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Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to improve health and wellbeing. There is some evidence that it might help with general well-being, anxiety and some side effects of cancer treatment. But we need more research.

Summary

  • Aromatherapy uses essential oils to treat symptoms of cancer and its treatment.
  • It might help for some side effects of cancer treatment, but more research is needed.
  • Some people can have side effects.

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy uses concentrated oils. These are oils made from the flowers, fruit, seeds, leaves, root or bark of plants. They are called essential oils.

There are more than 400 essential oils. Manufacturers use the oils in perfumes or cosmetics. People who use aromatherapy believe some oils have beneficial properties. Aromatherapists use a small number of these oils 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

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

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

Aromatherapists believe that essential oil works 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

There has been some research looking into these claims. Aromatherapists believe that essential oils work because of chemicals in the oil. These bind with receptors in the part of the brain that has to do with smell (olfactory bulb). This affects the emotional centre of the brain (limbic system).

So, any helpful effects are likely to come from the smell and absorption of the oils. They also 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 it

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.

There is some evidence that aromatherapy massage can help with the effects of treatment.

These include:

  • anxiety
  • pain
  • depression
  • stress
  • tiredness

Aromatherapists believe that inhaling certain essential oils can help with nausea and vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are often side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But these claims are not supported by research. 

How you have it

There are different ways to use essential oils for aromatherapy. You can apply the oil to your skin or inhale it.

Find a qualified aromatherapist who is trained to work with people with cancer.

The 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.

Aromatherapy massage

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

Your therapist will dilute the essential oils. Once mixed with another oil, they 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. Irritation can be worse 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 boiling water to help relieve breathing problems and a blocked nose
  • a warm bath to help with anxiety or sleeping problems

Beauty products

Manufacturers sometimes promote beauty products as aromatherapy products. They might be:

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

Scents are often man-made (synthetic) if the product label doesn't mention essential oils. This means that they won’t give you any real aromatherapy benefits.

Don’t add essential oils to any beauty products. Get advice first from a qualified aromatherapist.

Aroma sticks

Aroma sticks are similar in design to nasal inhalers for cold relief. You hold the aroma stick 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 aroma sticks and add your favourite oils yourself.

Finding a qualified aromatherapy practitioner

No single organisation 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 well-trained and qualified. Contact one of the professional aromatherapy organisations. Ask for a list of therapists in your area.

Side effects

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

Some oils can cause the following:

  • a skin reaction or allergic reaction
  • some oils may make the skin more sensitive to sunlight if applied before sun exposure
  • the smell of certain oils might remind you of something unpleasant, and you might dislike it

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

Research into aromatherapy and cancer

There is no scientific evidence that aromatherapy can cure or prevent cancer. Most studies in people with cancer focus on:

  • symptoms of cancer and its treatment
  • quality of life
  • anxiety

Most studies seem to suggest it might help as a complementary therapy. That is for some symptoms in people with cancer. Many studies have been small.

We need more research to learn how aromatherapy can help. And we need to compare it to other accepted treatments.

For hospitals that offer complementary therapies, aromatherapy is often one of the popular treatments.

Many studies have looked at how aromatherapy and aromatherapy massage can reduce symptoms.

One study, a Cochrane review in 2016 looked at 19 studies. It looked at pain, anxiety, depression and stress in people with cancer.

  • 13 studies compared one group who had massage with another group who did not have massage
  • 6 studies compared one group who had aromatherapy massage with another group who had massage only

Many of the studies in the review were small and not of good quality. The researchers were aware that aromatherapy and massage might give people a positive experience. They found that there was not enough evidence to say that massage can help to relieve symptoms. The researchers said we need further studies on aromatherapy and massage.

Several other studies over the past few years have looked at using aromatherapy oils. These studies were in people with cancer and to help with anxiety, depression, pain and poor quality of life. In some of these studies aromatherapies helped to reduce some symptoms, but in others, it did not.

One symptom that seems to improve in more than one study is quality of sleep. The people in the studies used lavender essential oil. One study was in people with advanced cancer. The other study was in people who were receiving chemotherapy.

A 2016 study looked at how aromatherapy can help in radiotherapy. Radioactive iodine is a treatment for thyroid cancer. It can damage normal salivary glands. Researchers wanted to see if aromatherapy can help to reduce this damage.

People in the study inhaled lemon and ginger essential oils. They found that it increased saliva production. The saliva helped to flush out the radioactive iodine from the salivary glands. So, the iodine caused less damage to the normal salivary glands.

Currently, researchers are looking at ginger, lavender, orange, and jojoba essential oils. They want to see if it can help to relieve the following symptoms of chemotherapy: 

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pain
  • anxiety or distress
  • fatigue
  • sleep difficulties
  • lack of appetite

How much it costs

Many cancer clinics and hospitals in the UK offer aromatherapy massages. These are free of charge to people with cancer. So, ask your nurse or doctor if this is available where you have 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. 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 word of caution

Always get advice from a qualified aromatherapist. They should have experience in 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:

  • other medicines
  • herbal products
  • 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

In the UK aromatherapists may only treat you with essential oils by letting you inhale it or apply it to your skin. In France and Germany therapists may use essential oils orally and internally.

Do not swallow an essential oil or put it inside any other part of the body (eye, ear, nose, anus or vagina).

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)

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: 
28 Nov 2018
  • Aromatherapy With Essential Oils (PDQ®) Health Professional Version

    NCBI – National Center for Biotechnology Information

    Accessed November 2018

  • Massage with or without aromatherapy for symptom relief in people with cancer

    E Shin and others

    Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2016 (6), Article number: CD009873. Issue 10

  • A Randomized Controlled Trial for the Effectiveness of Aromatherapy in Decreasing Salivary Gland Damage following Radioactive Iodine Therapy for Differentiated Thyroid Cancer

    M Nakayama and others

    Biomed Research International 2016: 9509810

  • Aromatherapy: The Effect of Lavender on Anxiety and Sleep Quality in Patients Treated With Chemotherapy

    A Ozkaraman and others

    Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing 22 (2): 203-210, 2018.

  • A Randomized Controlled Trial Provides Evidence to Support Aromatherapy to Minimize Anxiety in Women Undergoing Breast Biopsy

    R Trambert and others

    Worldviews Evidence Based Nursing 14 (5): 394-402, 2017

  • 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 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.

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