Aromatherapy | Cancer Research UK
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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, root or bark of certain plants. There are more than 400 essential oils. Some are used to make perfumes or cosmetics. Holistic aromatherapy uses oils that are thought to have beneficial 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 for the general population aromatherapy can boost wellbeing, relieve stress, and help to refresh your body. 

The theory behind aromatherapy is that each essential oil has its own properties that may give 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 in a diluted form, but they can also be

  • Added to a warm bath – they must always be diluted in a carrier, such as oil or cream
  • Put in a cold compress next to your skin or on a handkerchief
  • Added with water to an aromatherapy oil burner or diffuser, so the vapour 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. One is that you directly absorb the oils through the skin into your body tissues.

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 essential oils are thought to have an anti inflammatory effect, which may help with arthritis and muscular pain. Others are thought to have properties that make them relieve pain or help to fight off infection. But many of these claims have not been tested through research. If you have health issues it is important not to use oils instead of visiting your GP or taking prescribed medicines.

If you want to use essential oils to help with a medical concern it is vital to talk first to a qualified aromatherapist. 

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 if used appropriately. 

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 body) 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. It is something they can do to help themselves with the help of a qualified aromatherapist. 

There is some research evidence suggesting that aromatherapy massage can help with the following effects due to cancer or its treatment.

  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Tiredness

Aromatherapy can help to lift people's mood and improve wellbeing. 

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 any research studies and the oils should only be used under the guidance of an aromatherapist.

Some people also claim that aromatherapy can help with physical problems through

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Fighting off colds and bacterial infections
  • Helping with period (menstrual) problems
  • Improving circulation and urine output
  • Relieving headaches and digestion problems

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


Having aromatherapy

There are different ways of using essential oils for aromatherapy. These include the following methods.

Having aromatherapy massage from a trained aromatherapist

It is very important that you have aromatherapy massage from a qualified therapist who is trained to work with people with cancer. 

When massaged into the skin, essential oils are diluted with another oil, usually a 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 damage. 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 to check that there is no medical reason why you should not have aromatherapy.

The aromatherapist will choose the oils that they feel may help manage your symptoms and help you most. They may also encourage you to help to choose the oils. 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 handkerchief can have the same benefits.

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 cancer drugs 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 using aromatherapy to relieve symptoms or side effects or to help people to feel better emotionally.

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 symptom control 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 a dummy treatment of salt water. 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

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. 

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.

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. 


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.

It's vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified. The best way to find a therapist is to contact one of the professional aromatherapy organisations 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)

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.

The International Federation of Aromatherapists
The IFA was established in 1985. It is a charity aiming to preserve public health and well being, through the advance of knowledge, practice, and expertise in aromatherapy. It gives information about aromatherapy to the general public.
Phone: 0208 567 2243

Their website has information about

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

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: 0207 653 1971

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: 4 February 2015