Oils, Uses, Benefits and Risks

Aromatherapy uses essential oils to relieve certain physical conditions and manage general well-being.

Inhaling or absorbing essential oils into the skin are the two most popular aromatherapy methods. Essential oils come from various parts of a plant, including flowers, leaves, seeds, and antlers. The oils contain the “essence” of the plant’s fragrance.

This article explains aromatherapy and essential oils along with the benefits, risks, and safety precautions to consider. It also lists essential oils and their benefits and discusses aromatherapy options.

Research suggests that essential oils may provide some benefits. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor the purity and quality of these oils. Always discuss new products with your doctor and research the brand thoroughly before using them.

Aromatherapy and essential oils explained

Martí Sans/Stocksy United

Essential oils come from steam distillation or mechanical cold pressing of the plant or part of the plant. As such, essential oils are made up of hundreds of different molecules. Some of them produce the fragrance of the oil.

Aromatherapy is a complementary health approach. Common aromatherapy methods include massage or inhalation of diluted forms of oils.

With inhalation, your olfactory system senses molecules and produces a physiological response through a complex interaction between your brain and body systems. A 2021 article notes that essential oils also exert effects on your respiratory system.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), people use aromatherapy to improve their spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. People with cancer use it to improve their quality of life.

Evidence of the benefits of aromatherapy

Many use aromatherapy, a common and historic practice around the world, to cure various health conditions. But what does the evidence say about the benefits of aromatherapy?

According to a clinical aromatherapy review in North American Nursing Clinics and a 2021 review of spearmint in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicineessential oils can:

  • relieve trapped gas
  • stimulate and support digestion
  • limit inflammation
  • relax the muscles

Insomnia, depression or anxiety

There is evidence that aromatherapy can:

  • reduce anxiety
  • relieve headaches
  • have a sedative effect

Essential oils and aromatherapy can help:

  • heal wounds and burns
  • relax the uterus
  • calm the nervous system, which mediates the sensation of pain

Specifically, aromatherapy is beneficial for painful menstruation and physical symptoms during labor and delivery, according to a systematic research review prepared for the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The NCI says some, but not all, studies show that aromatherapy has positive effects on:

  • sleep
  • appetite
  • welfare
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • vibe
  • anxiety
  • pain

The VA review concludes that there is research support for a potential positive effect of aromatherapy on hypertension.

Below is a chart listing some of the benefits of several plant, leaf, flower, and wood essential oils. This information comes from a review in North American Nursing Clinics.

Ways to practice aromatherapy

Common methods include:

  • Indirect inhalation: You can add the oil to room diffusers or apply a few drops to a handkerchief, pillowcase, or item of clothing. Other options include aromatherapy candles, room fresheners, or wearing an aromatherapy bracelet or pendant.
  • Direct inhalation: There is anecdotal use of individual spray masks to directly inhale essential oils. Other options include a nasal stick or breathing oil from the steam from a bowl of water.
  • Absorption through the skin: Dilute essential oils for massage, bath salts, lotions, water therapies, soaps, shampoos and detergents.

For massage, dilute 12 to 18 drops in 1 ounce of massage oil or lotion, according to the Alliance of Aromatherapists International (AIA), an aromatherapy advocacy group.

Using essential oils can be harmful and potentially fatal. Improper use can lead to:

  • poisoning
  • chemical burns
  • a lung infection, known as chemical pneumonitis
  • problems during pregnancy

Infectious diseases and aromatherapy

Although not common, essential oils and related products can be contaminated with bacteria or other microorganisms. In 2021, a small number of people became ill after using a commercial aromatherapy spray containing bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Precautions with aromatherapy

When using essential oils, be sure to read labels and use these tips:

  • Use pure essential oil: Buy essential oils that state they are “pure essential oil”. They are often sold in dark amber bottles. Pure essential oils are more expensive than diluted oils, have a more intense smell and disappear quickly when placed on paper. Avoid products made with essential oils that state on the label that they are “scented” or “scented.”
  • Dilute the oils if necessary: If oils are not diluted, they can irritate and damage your skin. Do not apply diluted essential oils to damaged or irritated skin. Dilute 12-18 drops in 1 ounce of massage oil or lotion for adults without health concerns. Use approximately 6 drops in 1 ounce to:
    • children 6 years and older
    • pregnant women
    • the elderly
    • skin care
  • Use safely: Take into consideration the best way to use the essential oil. For example, if you are in a small room, you may need less oil. In general, you should not eat or drink essential oils. How you use them will depend on what oil you use and how you use it.
  • Consider age: If you are using essential oils on a child, use a smaller amount and dilute the oil more than you would for an adult. Some oils are not suitable for infants and children.
  • Safely store: Keep essential oils out of sight and reach of children. Store the oils in their original bottle.

Always read the instructions before using any essential oil. If pregnant or nursing or nursing, seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional before use.

Frequently Asked Questions

Kerry Boyle, D.AC. reviewed the following questions.

What is the difference between aromatherapy and essential oils?

Essential oils are made from plants. Oils have health and wellness benefits. Aromatherapy uses essential oils through massage or inhalation to manage or prevent various symptoms. Some people use it for spiritual reasons and for general well-being.

Who to consult for aromatherapy?

If you want aromatherapy advice, consider contacting a professional aromatherapy organization, such as the AIA.

No formal qualifications are needed to practice aromatherapy. For this reason, choose a licensed healthcare professional who has voluntarily pursued certification in aromatherapy or a related discipline. They must have documented education, training and experience. You can also ask your doctor for guidance in choosing an aromatherapist.

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to manage or prevent various symptoms and conditions, such as anxiety, and to improve well-being. The primary way people use essential oils in aromatherapy is through indirect inhalation. Evidence shows that aromatherapy can help relieve certain types of pain. Aromatherapy also has positive effects on sleep and stress.

Essential oils and aromatherapy carry certain risks. Use pure essential oils and store them in their original container until use. Follow the instructions before use and consult a doctor if necessary.