Aromatherapy is a natural treatment that dates back to ancient times in China, India, and the Middle East. It involves releasing essential oils (highly concentrated herbal extracts) into the air. Aromatherapy proponents claim these scents can be used to treat a variety of conditions ranging from anxiety to respiratory problems. However, is there evidence to support these uses?
Sifting Through Scent Studies
Aromatherapy presents a challenge for researchers. In many studies, an herb (or drug) can be taken orally and compared to a placebo (sugar pill). The study participants do not know if they are taking the real or the fake treatment. However, with aromatherapy, an actual scent is released into the air. Participants know whether or not they are smelling something. Researchers have tried to come up with ways to work around the issue that they cannot blind the participants to which treatment they are getting. But it still creates an obstacle for building solid evidence for (or against) aromatherapy.
That being said, there have been some studies that support the use of these healing scents:
- Black pepper vapor (delivered through a special device)—may reduce cigarette cravings
- Camphor, menthol, cajaput, and clove oil—may relieve tension headaches
- Lavender oil—may reduce anxiety, may also reduce agitation in people with Alzheimer’s disease (lemon oil may also be beneficial for this purpose.)
Less reliable evidence suggests that peppermint oil may be helpful for reducing nausea after surgery and for breaking up congestion in the lungs and sinuses.
Researchers have also studied topical (applied to the skin) and oral uses of essential oils with promising results. Uses include:
Seeking Certified Care
There are literally thousands of essential oils that you can easily find online. But if you are truly interested in trying this herbal therapy, your best strategy is to work with a professional who has been trained in aromatherapy.
While there is no licensure for this field in the United States, organizations like the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) offer certification programs. People who earn a certificate in aromatherapy often are licensed in another field, such as massage therapy, acupuncture, nursing, or alternative medicine.
Talk to your doctor or get a recommendation for a qualified aromatherapist. Another option is to visit the Aromatherapy Registration Council, which provides an extensive database of aromatherapists who have met certain requirements.
Safely Using Scents
In general, inhaling essential oils is safe. But there can be allergic reactions and other side effects with all forms of aromatherapy—inhalation, topical, and oral. In addition, it is not clear what effects these oils have on infants, children, elderly, or people who are severely ill.
Even if you are a healthy adult, you should only use well-known oils (like peppermint) that have evidence behind them. According to NAHA, labels should say “pure essential oil” and list the plant name, for example, Mentha piperita (peppermint). Also, keep in mind that a qualified aromatherapist can evaluate you and select oils specifically for your condition.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 06/2015 -
- Update Date: 10/02/2013 -