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What aromatherapy is 

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils. These oils are the concentrated essences taken from the flowers, fruit, seeds, leaves and bark of certain plants. There are about 400 essential oils. Some are used to make perfumes or cosmetics. Holistic aromatherapy uses oils that are thought to have healing properties but only a small number of these are commonly used in people with cancer. 

Some of the most popular oils include lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, camomile, marjoram, jasmine, peppermint, lemon, ylang ylang and geranium.

Aromatherapists believe that aromatherapy can boost wellbeing, relieve stress, and help to refresh your body. So it may improve your physical and emotional health. The theory behind aromatherapy is that each essential oil has its own specific health benefits. For example, it is suggested that lavender can help with sleeping problems, and it may relieve muscle tension and anxiety.

If you have cancer you should not use any aromatherapy without advice from a qualified aromatherapist. There is more information about using aromatherapy safely further down this page. Essential oils are usually massaged into the body, but they can also be

  • Added to a warm bath – they must always be diluted in a carrier oil and always check first with a qualified aromatherapist
  • Put in a cold compress next to your skin or on a pillow or handkerchief
  • Added with water to an aromatherapy oil burner or diffuser, so the steam spreads the aroma into the air – this is not recommended for people with asthma

How aromatherapy works

There are a couple of theories to explain how aromatherapy might work. The first is that you directly absorb the oils through the skin into your bloodstream. The oil then travels through your body to affect a specific organ or function in your body. 

Many essential oils are thought to have an anti inflammatory effect, which can help with arthritis and muscular pain. Other oils may help with breathing problems. Some can prevent or fight off infections by helping boost your immune system or by directly destroying bacteria, viruses or fungal infections.

The second theory relates to your sense of smell. The nerves used to smell are found high up inside your nose and they connect directly to your brain. Foods, flowers, perfumes and plants all release tiny molecules into the air and stimulate your smell (olfactory) nerve cells. The cells send a message to your brain to interpret what the smell is. The smell can then set off a reaction in your body, both emotionally and physically. For example, it might change your heart or breathing rate or make you feel calm or excited. Because essential oils can stimulate your sense of smell, it is thought that this process may play a part in the effects of aromatherapy.

Some oils can have local effects known as topical effects. For example, some research seems to suggest that lavender oil can help the skin to heal after a burn. 

We don’t know for sure but any helpful effects from aromatherapy are most likely to come from a combination of the physical effects the oils have on the body (smell and absorption into the bloodstream) as well as how they work on your mind and spirit.


Why people with cancer use aromatherapy

As with many types of complementary therapy, people with cancer use aromatherapy because it makes them feel good, and is something they can do to help themselves. There is some research evidence suggesting that aromatherapy massage can help with the following effects due to cancer or its treatment.

Generally, aromatherapy can help to lift your mood and improve your wellbeing. Some people also say that breathing in the vapours from peppermint, ginger and cardamom oil seem to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But these claims are not supported by any research studies.

Some people also claim that aromatherapy can help to

  • Boost your immune system
  • Fight off colds and bacterial infections
  • Help with period (menstrual) problems
  • Improve circulation and urine output
  • Relieve headaches and digestion problems

There is currently no scientific evidence to prove any of these claims.


Having aromatherapy

There are different ways of using essential oils for aromatherapy, including

Having aromatherapy massage from a trained aromatherapist

It is very important that you have aromatherapy massage from a trained therapist. We have information about finding a therapist lower down this page. When massaged into the skin, essential oils are diluted with another oil, usually vegetable oil. This vegetable oil is called the carrier oil because it carries the oil to the skin. Essential oils are very concentrated so must be diluted. If used neat, they could cause serious skin irritation. Some cancer treatments can make the skin more sensitive, so always tell your aromatherapist if you are having any medicines or cancer treatments.

When you have your first aromatherapy massage the therapist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. If they are concerned about anything, they may ask your permission to speak to your GP. This is just to check that your GP is happy for you to have aromatherapy. In general, it is rare that the GP will say no. But there may be situations where your doctor advises you not to use aromatherapy.

