Decorative image

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to promote health and wellbeing.

Aromatherapy uses concentrated oils made from the flowers, fruit, seeds, leaves, root or bark of certain plants.

There are more than 400 essential oils. Some are used to make perfumes or cosmetics. People who use aromatherapy believe some oils have beneficial properties. A small number of these oils are used for people with cancer.

The belief is that aromatherapy can:

  • boost wellbeing
  • relieve stress
  • help to refresh your body

Some of the most popular oils are:

  • lavender
  • rosemary
  • eucalyptus
  • camomile
  • peppermint
  • ylang ylang
  • marjoram
  • jasmine
  • lemon
  • geranium

How aromatherapy works

The theory behind aromatherapy is that each essential oil has its own properties which give health benefits.

Essential oil is thought to work in two ways:

  • you absorb them through the skin into your body tissues
  • they stimulate your sense of smell to set off a reaction in your body

Some essential oils are thought to:

  • have an anti inflammatory effect which may help with arthritis and muscular pain
  • help to fight off infection
  • help with sleeping problems and lessen anxiety
  • change your heart or breathing rate or make you feel calm or excited

Many of these claims have not been tested. Any helpful effects are likely to come from the smell and absorption of the oils, as well as how they work on your mind and spirit.

We need more research to be sure. It is important not to use oils instead of visiting your GP or taking prescribed medicines.

Why people with cancer use aromatherapy

People with cancer use aromatherapy because it makes them feel good. Many say that it can help lift their mood and improve their wellbeing. It helps them feel like they are helping themselves, together with a qualified aromatherapist.

There is some evidence that aromatherapy massage can help with the following effects which are due to cancer or its treatment:

  • anxiety
  • pain
  • depression
  • stress
  • tiredness

It has been suggested that breathing in the vapours from certain oils seems to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But these claims are not supported by research studies. 

Some people also say aromatherapy helps:

  • boost the immune system
  • fight off colds and bacterial infections
  • improve circulation
  • relieve headaches and digestion problems
  • relieve period (menstrual) problems

These claims are not supported by any research. So only use under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist.

What having aromatherapy involves

There are different ways to use essential oils for aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy massage

Used on its own, concentrated essential oils can cause serious skin damage. Some cancer treatments can make the skin more sensitive.

So it is important to find a qualified aromatherapist who is trained to work on people with cancer.

Your aromatherapist will ask you general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. They might ask to speak with your GP if they have any concerns.

They will choose the oils which they feel will help you manage your symptoms the most. They might also encourage you to help choose the oils.

Then, your therapist will dilute the essential oils with another oil and gently massage this into your skin. They might play some relaxing music.

An aromatherapy massage usually lasts between 60 to 90 minutes. You can ask for a shorter session if you feel this is too long.

Tell the therapist if you feel uncomfortable at any time or want them to stop. But most people say that an aromatherapy massage is relaxing and soothing.

Using essential oils yourself at home

Speak to a qualified aromatherapist before using any oils at home. Some oils can cause skin irritation, especially if you are having cancer drugs or radiotherapy.

Some people add a few drops of specific essential oils to:

  • water in an oil burner to enjoy the pleasant and relaxing smells
  • a handkerchief or into boiling water to help relieve breathing problems and a blocked nose
  • a warm bath to help with anxiety or sleeping problems

Beauty products

Many beauty products are promoted as aromatherapy products. They might be:

  • soaps
  • hair care products
  • face and body oils
  • creams and lotions

If the product label doesn't say that it is made with pure essential oils, it is likely that the scents are man made (synthetic). This means that they won’t give you any real aromatherapy benefits.

Don’t add essential oils to any beauty products without getting advice from a qualified aromatherapist.

Aromasticks

Aromasticks are similar in design to nasal inhalers for cold relief. You hold the aromastick under your nose and breathe in the aroma from the oils.

An aromatherapist adds essential oils chosen especially for you. Or, you can get empty aromasticks and add your favourite oils yourself.

Possible side effects of aromatherapy

Essential oils are generally safe if you use them in the correct way.

Some oils can cause the following for some people:

  • a skin reaction or allergic reaction
  • headaches
  • feeling sick

Always get advice from a qualified aromatherapist before using any type of aromatherapy.

Research into aromatherapy and cancer

There is no scientific evidence to prove that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any type of disease.

Some studies suggest it might help as a complementary therapy for people with cancer. But, most studies have been small.

We need more research to learn how aromatherapy can help, and how it compares to other accepted treatments.

Aromatherapy is one of the complementary therapies most likely to be offered to patients in cancer clinics and hospitals.

In the UK, there is research looking into using aromatherapy massage to reduce symptoms in people with advanced cancer.

A 2011 study in Hong Kong seemed to show that aromatherapy massage can help to relieve constipation in patients with advanced cancer.

In 2007, a UK study tested whether aromatherapy massage could reduce anxiety and depression in people with advanced cancer. 280 people with anxiety or depression took part. Half of them had aromatherapy massage on top of their usual supportive care.

