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Aromatherapy: Benefits and Risks

by Christy Coy 5 min read

Aromatherapy: Benefits and Risks

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy, like all healing, is both a science and an art. 

It is the use of essential oils to promote health and well-being. Basically, essential oils are aromatic molecules removed from plant material - petals, leaves, twigs, seeds, needles, wood, resin and rind. 

Knowing the basic jargon of aromatherapy is the first step in understanding the remarkable way essential oils are used to treat 'whatever ails you,' physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually.

Many of us practice aromatherapy on an everyday basis without realizing it. When we select a bath oil, air freshener, scented candle, or cleaning product the first thing we do is smell it. If it is pleasing to us, then we purchase it. We want something that will help us to relax or to help us maintain a higher energy level. Aromas can do this for us. 

When we consider that we intentionally select an aroma for the everyday products that we use, it becomes easier to see how using aromatherapy to treat physical and psychological ailments can be effective. 

The practice of aromatherapy for treating such ailments actually predates chemical-based medicine. The essential oils of aromatherapy have been used for hundreds of years in herbal medicine, disease prevention, and in religious and public ceremonies.

How Does Aromatherapy Actually Work?

When using an essential oil on the skin, it is absorbed into the bloodstream. The same thing happens when it is inhaled. The chemicals from the herb, bush, or plant are absorbed through tissues in the nose and lungs. 

Aromatic compounds and natural plant-based chemicals, when inhaled, eventually reach our limbic system — the network of nerves in the brain that controls our instincts and emotions. Once there, they can exert a myriad of biological and physiological responses. Some oils may alter our perception of pain, and improve our mood, while others may relieve nasal congestion, reduce anxiety, or boost energy.

The possibilities are endless. 

The Benefits of Aromatherapy

There are many benefits we can experience with aromatherapy. Some of the benefits are physical and some pertain to the overall well-being of our mind and spirit. If we are looking for physical treatment, relief from pain, reducing skin inflammation, curing digestive issues, and more, it is important to understand that aromatherapy and the use of essential oils is not a replacement for medical treatment. Always follow the advice and guidance of your medical practitioner. That said, aromatherapy can be a wonderful adjunct or alternative aid for improving health and wellness.

Medical studies have shown that aromatherapy is linked with:

  • Decreased levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress
  • Lower heart rate
  • Less pain
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Improved anxiety and depression

Which is why for some conditions there is a noticeable positive improvement. However, it should be noted that everyone and every body responds differently. As such, one individual may find more relief than another using the same aromatherapy. The way in which the aromatherapy is applied or used can also greatly impact results and individuals may need to experiment a bit to find the perfect application for their particular use case.


Some of these improvements include:

  • Easing stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Boosting feelings of relaxation
  • Improved sleep
  • Help to improve 'quality of life' for people with long-term mental problems like dementia
  • Fighting bacteria when you put them on your skin
  • Easing some of the side effects of cancer treatment, like nausea and pain
  • Enhanced physical energy

Is Aromatherapy It Safe?

Generally speaking, aromatherapy is considered safe. However, that used on the skin could cause mild allergic reactions such as hives, redness or irritation. In some cases, aromatic smells could also cause either stuffy or runny nose, throat irritation, sneezing or coughing. Aromatherapy may also irritate sensitive eyes, causing redness, watering or dryness. That said, any reactions are generally mild and of no particular medical concern.

If you are looking to use aromatherapy beyond trying to relax or reduce stress, it is best that you first consult your physician or a trained aromatherapist. 

Keep in mind that every body is different so reactions to essential oils will vary. The following suggested precautions are not a complete safety reference for the use of essential oils in aromatherapy, though they are an excellent starting point.  

Precautions When Using Aromatherapy:

  • A rule of thumb is to never use an essential oil undiluted directly on the skin. 
  • A skin patch test should be done prior to every first-time use of an essential oil. 
  • Essential oils should only be taken internally under the supervision of a licensed medical practitioner. 
  • Essential oils are highly flammable; use extreme care around any open flames. 
  • In the event of eye irritation from an essential oil, irrigate the eye with a sterile, saline solution for 15 minutes, or with clean water.
  • Keep essential oils in a locked cabinet, away from children.
  • Babies and elderly persons require lower doses of essential oils, half that recommended for a healthy adult. Peppermint and eucalyptus have been known to cause respiratory problems with these age groups.
  • Persons undergoing chemotherapy should consult their medical practitioner before using essential oils in any form.
  • High blood pressure patients should avoid essential oils of black pepper, clove, hyssop, peppermint, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
  • Low blood pressure patients should avoid excessive use of lavender oil.
  • Those who are allergic to nuts cannot use sweet almond or peanut carrier oils.

Ways to Use Aromatherapy

The most effective way to use aromatherapy will largely be dependent on the type of oil or herb you are using, and what you are using it for. Each may require a differing preparation in order to best deliver its benefits. Always follow the manufacture guidelines and recommendations, as well as any instructions from your healthcare provider or doctor.

Most Common Ways to Use Aromatherapy:

  • Aroma candles such as those from Hemper 
  • Bath / soaking 
  • Chest rub preparation 
  • Warm or cool compress
  • Via the use of aromatic diffusers 
  • Direct application to the skin
  • Gargle or mouth rinse
  • Steam inhalation 
  • Internal use (not generally recommended)
  • Massage
  • Infused or scented pillow or cloths

Closing Thoughts Regarding the Benefits and Risks of Aromatherapy 

As you can see, while there are numerous benefits to aromatherapy itself, it's the use of essential oils that requires forethought and knowledge for it to be more effective than just lighting a scented candle to relax in a bath. 

To reduce or eliminate any possible risks, a professional aromatherapist can be consulted. 

A professional aromatherapist is not a medical practitioner, however, they do provide holistic medicinal treatments to clients through the topical application or inhalation of essential oils. Although there are no official licensure standards in the United States for aromatherapists, there are professional groups that offer certification programs. Holistic healers and naturopathic doctors will often partner with a professional aromatherapist to ensure that their client receives the benefit of aromatherapy without the risk of trying to do it themselves.