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


What is it ?


Aromatherapy encompasses the controlled use of aromatic essential oils derived from many different types of plants (more often the uncrushed whole plant) claimed to possess therapeutic properties within a variety of application methods. Aromatherapy is also referred to as essential or volatile oil therapy or, more rarely, aromatic medicine.


Approximately 40 different essential oils extracted from various plants are used in aromatherapy, processed either through distillation or cold pressing (expression). Lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, chamomile, marjoram, jasmine, peppermint, lemon, ylang ylang and geranium are some of the most popular plants used 1,33.

Application and dosage

Aromatherapy/essential oils can either be self-administered or administered by a practitioner.  An aromatherapy massage typically lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. Many aromatherapists are primarily trained as massage therapists and use essential oils as part of their practice. Most commonly diluted oils are applied topically, often together with a carrier oil, as part of massage therapy to manipulate soft body tissue, or else by inhalation of the aroma using an incense burner or via ‘aromasticks’. In addition, some essential oils are ingested as teas, added to bathwater or pillows, or added to ointments, creams and compresses. It has been suggested that a safe and effective maximum dilution for most aromatherapy/essential oils in massage therapy is 2.5% for adults (2 drops of essential oil per 100 drops of carrier oil) and 5–10 drops for full-body baths.


Aromatic, perfumed oils were used in ancient Egypt to embalm mummies, as well as in ancient China and India. The Persian philosopher and scientist Avicenna (c. AD 980–1037) was the first to distil oil from the rose plant 2. The term ‘aromatherapy’ was coined by French chemist and perfumiér René Maurice Gattefossé in his 1937 bookAromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones végétales as a subcategory of ‘herbal medicine’.

Gattefossé suggested aromatherapy could be used to treat diseases in virtually every organ system, citing mostly anecdotal and case-based evidence 3. Other notable aromatherapists who helped lay the foundation for modern practice are Dr Jean Valnet, who used aromatherapy to treat soldiers during WWII; Madame Marguerite Maury, an Austrian biochemist who brought aromatherapy into the world of cosmetics and developed their use in massage; and Robert B. Tisserand, an English Aromatherapist recognized for bringing aromatherapy to English speaking populations 3. In the 1980s aromatherapy increased in popularity in the USA.

Today aromatherapy is fairly well-established in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK 4. Professional aromatherapists, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists and massage therapists can all provide topical or inhalation aromatherapy treatment 5.

Claims of efficacy and alleged indications

Essential oils are used to improve physical, spiritual and emotional wellbeing. A wide range of claims have been made for the effect of certain oils, ranging from affecting the ‘subtle body’ of a patient to having anticonvulsive and spasmolytic properties. It has been suggested that the topical application of aromatic oils may exert antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. For cancer patients, claims of benefits include reduced anxiety levels and relief from emotional stress, pain, muscular tension and fatigue. Some of these alleged outcomes have been vaguely defined.

It has been claimed that the application of aromatherapy can help patients with stress, chronic pain, nausea and depression; in addition they may contribute towards the relief of bacterial infections, stimulation of the immune system; it has also been asserted that they can assist in combating colds and sore throats, increasing urine production and circulation, relieving cystitis, herpes simplex, acne, headaches, indigestion, premenstrual syndrome and muscle tension. Specific indications vary according to the oils used 6. There is currently no evidence to prove any of these claims.

Mechanisms of action

The chemical properties and composition of a specific type of essential oil determines the therapeutic qualities it might have. A number of theories, which fall within the two broad categories of psychological aspects or neuro-chemical effects, try to explain the mechanisms of action. It has been suggested that effects on the limbic and olfactory system also affect mood 4, but only very limited research confirms such mechanisms. Proponents of essential oils/aromatherapy also believe that the overall effects these oils have on the body are greater than the sum of the individual components of the scents 7.

Prevalence of use

Aromatherapy use by cancer patients varies from country to country. A systematic review in 2011 showed, for example: 1% in Australia (three surveys); between <1 and 4% in Canada (two surveys); <1–2% in Italy, Spain and Turkey; 40.6% in the UK (six surveys); 11% in the USA, and 6% in New Zealand 8.

Legal issues

There is no single regulatory organisation specifically for aromatherapy, but membership of a number of professional organisations is open to aromatherapists such as the International Federation of Aromatherapists (www.ifparoma.org), Also, legal restrictions apply in some countries because of the way in which essential oils can be administered, namely both orally and rectally; in such instances the application must be carried out by a medically qualified person.

Costs and expenditures

Some cancer clinics or other voluntary organisations now offer aromatherapy or aromatherapy massage free of charge or at a reduced cost. Treatments of aromatherapy massage usually cost between €30 and €85 for a 60 to 90 minute session 3. Aromatherapy oils can be purchased from a variety of sources, including health shops, larger supermarkets and the Internet. Prices can vary markedly.

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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