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Aug 06, 2021
5 min read

What is aromatherapy and does it work?

There is something alluring about aromatherapy, the practice of using plant extracts to support mental and physical health. Before you dive in and buy yourself a diffuser, here’s what you should know about aromatherapy.

linnea zielinski

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD

Written by Linnea Zielinski

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Aromatherapy is a growing industry in the United States, but the alternative medicine practice dates back thousands of years. 

Ancient Persians, for example, used essential oils to drive away illness (Maleksabet, 2016). Even Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, supported the use of essential oils for wellness.

Some aromatherapy products claim to treat health conditions abound, although research on that varies. Aromatherapy is a popular complementary therapy, which is used alongside traditional medical treatments (Farrar, 2020). 

Here’s more on aromatherapy and why people use it for things like stress, depression, and sleep.

What is aromatherapy?

There are two ways you can do aromatherapy. One is through topical application, such as a deep massage with essential oils.

The other method is inhalation. You can try this popular wellness practice using a diffuser that disperses the oil in the air with steam, or lightly smelling aromatherapy products directly from a bottle.

When you inhale essential oils, molecules trigger your nervous system to release chemical messengers. Some of these messengers are endorphins (frequently associated with having a “runner’s high”), which dull pain and increase your sense of wellbeing (Farrar, 2020).

Aromatherapy also affects your limbic system, which is responsible for emotions and memory. For this reason, essential oils can have an emotional effect; for example, the smell of lavender could trigger a comforting memory from your childhood (Farrar, 2020).

It’s a little more complicated when you apply essential oils topically. You’ll still breathe in molecules during the aromatherapy, but your skin absorbs a lot before it gets a chance to enter your bloodstream (Farrar, 2020).

Can aromatherapy treat health conditions?

Even if aromatherapy makes you feel better, that doesn’t mean it’s tangibly helping a health issue. 

Studying the effects of essential oils isn’t so straightforward, either. There are many types of essential oils––eucalyptus, orange, frankincense––and each contains various plant chemicals.

These natural chemicals also differ from plant to plant. Processing them into essential oil form can affect the molecules too, so already you can see why it’s a complex thing to study.

Current research evaluating how well essential oils work for various health issues has mixed results. Ultimately, we need more research on the efficacy of aromatherapy before considering it as an actual treatment for medical conditions.

Benefits of aromatherapy

A quick Google search will turn up claims that essential oils help with everything from dandruff to depression. 

However, there is little suggesting aromatherapy works for medical conditions. That being said, aromatherapy may ease symptoms of the following:

Depression: While aromatherapy is not a treatment for depression, it may help alleviate some symptoms. Most research studies testing this used lavender oils and included topical and inhalation aromatherapy (Sánchez-Vidaña, 2017). Another study found that aromatherapy massage was more effective at reducing depression symptoms than a massage without essential oils (Lotfipur Rafsanjani, 2015).

Stress and anxiety: Essential oils aren’t a replacement for any anti-anxiety medication you may be taking, but aromatherapy could help with stress relief. One study found that the practice made participants feel less stressed, although it ultimately didn’t decrease any physical signs of stress (Lee, 2017).

Sleep quality: Aromatherapy may promote better sleep, though more research on this is needed. One meta-analysis examining several studies found that overall, sleep quality in participants improved using aromatics (Lin, 2019). If you have insomnia or another sleep condition, you should still see a healthcare professional.

Aromatherapy warnings and risks

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate essential oils, so it’s important to buy from a brand you trust. 

Most of the time, essential oils are harmless, but they can trigger allergies. Even companies with the most stringent standards carry products that may cause you to have some sort of allergic reaction. So far, allergic reactions to 80 different essential oils have been documented (de Groot, 2016).

You’re not the only one in your home who could have a bad reaction to essential oils, either. Certain ones are toxic to cats and dogs, and birds’ breathing is so sensitive that people who own them shouldn’t use these oils at all (Michelson Found Animals, n.d.; ASPCA, 2018).

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should talk to a healthcare provider before using aromatherapy products.

How to use essential oils safely

Essential oils differ in strengths, but 100% pure oils should never be applied directly to the skin. The highly concentrated products can cause irritation and contact dermatitis (de Groot, 2016). 

To minimize the risk of an allergic reaction, you should always use a carrier oil and patch test if you’re using it topically.

To do a patch test, put a few drops of the product in a carrier oil. Do this on a small section of skin—a patch the size of a nickel is enough to show any skin irritation. Wait 24 hours to see how your patch reacts before testing it on a larger area of skin. 

Overall, there’s little risk involved with aromatherapy, so it’s worth trying as a complementary treatment if it interests you.

Talk to a healthcare provider about whether it’s safe for you to try, and make sure you’re using essential oils correctly. Keep in mind that aromatherapy or any use of essential oils shouldn’t replace treatment for any medical conditions.

References

  1. ASPCA. (2018, January 17). Is the latest home trend harmful to your pets? What you need to know! ASPCA. Retrieved from https://www.aspca.org/news/latest-home-trend-harmful-your-pets-what-you-need-know
  2. de Groot, A. C., & Schmidt, E. (2016). Essential oils, part iv: Contact allergy. Dermatitis, 27(4), 170–175. doi:10.1097/der.0000000000000197. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/dermatitis/Abstract/2016/07000/Essential_Oils,_Part_IV__Contact_Allergy.3.aspx
  3. Farrar, A. J., & Farrar, F. C. (2020). Clinical Aromatherapy. Nursing Clinics of North America, 55(4), 489–504. doi:10.1016/j.cnur.2020.06.015. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7520654/
  4. Lee, M.-kyoung, Lim, S., Song, J.-A., Kim, M.-E., & Hur, M.-H. (2017). The effects of aromatherapy essential oil inhalation on stress, sleep quality and immunity in healthy adults: Randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 12, 79–86. doi:10.1016/j.eujim.2017.04.009. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1876382017300951
  5. Lin, P.-C., Lee, P.-H., Tseng, S.-J., Lin, Y.-M., Chen, S.-R., & Hou, W.-H. (2019). Effects of aromatherapy on sleep quality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 45, 156–166. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2019.06.006. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229919303735
  6. Lotfipur Rafsanjani, S. M., Vaziri Nejad, R., Ismailzadeh, S., Ansari Jaberi, A., Bekhradi, R., Ravari, A., & Akbari, J. (2015). Comparison of the efficacy of massage and Aromatherapy massage with geranium on depression in Postmenopausal women: A clinical trial. Zahedan Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 17(4). doi:10.17795/zjrms970. Retrieved from https://sites.kowsarpub.com/zjrms/articles/970.html
  7. Maleksabet, S. A., Keveyani Pooya, H., Najafi, M., Seiamak Dastjerdi, A. (2016). A review of aromatherapy in ancient Persia. Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, 8(5), 33-43. Retrieved from https://www.sid.ir/en/Journal/ViewPaper.aspx?ID=507824
  8. Michelson Found Animals. (n.d.). Essential oils and animals: Essential oils for pets: Found animals. Michelson Found Animals Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.foundanimals.org/essential-oils-toxic-pets/
  9. National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2020, November 3). Essential oils. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Retrieved from https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/essential-oils/index.cfm
  10. Sánchez-Vidaña, D. I., Ngai, S. P.-C., He, W., Chow, J. K.-W., Lau, B. W.-M., & Tsang, H. W.-H. (2017). The effectiveness of aromatherapy for depressive symptoms: A systematic review. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2017, 1–21. doi:10.1155/2017/5869315. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2017/5869315/