The aromatherapist will choose the oils that they feel will treat your symptoms and help you most. They will massage the oils gently into your body. An aromatherapy massage session usually lasts between 60 to 90 minutes but you can ask for a shorter session if you feel that more than an hour is too long. Your therapist might play some relaxing music during your massage. It is important that you tell the therapist if you feel uncomfortable at any time or want them to stop. But generally most people say that having an aromatherapy massage is very relaxing and soothing.

Using essential oils yourself at home

You can add essential oils to water and use them in an oil burner at home. This way you can enjoy their pleasant smells and possible relaxation benefits whenever you like. Some people say that adding a few drops of certain oils to boiling water and inhaling them helps to relieve symptoms such as breathing problems and a blocked nose. Others say that putting a few drops on your pillow or handkerchief can have the same benefits. You can also make your own aromasticks.

People also sometimes add diluted essential oils to a warm bath to help with symptoms such as anxiety or sleeping problems. It is very important to speak to a qualified aromatherapist before using any oils in a bath. Some oils can cause skin irritation, especially if you are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy.  

Using beauty products that contain aromatherapy oils

Aromatherapy products have become a huge part of the beauty industry. There are now soaps, hair care products, face and body oils, creams and lotions that all claim to be aromatherapy products. However, unless the label of the product specifically states that only pure essential oils are used, it is very likely that the scents are man made (synthetic). This means that they won’t give you any real aromatherapy benefits. Essential oils should be used carefully, so don’t add them to any beauty products without advice from an aromatherapist.


Aromasticks are similar in design to nasal inhalers for cold relief. An aromatherapist adds essential oils chosen specifically for you. Or you can get empty aromasticks yourself and add your favourite oils. You hold the aromastick under your nose and breathe in the aroma from the oils.


Research into aromatherapy and cancer

There is no scientific evidence to prove that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer. But there are a few studies to suggest that aromatherapy may be a helpful complementary therapy for people with cancer and other types of illness. Aromatherapy is one of the complementary therapies most likely to be offered to patients in cancer clinics and hospitals. Research has looked at 

Aromatherapy for symptom control in advanced cancer

A review is currently being carried out in the UK of all the trials that have looked at using aromatherapy massage to reduce symptoms in people with advanced cancer. 

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

Aromatherapy for anxiety and depression

A small trial of 12 patients with breast cancer in Japan in 2009 found that aromatherapy massage helped to reduce their anxiety. Also in 2009 a review reported on 6 studies carried out from 2000 to 2008 which used essential oils for patients with depression or depressive symptoms. In 3 of the studies the patients had cancer. Some of the studies showed reduced anxiety and depression in people with cancer. The authors said that the evidence is weak though and they recommend further research to find out more about the effects of aromatherapy and also how it affects the mind and body.

A UK trial in 2007 tested whether adding aromatherapy massage to usual supportive care could reduce anxiety and depression in people with advanced cancer. 280 patients took part and they all had anxiety or depression. Half the patients had usual supportive care. The other half had supportive care plus aromatherapy massage. The researchers found that patients who had aromatherapy massage were less anxious or depressed for up to 2 to 6 weeks after the massage but there was no difference at 10 weeks. Further research is needed to compare aromatherapy and massage with other ways of treating anxiety and depression. 

An American study published in The Journal of Palliative Medicine in 2004 looked at the use of massage and aromatherapy in 42 people who had advanced cancer. These people were divided into 3 groups

  • Group 1 had weekly massages over 4 weeks
  • Group 2 had massages using lavender oil
  • Group 3 had no massages at all

At the end of the trial, people in groups 1 and 2 were sleeping much better and had less depression than those in group 3.

In 1999 a study assessed the effects of aromatherapy massage and massage therapy on 103 people with cancer in a palliative care setting. Some people had massage using only a carrier oil, and some had an aromatherapy massage with the essential oil Roman Chamomile. People in both groups had lower levels of anxiety. But those who had Roman Chamomile oil massage seemed to have more improvement in physical and psychological symptoms and in overall quality of life.

In 1998 a UK study looked at the effects of aromatherapy in 58 cancer patients. Most of these patients were women with breast cancer who said that they would like aromatherapy to help them with feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and fear. Each patient had 6 aromatherapy treatments during the study. At the end of these treatments all the patients showed a significant improvement in their feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.

