Does Aromatherapy Really Work? Medical Experts Weigh In
One scroll through your social media feed and you’re sure to see at least a handful of folks swearing by aromatherapy. While we think it’s safe to say that everyone can indulge in a good scent, it’s less clear if people can actually physically benefit from it. And with aromatherapy projected to be a $13 billion industry by 2024, we can’t help but wonder: Is there actually a science to it, or is this just another multilevel marketing scheme flooding our social feeds?
We chatted with a few doctors, as well as an aromatherapist, to find out everything there is to know about the much-talked-about wellness craze. Check out what they had to say below.
What is aromatherapy?
"Aroma" is simply another word for scent, and "therapy" correlates with healing. In that vein, aromatherapy can be thought of as a way to heal through scents. According to functional medicine practitioner Dr. Tamika Henry, aromatherapy is the use of natural plant extracts—aka essential oils—to promote natural healing. “Many have used [them] to help heal mentally, physically, and emotionally,” she explains, noting that there are many different oils that can aid your current state of being.
The beauty of aromatherapy is that it exists in many forms. From essential oil roll-ons (we love Briogeo’s B. Well Aromatic Essential Oils Kit, $38) and crystal-infused candles to shower sprays (like J.R. Watkins Aromatherapy In-Shower Mist, $15) and body products, aromatherapy has a way of inching into every aspect of a calming self-care routine. That said, according to natural perfumer and aromatherapist Ixchel Leigh, the most common forms of traditional aromatherapy are through inhalation—whether sniffing your wrists after rolling on oils, misting your shower before you jump in, or using a specialty inhaler (like HELLEN’s Aromatic Inhaler, $45, which comes in seven scents)—and through massage.
How does aromatherapy work?
Now that you know the what, let’s chat about the why.
As Beverly Hills concierge doctor to the stars Dr. Ehsan Ali posits, aromatherapy is beneficial because using pleasant scents improves mental well-being, which can ultimately lead to improved physical ailments. “For example, during massages or meditation, the pleasant aromatic smell can help alleviate stress and tension and therefore help relax the muscles,” he explains.
Whether you apply essential oils to your body or fill the room around you with their scent, research suggests that the scents can reduce stress, promote spirituality, uplift mood, and more.
In fact, according to an article published by the Alzheimer’s Association, “Simply breathing in a therapeutic-grade essential oil can help lower stress levels, lower blood pressure and pulse rate.”
What are essential oils used for?
This all comes down to what your end goal is. Whether you want to feel calm, happy, energized, awakened, detoxed, or spiritually atuned—there’s an essential oil for that.
“In herbal medicine, each plant has its specific beneficial properties. Some plants can stimulate; some calm,” Leigh explains. “If you only have one essential oil, most people recommend lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), as it has often been referred to as a medicine kit in a bottle. It has many varied benefits: It’s calming and soothing; it helps to heal scrapes, cuts, and burns; and [it] acts as a bug repellent, to name only a few.”
While lavender is often thought of as the ultimate base to any aromatherapy kit, Dr. Ali says that antifungal tea tree oil, which proves beneficial for acne and skin concerns, is another oil worth adding to your collection. Additionally, he recommends peppermint for the GI tract and to soothe headaches. Now that you’re likely curious about what other benefits lay waiting to be discovered, check out 10 of the most popular oils and their correlating uses and benefits, according to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy:
Clary Sage: Relaxation and pain reduction
Cypress: Menstrual and muscle pain
Eucalyptus: Energy and clear breathing
Geranium: Nerve pain
Ginger: Digestion and pain reduction
Lemon: De-stressing and uplifting
Neroli: Anxiety reduction
Roman Chamomile: Stress reduction
Whichever oil you choose, it’s important to know that, depending on the formulation, it likely requires some form of dilution with a carrier oil. “The carrier oils are used to dilute the essential oils, and they can optimize the properties of the essential oil,” Henry says, noting that carrier oils lack a strong odor and don't evaporate. “Some examples of carrier oils are coconut oil, jojoba oil, olive oil, sweet almond oil, and argan oil. There are several to choose from, but it’s important to choose a carrier oil that is of high quality.”
Now that you’re up to speed, let’s talk kits. Oftentimes you can find aromatherapy kits geared toward a specific mood that will be composed of all the most popular oils for the chosen effect. That said, Henry says you don’t have to buy the largest kit offered to start your own journey toward natural healing. “Start by picking a few essential oils that apply to your specific health and mental well-being goals,” she suggests. “In medicine, we say, ‘Start low and go slow.’ Determine how it’s working for you and go from there.”
Fun Fact: Essential oils are the concentrated version of the plant. According to Leigh, it takes five pounds of eucalyptus leaves to get a pound of eucalyptus essential oil. It takes 250 pounds of lavender flowers to yield one pound of pure lavender essential oil. What’s more, it takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to collect one pound of pure rose essential oil. “Now you see why the prices vary so much when you’re buying these sacred oils,” she says.
What kind of essential oils should I buy?
Quality matters. According to an article published in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, “Using lesser-quality essential oils and not understanding safety guidelines can negatively affect clinical outcomes.”
Since the composition of essential oils plays a big role in how beneficial your aromatherapy practices are, Leigh recommends educating yourself on all the different essential oils you want to add to your routine. “Learn the botanical name (aka the Latin binomial in italics),” she suggests, noting that there are several varieties with different chemical constituents—and not all are good in the same application. “Each essential oil is different, and you need to know how to use them, in what dilution, and how specifically to apply. Some are better on the skin mixed into a carrier. Some work better only inhaled.”
Henry adds to this, noting that the aromatherapy market is saturated with low-quality oils. “Low-quality [essential oils and] carrier oils can contain synthetic ingredients which increase your chances of exposure to toxins like benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, propylene glycol, and parabens,” she warns.
Speaking of carrier oils, if you don’t have the time to determine if your essential oils can be used neat (read: without a carrier), your best bet is to seek aromatic products from reputable companies that take the guesswork out for you. “Look online at reviews of companies, their products, and how they are recommending usages,” Leigh says, reiterating that going into it with some level of knowledge is beneficial, as it protects you from being vulnerable.
Lastly, it’s important to know that not all essential oils are tolerated by pets. In fact, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says that pure essential oils can be quite harmful, causing everything from diarrhea and vomiting to depression and low body temperature. For that reason, they recommend either keeping aromatherapy use limited to a secure area for a short period of time or nixing it altogether.
A Final Word
Living in the world we do, it’s simple to assume that aromatherapy is just another multilevel marketing scheme, given the vast number of people that swear by little jars of essential oils, diffusers, and home and body products composed of the same scents. While some aromatherapy definitely fits into this category, when you take the time to actually discover high-quality essential oils, you will likely notice real, favorable results.
Additionally, it’s important to know that, like all products you apply to your skin, there’s a chance for a reaction. “Aromatherapy has been associated with itching, rashes, skin irritation, watery eyes, sneezing, headache, appetite changes, and constipation,” Henry shares. “But just as well, aromatherapy continues to be a growing industry and lends itself to the promotion of natural healing.” Her advice? If you are dabbling in the world of essential oils and want to achieve aromatherapy’s full benefits, seek the knowledge and expertise of an aromatherapy expert. “Ask questions, become informed, and know that your health is dynamic and can change from day to day,” she says.