms 

The NCI says that some, but not all, studies show that aromatherapy has positive effects on:

  • sleep
  • appetite
  • well-being
  • tiredness
  • nausea
  • mood
  • anxiety
  • pain

High blood pressure

The VA review concludes there is research support for a potential positive effect of aromatherapy on hypertension.

Essential oils

Below is a table that lists a few of the benefits of several essential oils from plants, leaves, flowers, and woods. This information is from a review in The Nursing Clinics of North America.

Seeds and plants Reported benefits 
sweet fennelanti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, relieves gas, relaxes muscles
cardamomantimicrobial, reduces digestive discomfort 
Stems, leaves, and needles
cistusboosts immune system, heals wounds
eucalyptustreats wounds and burns, relieves nasal congestion and asthma
rosemaryanti-inflammatory, relieves pain, relaxes muscles, heals wounds
Petals and flowers 
sagecalms nervous system, anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, stimulates blood flow
geraniumreduces anxiety, encourages relaxation, anti-inflammatory
lavenderlowers blood pressure and anxiety, sedative, calms nerves, relieves pain
jasmineantidepressant, aphrodisiac, calms nerves
Rinds and fruits
lemonboosts immunity, reduces anxiety, antimicrobial
sweet orangerelieves pain, antimicrobial, reduces odor, reduces anxiety
juniper berryrelieves pain, anti-inflammatory, reduces nasal congestion
Woods and resins 
cedarwood antimicrobial, reduces congestion
sandalwoodantimicrobial, antidepressant, calms the nervous system 
frankincensereduces anxiety, heals wounds, antidepressant

Ways to practice aromatherapy

Common methods include:

  • Indirect inhalation: You can add the oil to room diffusers or apply a few drops on a tissue, pillowcase, or piece of clothing. Other options include aromatherapy candles, room fresheners, or wearing an aromatherapy bracelet or pendant.
  • Direct inhalation: There is anecdotal use of individual vaporizer masks to inhale essential oils directly. Other options include a nasal stick or breathing the oil from the steam from a water bowl.
  • Absorption through the skin: Dilute essential oils for massage, in bath salts, lotions, water therapies, soaps, shampoos, and detergents.

For massage, dilute 12–18 drops in 1 ounce of massage oil or lotion, according to the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA), an aromatherapy advocacy group.

Risks of aromatherapy

The use of essential oils can be harmful and potentially fatal. Misuse can lead to:

  • poisoning
  • chemical burns
  • a lung infection, known as chemical pneumonitis  
  • problems during pregnancy 

Infectious diseases and aromatherapy

Although not common, essential oils and related products can become contaminated with bacteria or other microorganisms. In 2021, a small number of people became ill after using a commercial aromatherapy spray that had bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Precautions with aromatherapy

When using essential oils, be sure to read the labels and use this guidance:

  • Use pure essential oil: Buy essential oils that state they are a “pure essential oil.” They are often sold in dark amber bottles. Pure essential oils are more expensive than diluted oils, have a more intense smell, and disappear rapidly when placed on paper. Avoid essential oil products that state on the label they are “perfumed” or “fragranced.”  
  • Dilute oils when necessary: If oils are not diluted, they can irritate and damage your skin. Do not apply diluted essential oils to broken or irritated skin. Dilute 12–18 drops in 1 ounce of massage oil or lotion for adults with no health issues. Use about 6 drops in 1 ounce for:
    • children 6 years and older
    • pregnant people
    • older adults
    • skin care
  • Use safely: Take into consideration the best way to use the essential oil. For instance, if you are in a small room, you may need less oil. In general, you should not eat or drink any essential oils. How you use them will depend on the oil you are using and what you are using it for.
  • Consider age: If using essential oils on a child, use a smaller amount and dilute the oil more than you would for an adult. Some oils are not suitable for infants and children. 
  • Store safely: Keep essential oils out of sight and reach of children. Store oils in their original bottle.

Always read the instructions before using an essential oil. If pregnant or breastfeeding or chestfeeding, seek advice from a qualified health professional before using.

Frequently asked questions

Kerry Boyle, D.AC. reviewed the following questions.

What is the difference between aromatherapy and essential oils?

Essential oils are made from plants. The oils have health and wellness benefits. Aromatherapy uses essential oils through either massage or inhalation to manage or prevent various symptoms. Some people use it for spiritual reasons and for general well-being.

Who should you see for aromatherapy?

If you would like aromatherapy guidance, consider contacting a professional aromatherapy organization, such as the AIA.

No formal qualification is necessary to practice aromatherapy. For this reason, choose a licensed healthcare professional who has voluntarily pursued certification in aromatherapy or a related discipline. They should have documented education, training, and experience. You could also ask your doctor for guidance in selecting an aromatherapist.

Summary

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to manage or prevent various symptoms and conditions, such as anxiety, and to enhance well-being. The main way people use essential oils in aromatherapy is by indirect inhalation. Evidence shows that aromatherapy can help relieve some types of pain. Aromatherapy also has positive effects on sleep and stress.

Essential oils and aromatherapy involve some risks. Use pure essential oils and keep them in the original container until ready to use. Follow the instructions before using, and seek medical advice when necessary. 

Was this helpful?
4
Medical Reviewer: Kerry Boyle D.Ac., M.S., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., CYT
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 16
View All Lifestyle and Wellness Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Aromatherapy. (2020). https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/aromatherapy
  2. Aromatherapy. (n.d.). https://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/Aromatherapy/aromatherapy-safety#internal
  3. Aromatherapy with essential oils. (2022). https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/aromatherapy-pdq
  4. CDC identifies rare bacteria in aromatherapy product. (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/p1022-aromatherapy-bacteria.html
  5. Farrar, A. J., et al. (2020). Clinical aromatherapy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7520654/
  6. Freeman, M., et al. (2019). Aromatherapy and essential oils. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551017/
  7. Fung, T. K. H., et al. (2021). Therapeutic effect and mechanisms of essential oils in mood disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8125361/
  8. Peterfalvi, A., et al. (2019). Much more than a pleasant scent. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6943609/
  9. Ramsey, J. T., et al. (2020). Essential oils and health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7309671/