Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ®): Integrative, alternative, and complementary therapies - Patient Information [NCI]
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- Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) as therapy to improve physical, mental, and spiritual well-being (see Question 1).
- Aromatherapy may be used with other complementary treatments, such as massage or acupuncture, as well as with standard medical treatments to manage symptoms caused by cancer or cancer treatment (see Question 1).
- Essential oils are most often used by inhaling them or by applying a diluted form of them to the skin (see Question 2).
- Aromatherapy research with cancer patients has studied the effect of essential oils on anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and other health-related conditions (see Question 4).
- Safety testing on essential oils has found very few side effects. Lavender and tea tree essential oils have been found to have some hormone -like effects (see Question 5).
- Aromatherapy products do not need approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (see Question 6).
Questions and Answers About Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants to improve the mind, body, and spirit. It is used by patients with cancer to improve quality of life and reduce stress, anxiety, pain, nausea, and vomiting caused by cancer and its treatment. Aromatherapy may be used with other complementary treatments like massage therapy and acupuncture, as well as with standard medical treatments, for symptom management.
Essential oils are the fragrant (aromatic) part found in many plants, often under the surface of leaves, bark, or peel. The fragrance is released if the plant is crushed or a special steam process is used.
There are many essential oils used in aromatherapy, including those from Roman chamomile, geranium, lavender, tea tree, lemon, ginger, cedarwood, and bergamot. Each plant's essential oil has a different chemical make-up that affects how it smells, how it is absorbed, and how it affects the body.
Essential oils are very concentrated. For example, it takes about 220 pounds of lavender flowers to make about 1 pound of essential oil. The aroma of essential oils fades away quickly when left open to air.How is aromatherapy given or taken?
Aromatherapy is used in several ways.
- Indirect inhalation: The patient breathes in an essential oil by using a room diffuser, which spreads the essential oil through the air, or by placing drops on a tissue or piece of cotton nearby.
- Direct inhalation: The patient breathes in an essential oil by using an individual inhaler made by floating essential oil drops on top of hot water.
- Massage: In aromatherapy massage, one or more essential oils is diluted into a carrier oil and massaged into the skin.
Essential oils may also be mixed with bath salts and lotions or applied to bandages.
There are some essential oils used to treat specific conditions. However, the types of essential oils used and the ways they are combined vary, depending on the experience and training of the aromatherapist.Have any preclinical (laboratory or animal) studies been done using aromatherapy?
In laboratory studies, tumor cells are used to test a substance to find out if it is likely to have any anticancer effects. In animal studies, tests are done to see if a drug, procedure, or treatment is safe and effective in animals. Laboratory and animal studies are done before a substance is tested in people.
Laboratory and animal studies have tested the effects of essential oils. See the Laboratory/Animal/Preclinical Studies section of the health professional version of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils for information on laboratory and animal studies done using essential oils.Have any clinical trials (research studies with people) of aromatherapy been done?
Clinical trials of aromatherapy have studied its use in the treatment of anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and other health-related conditions in cancer patients. No studies of aromatherapy used to treat cancer have been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Studies of aromatherapy have shown mixed results. There have been some reports of improved mood, anxiety, sleep, nausea, and pain. Other studies reported that aromatherapy showed no change in symptoms.
Studies of aromatherapy alone
- A study of inhaled ginger essential oil in women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer somewhat decreased acute nausea, but did not lessen vomiting or chronic nausea.
- Women having breast biopsies were randomly assigned to receive lavender-sandalwood or orange-peppermint essential oil drops placed on a felt tab and attached to their hospital gown or to no scent on the felt tab. Women who received the lavender-sandalwood aromatherapy tab had less anxiety than women who received the orange-peppermint aromatherapy tab or no scent tab.
- A study of inhaled bergamot essential oil in children and adolescents at the time of stem cell infusion reported an increase in anxiety and nausea and no effect on pain. In a study of adult patients at the time of stem cell infusion, tasting or sniffing sliced oranges was more effective at reducing nausea, retching, and coughing than inhaling an orange essential oil.