Aromatherapy for side effects of cancer treatment

An American study in 2004 showed that aromatherapy after surgery can reduce feelings of sickness. 33 patients took part and they inhaled alcohol, oil of peppermint, or salt water (placebo). They breathed in the vapours from gauze pads and then breathed out slowly through the mouth. Only 52% of the patients needed standard anti sickness medicines. But the salt water worked as well as the peppermint and the alcohol. So it may be that the helpful effect of the aromatherapy was due to the controlled breathing patterns rather than the actual smell breathed in.


A study in a UK hospital in 2011 looked at using aromasticks in people with cancer. Aromasticks are similar in design to vapour inhalers for cold relief. They contain essential oils and aim to help patients manage anxiety, nausea and sleep disturbance. 160 people used the aromasticks in the study. 77% of all patients reported at least one benefit from the aromastick. In anxious patients, 65% reported feeling more relaxed and 51% felt less stress. 47% of patients who felt sick said that the aromastick had settled their nausea. 55% of the people who had sleep disturbances felt that the aromastick helped them to sleep. The results are positive but further larger studies need to be carried out to see how helpful aromasticks might be for people with cancer. 

Most studies so far have been small and don’t give enough evidence to come to any conclusions about the true benefits of aromatherapy massage in people with cancer.


Possible side effects of aromatherapy

Essential oils are generally safe if you use them in the correct way. You should never swallow an essential oil, or put the oil directly inside any other part of the body (eye, ear, nose, anus or vagina). Oils are sometimes used in this way in France by aromatherapy practitioners but care is needed as they can be poisonous and harmful when taken in this way.

Some oils can cause a skin reaction or an allergic reaction. Some people may have headaches or feel sick with certain types of oil. You should always get advice from an aromatherapist before using any type of aromatherapy. Never use aromatherapy oils or creams on skin that is sore, inflamed, or broken without advice from a qualified therapist.


Using aromatherapy safely

For most people, using aromatherapy is safe. But you need to use it with care if you have cancer. Always get advice from a qualified aromatherapist who is experienced in treating people with cancer. You should also let your cancer doctor know. This is even more 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

You should also tell your doctor and aromatherapist if you are taking any other medicines, herbal products or homeopathic remedies. Some essential oils could interact and make these drugs or therapies weaker or stronger. Never use essential oils on children unless you have checked first with an aromatherapist.


The cost of aromatherapy treatments

A private aromatherapy massage will usually cost between £20 and £60 for a 60 to 90 minute treatment. It is very important that you choose a qualified therapist to treat you. There is information about finding a therapist lower down this page.

Many cancer clinics and hospitals in the UK now offer patients aromatherapy massages free of charge. So always ask your nurse or doctor if this is available where you are having your treatment. If not, they may be able to direct you to a voluntary organisation that offers complementary therapy treatments free or at a low cost. Look at our complementary therapy organisations page for organisations that can give you advice about where to get an aromatherapy massage.

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. You need to keep essential oils in a cool dark place, or in the fridge, and out of reach of small children.


Finding a therapist

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.

It's vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified. The best way to find a therapist is to 

  • Ask at your hospital or clinic if they can recommend an aromatherapist
  • Contact a professional aromatherapy organisation and ask for a list of therapists in your area

You can ask the aromatherapist 

  • How many years of training they've had
  • How long they've been practicing
  • If they have had training in treating and supporting people with cancer
  • If they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

You can go to our complementary and alternative therapies section for more information about how to go about finding a reliable therapist.


Aromatherapy organisations

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

The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists
Phone 01455 637987

Their website has information about

  • Finding an aromatherapist
  • Aromatherapists who meet national standards for training
  • Education and standards necessary for a qualified aromatherapist

For more information about the individual plant extracts used in oils look at the American website, about herbs, botanicals and other products. This is from a well known US hospital called Memorial Sloan-Kettering. They also have information about the side effects of different types of oils. You can either type into the search box the name of the essential oil you would like to know about, or use their alphabetical list of products.

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners and covers aromatherapists. Its key function is to improve public protection by giving the general public 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: 0203 178 2199

The Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT)
18 Shakespeare Business Centre
Hathaway Close
SO50 4SR
Phone: 023 8062 4350

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the leading professional association for complementary therapists. They have a register of therapists who are qualified, insured, and who follow the FHT strict Code of Conduct and Professional Practice.

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Updated: 23 January 2013