Aromatherapy is the practice of using highly concentrated essential oils to change your mood or to improve your health. The use of essential oils for bathing, cosmetic and medicinal purposes goes back thousands of years in different cultures.

Essential oils are usually distilled from whole plants. They are often very fragrant. It’s thought that aromatherapy works through the scent receptors in your nose, which send messages to your brain and can affect your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.

Essential oils can be used in different ways. They are often rubbed on the skin in weaker strengths using a base or carrier oil. Drops of essential oils can also be put into bath water. They can be inhaled through the air if the oil is put into steaming water, diffusers or a humidifier.

Aromatherapy is often used along with massage. The essential oil is an ingredient of the oil or lotion used by the massage therapist.

There are many different types of essential oils available. Essential oils for aromatherapy should be as pure as possible, without any added chemicals or pollutants. Examples of common essential oils are rose, peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, chamomile, tea tree and bergamot (which is a combination of different essential oils).

Aromatherapy as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that aromatherapy can treat cancer itself. There is some evidence that the essential oils used in aromatherapy may help you cope with some of the emotional and psychological effects of living with cancer.

Aromatherapy may help lower stress and anxiety by promoting a sense of calm or well-being. It has been used to help promote relaxation and improve sleep. Some studies have shown that aromatherapy, when used with massage therapy, can help relieve depression for short periods of time.

We need more research to be sure, but a small amount of evidence shows that aromatherapy can ease pain and help relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Side effects and risks of aromatherapy

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about having aromatherapy. Essential oils and aromatherapy are generally thought to be safe, but a few side effects are possible.

The most common side effect of aromatherapy is a skin reaction, such as a rash or hives. Always test the essential oil on a very small patch of skin to check for skin reactions before you use it.

Don’t use essential oils on skin cancer or in areas where there is a skin reaction to radiation therapy.

Some essential oils can make the skin photosensitive, which means it is more sensitive to sunlight.

Some people have had breathing problems after inhaling essential oils. If you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other breathing problems, be careful with inhaled aromatherapy until you know if the essential oil will affect your breathing.

Don’t eat or drink essential oils. They can be poisonous when swallowed.

Some people find the smell of certain essential oils unpleasant and can make them feel sick.

Finding a therapist

The Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists (CFA) and some provincial organizations set standards of practice for aromatherapists. Aromatherapists who have the letters CAHP (for the designation Certified Aromatherapy Health Professional) after their name have passed the CFA’s courses and written exams.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Aromatherapy. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2008:
  • Boehm K, Bussing A, & Ostermann T . Aromatherapy as an adjuvant treatment in cancer care - a descriptive systematic review. African Journal of Traditional Complementary and Alternative Medicine. African Networks on Ethnomedicines; 2012.
  • Fellowes D, Barnes K, Wilkinson SS. . Aromatherapy and massage for symptom relief in patients with cancer. The Cochrane Collaboration. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. John Wiley & Sons; 2008.
  • National Cancer Institute. Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ®) - Health Professional Version. 2014:
  • Stringer J, Donald G. . Aromasticks in cancer care: an innovation not to be sniffed at. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. Elsevier; 2011.
  • Wilkinson SM, Love SB, Westcombe AM, et al . Effectiveness of aromatherapy massage in the management of anxiety and depression in patients with cancer: a multicenter randomized controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology. American Society of Clinical Oncology; 2007.