Does Using Essential Oils for Aromatherapy Really Work?

If you’re curious about the science behind aromatherapy and how it might help those with cancer, we’ve got answers.

Aromatherapy has been practiced for hundreds of years to help improve physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

If you’ve ever used Vicks VapoRub for congestion relief, you’ve used aromatherapy. The ointment contains peppermint, camphor and eucalyptus essential oils to help break down mucus and suppress coughing.

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While aromatherapy is not a treatment for cancer, it can work alongside your care plan as a complementary therapy.

How Does Aromatherapy Change How You Feel?

Aromatherapy harnesses the body’s sense of smell using highly concentrated, fragrant plant extracts, known as essential oils. These essential oils are absorbed through the pores after being applied to your skin, or by inhaling through your nose. You never ingest the oils.

Through your sense of smell, receptors in your nose send signals to the limbic system, the part of the brain that manages your emotions, instincts and behaviors. The process can potentially change how you feel and how you perceive pain.

Talk to Your Care Team Before Trying Aromatherapy

Most essential oils are safe when used properly. Remember, even when a product is labeled natural or derived from plants, it doesn’t mean it’s irritant free—or even safe if not used as directed.

Research on how essential oils interact with prescription drugs is limited, so be sure to discuss aromatherapy with your care team before giving it a try. Your care team can provide guidance as to whether aromatherapy and essential oil use are safe based on your treatments and side effects.

Precautions You Should Take When Using Essential Oils

If you get the green light from your care team to use essential oils, don’t use undiluted oil directly on your skin. Full-strength application can irritate the skin and cause an uncomfortable red, itchy rash.

Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly to avoid getting essential oils in your eyes, nose, ears and other sensitive skin.

When used in the wrong doses or too high a concentration, essential oils can harm your skin and internal organs—especially if these organs are already being strained by health conditions or medical treatments.

Different Scents Can Influence How You Feel

Your care team can help you determine which essential oils may be right for you. Read the labels, and look for language that indicates purity. You want to avoid synthetic chemicals. Lavender and tea tree oil may not be recommended, as they’ve been shown to affect hormone production.

Since each person experiences fragrance differently, scents can have a varying effect on how you feel. If you’re looking for help with:

  • Joint pain: Try ginger, lemongrass, cinnamon, lavender, sweet marjoram and bergamot essential oils.

  • Stress and anxiety: Try essential oils like bergamot, lavender, peppermint, chamomile and sandalwood.

  • Problems eating: Try ginger essential oil to help ease nausea and increase your appetite.

  • Sleep: Try lavender essential oil to help ease sleep problems. But be careful, this popular fragrance is also an allergen for some.

  • Fatigue: Try grapefruit, orange or other citrus scents to help give energy levels a boost. Your skin may be sensitive if you go out in the sun after applying citrus essential oils. 

Before you pick a fragrance, be sure to carefully research each oil. By following the recommendations for diluting the oil, you can safely enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy.

5 Aromatherapy Tips and Tricks

  1. Take a deep breath. An easy way to try aromatherapy is by placing a few drops of an essential oil on a cotton ball. Remember these are strong oils, so a little bit goes a long way. You won’t need more than three drops. You can also try aromatherapy by using a diffuser to distribute the scent through a room.

  2. Choose a carrier. To try aromatherapy by applying essential oils to your skin, you’ll need to dilute your oil with unscented lotions or a carrier like coconut, grapeseed or avocado oils. Watch the ingredients in your lotions and oils, and be aware of allergens that could cause a reaction.

  3. Prep before use. Before applying to your skin, prepare your solution of essential oils with a carrier substance. If it’s your first time using aromatherapy, try mixing one drop of essential oil for each teaspoon of carrier. As a best practice, keep concentrations between 3 percent and 5 percent. That’s 3-5 drops of essential oil for each teaspoon of carrier.

  4. Try a patch test. If you’re interested in using essential oils on your skin, try a patch test to see how your skin reacts. To help avoid skin irritation, remember to dilute your oil and follow the directions.

  5. Give it a spritz. Mixing essential oils with water can create a solution you can spray on your clothes, sheets or blankets. Use the recommended concentration guidelines of 3-5 percent. Before spraying, shake or mix your solution. Be careful of spraying on surfaces that can absorb the oil and stain. You might want to skip spaying your pillow to avoid getting it in your eyes.

Misinformation on the Internet Is Everywhere—Seriously

Be wary of testimonials and marketing online. Exercise a healthy amount of skepticism for those peddling unrealistic promises of healing that misrepresent aromatherapy. While they seem legitimate, unfortunately they’re not.

If you’re looking for additional information online, look for science-based information sources like those from the University of Minnesota and Memorial Sloan Kettering.