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

Aromatherapy

Is it safe ?

Aromatherapy is considered safe when administered by a qualified aromatherapist whose expertise includes working with the needs of people who have cancer.

Aromatherapy oil

Tests of essential oils for safety have shown minimal adverse effects. A number of oils have therefore been approved for use as food additives and are classified as GRAS (generally recognised as safe) by the US Food and Drug Administration. Nevertheless there is a risk involved in the consumption of essential oils 25. Also, a review on the safety assessment of St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) oil has concluded that the available data are insufficient to support the use of ingredients from this plant as safe for use in cosmetic formulations 26.

Adverse events

Some essential oils (e.g. camphor oil) can cause local irritation. The main concern with essential oils seems to be regarding cases of contact dermatitis, mostly reported in aromatherapists who have had prolonged skin contact with oils in the context of aromatherapy massage. Moreover, phototoxicity has been found to occur when essential oils (particularly citrus oils) are applied directly to the skin before exposure to the sun 27.

Odours from essential oils may result in adverse psychological responses, especially if the memory of a particular scent evokes strong emotions (Holmes; 26) In addition, Hongratanaworakit et al. have reported that sweet orange oil (Citrus sinensis) can have a stimulatory effect on the cardiovascular system 28.

Contraindications

One study has shown that repeated topical exposure to lavender and tea tree oils by topical administration was associated with reversible prepubertal gynecomastia 29. Therefore, these two essential oils could cause problems in patients with oestrogen-dependant tumours.

Further contraindications, especially for people with cancer, are associated with contagious diseases, broken skin, varicose veins and circulatory disorders 30. Caution is also indicated for those who are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, breastfeeding, or have kidney disease, liver disease, asthma or epilepsy 31.

Interactions

Drugs that act as depressants on the central nervous system can interact adversely with aromatherapy. These drugs include narcotics such as morphine or oxycodone (OxyContin) for pain, as well as sedative and anti-anxiety agents such as lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax) 32. Some aromatherapies can cause sleepiness or drowsiness.

Warnings

Aromatherapy inhalation should not be used by people with asthma.

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

References

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