The researchers found that those who had aromatherapy massage were less anxious or depressed for up to 2 to 6 weeks after the massage. There was no difference at 10 weeks.

A US study in 2004 looked at the use of massage and aromatherapy in 42 people with advanced cancer. Those who had massages and aromatherapy massages slept better and had less depression than those who didn't.

A US study in 2004 tested whether having aromatherapy after surgery can reduce feelings of sickness. 33 people took part and breathed from gauze pads that had a mix of alcohol and peppermint oil, or plain salt water.

Only half the people needed standard anti sickness medicines afterwards. But, the salt water seemed to work just as well. So it might be the controlled breathing that helped lessen feelings of sickness, not the aromatherapy.

A 2011 study of 160 people in a UK hospital looked at aromasticks for people with cancer.

Aromasticks are similar in design to vapour inhalers for cold relief. They contain essential oils.

  • 123 people said they had at least one benefit from using it
  • more than half of the people who had anxiety said they felt more relaxed and less stressed
  • almost half said the aromasticks helped lessen their nausea
  • more than half of the people with sleep problems said the aromastick helped them to sleep

The results are positive but we need more, and larger, studies to be sure that aromasticks might help people with cancer.

Before using aromatherapy

Always get advice from a qualified aromatherapist who has experience treating people with cancer.

Also tell your doctor if you are going to use aromatherapy. This is very important if you are having any type of cancer treatment or:

  • are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • are trying to get pregnant
  • have fits (seizures) – for example, with epilepsy
  • have asthma
  • have kidney disease or liver problems

Tell your doctor and aromatherapist if you are taking any other medicines, herbal products or natural remedies. Some essential oils could affect how well these drugs or therapies work.

Check with a therapist before:

  • using essential oils on children
  • using oils or creams on sore, inflamed or broken skin

Never swallow an essential oil or put it inside any other part of the body (eye, ear, nose, anus or vagina).

Some practitioners in France use oils in this way but it can be poisonous and harmful.

The cost of aromatherapy treatments

Many cancer clinics and hospitals in the UK offer aromatherapy massages free of charge to people with cancer. So ask your nurse or doctor if this is available where you are having your treatment. If it isn't, they might be able to direct you to places that do or offer complementary therapy at a low cost.

The cost of essential oils varies depending on the quality and quantity you buy. It is best to buy oils from a qualified aromatherapist who can advise you on how to use them. Keep essential oils in a cool dark place or in the fridge, and out of reach of small children.

A private aromatherapy massage will usually cost between £20 and £60 for a 60 to 90 minute treatment. Make sure you choose a qualified therapist.

Finding a qualified aromatherapy practitioner

There is no single organisation that regulates aromatherapy practice. There are several professional associations that therapists can join, but they are not required by law to do so.

You should choose a therapist who is properly trained and qualified. The best way to find a good therapist is to contact one of the professional aromatherapy organisations and ask for a list of therapists in your area.

Questions to ask your CAM therapist

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Aromatherapy organisations

There are many aromatherapy organisations. The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists is working to develop training and practice standards.

Phone: 01455 637987
E-mail: admin@ifparoma.org

Their website has information about:

  • finding an aromatherapist
  • aromatherapists who meet national standards for training
  • education and standards necessary for a qualified aromatherapist

Phone: 0208 567 2243

The IFA is a charity aiming to preserve public health and well being through knowledge, practice and expertise in aromatherapy. It gives information about aromatherapy to the general public.

Their website has information about:

  • finding an aromatherapist
  • aromatherapists who meet national standards for training
  • education and standards necessary for a qualified aromatherapist

The CNHC is the UK regulator for all complementary healthcare practitioners, including aromatherapists. It protects the public by providing access to a list of practitioners who meet national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners are able to use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials.

Phone: 0207 653 1971
Email: info@cnhc.org.uk

They are the leading professional association for complementary therapists. They have a register of qualified and insured therapists.

18 Shakespeare Business Centre
Hathaway Close
Eastleigh
SO50 4SR

Phone: 023 8062 4350
Email: info@fht.org.uk

More information

For more information on individual plant extracts used in oils and their side effects, you can visit the Memorial Sloan-Kettering website. It is a reputable hospital in the US.

Last reviewed: 
04 Feb 2015
  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd Edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009

  • Complementary therapy support in cancer survivorship: a survey of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners' provision and perception of skills
    CA Samuel and S Faithfull
    European Journal of Cancer Care, 2014

  • The ToT study: helping with Touch or Talk (ToT): a pilot randomised controlled trial to examine the clinical effectiveness of aromatherapy massage versus cognitive behaviour therapy for emotional distress in patients in cancer/palliative care
    M Serfaty and others
    Psychooncology, 2012 May;21(5): pages 563-9

  • Use of complementary and alternative medicine in patients with cancer: a UK survey
    JA Scott and others
    European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2005

  • An evaluation of aromatherapy massage in palliative care
    S Wilkinson
    Palliative Medicine, 1999 Sep;13(5): pages 409-17

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.