Written by Helen Seers, Katja Boehm and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated May 20, 2017

Aromatherapy

Abstract and key points

  • Aromatherapy involves the controlled use of aromatic essential plant oils.
  • Weak evidence is available to indicate that aromatherapy can improve overall quality of life; may be of potential benefit for physical problems (pain or fatigue), psychological problems (anxiety, depression, sleep).
  • There is no strong evidence for long-term aromatherapy effects (after several weeks).
  • Aromatherapy is generally safe; the greatest risks involve the consumption of larger amounts of essential oil or the application of essential oils to the skin, which may cause allergic contact dermatitis.

Aromatherapy, also called essential or volatile oil therapy, entails the controlled use of essential oils that have been extracted from a variety of plant sources. Therapy is usually given via massage, inhalation or a foot- or full-body bath.

Claims of benefits for cancer patients include reduced anxiety levels and relief of emotional stress, pain, muscular tension and fatigue. Claims for the effect of certain oils range from ‘restoring harmony to the energy’ of the body, altering mood and improving overall health, to more specific claims such as having anticonvulsive and spasmolytic properties.

The latest Cochrane review (2016) evaluated massage with or without aromatherapy for symptom relief in people with cancer.  This systematic review presented evidence from six studies comparing aromatherapy massage with no massage and two studies comparing aromatherapy massage and massage without aromatherapy. The review concludes that there is limited evidence that aromatherapy may be useful for people with cancer in terms of relief from pain and anxiety, this was due to methodological limitations of studies.  Evidence from an additional 13 randomised clinical trials of varying methodological quality is contradictory; more consistent research is needed to assess the long-term effects of aromatherapy for people with cancer.

Although essential oils have generally shown minimal adverse effects, when used in appropriate dilutions, allergic reactions can occur with all oils. Repeated topical administration of lavender and tea tree oil has been associated with reversible prepubertal gynecomastia, consequently there may be issues for cancer patients with oestrogen-dependant tumours.

Read about the regulation, supervision and reimbursement of herbal medicine at NAFKAMs website CAM Regulation.

Citation Helen Seers, Katja Boehm, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Aromatherapy [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Herbal-products/Aromatherapy. May 20, 2017.

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