- In a study of inhaled lavender essential oil, eucalyptus essential oil, or no essential oil in cancer patients having needles inserted into a central venous port catheter, patients who inhaled lavender essential oil reported less pain.
- A study of tea tree essential oil as a topical treatment (cream, body wash) to clear antibiotic -resistant MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) bacteria from the skin of hospital patients found that it was as effective as the standard treatment (ointment, cream, soap).
Studies of aromatherapy and massage
- A trial of 103 cancer patients studied the effects of massage compared to massage with Roman chamomile essential oil. Two weeks later, a decrease in anxiety and improved symptoms were noted in the group that had massage with essential oil. The group that had massage only did not have the same benefit.
Safety testing on essential oils shows very few side effects or risks when they are used as directed. Most essential oils have been approved as ingredients in food and fragrances and are labeled as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Swallowing large amounts of essential oils is not recommended.
Allergic reactions and skin irritation may occur when essential oils are in contact with the skin for long periods of time. Sun sensitivity may occur when citrus or other essential oils are applied to the skin before going out in the sun.
Lavender and tea tree essential oils have been found to have effects similar to estrogen (female sex hormone) and also block or decrease the effect of androgens (male sex hormones). Applying lavender and tea tree essential oils to the skin over a long period of time was linked in one study to breast growth in boys who had not yet reached puberty.Is aromatherapy approved by the FDA for use as a cancer treatment in the United States?
Aromatherapy products do not need FDA approval.
Aromatherapy is not regulated by state law, and there is no licensing required to practice aromatherapy in the United States. Practitioners often combine aromatherapy training with another field in which they are licensed, for example, massage therapy, nursing, acupuncture, or naturopathy.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (www.naha.org) and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (www.alliance-aromatherapists.org) are two organizations that have national educational standards for aromatherapists. A list of schools that offer certificate programs approved by NAHA can be found at http://www.naha.org/schools_level_one_two.htm.
The Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists (www.cfacanada.com) certifies aromatherapists in Canada. See the International Federation of Aromatherapists website (www.ifaroma.org/) for a list of international aromatherapy programs.
Current Clinical Trials
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
About This PDQ Summary
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the use of aromatherapy and essential oils in the treatment of people with cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's website. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board. PDQ Aromatherapy and Essential Oils. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/aromatherapy-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389261]
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General CAM Information
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)—also called integrative medicine—includes a broad range of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies. A therapy is generally called complementary when it is used in addition to conventional treatments; it is often called alternative when it is used instead of conventional treatment. (Conventional treatments are those that are widely accepted and practiced by the mainstream medical community.) Depending on how they are used, some therapies can be considered either complementary or alternative. Complementary and alternative therapies are used in an effort to prevent illness, reduce stress, prevent or reduce side effects and symptoms, or control or cure disease.
Unlike conventional treatments for cancer, complementary and alternative therapies are often not covered by insurance companies. Patients should check with their insurance provider to find out about coverage for complementary and alternative therapies.
Cancer patients considering complementary and alternative therapies should discuss this decision with their doctor, nurse, or pharmacist as they would any type of treatment. Some complementary and alternative therapies may affect their standard treatment or may be harmful when used with conventional treatment.
Evaluation of CAM Therapies
It is important that the same scientific methods used to test conventional therapies are used to test CAM therapies. The National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) are sponsoring a number of clinical trials (research studies) at medical centers to test CAM therapies for use in cancer.
Conventional approaches to cancer treatment have generally been studied for safety and effectiveness through a scientific process that includes clinical trials with large numbers of patients. Less is known about the safety and effectiveness of complementary and alternative methods. Few CAM therapies have been tested using demanding scientific methods. A small number of CAM therapies that were thought to be purely alternative approaches are now being used in cancer treatment—not as cures, but as complementary therapies that may help patients feel better and recover faster. One example is acupuncture. According to a panel of experts at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) meeting in November 1997, acupuncture has been found to help control nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy and pain related to surgery. However, some approaches, such as the use of laetrile, have been studied and found not to work and to possibly cause harm.
The NCI Best Case Series Program which was started in 1991, is one way CAM approaches that are being used in practice are being studied. The program is overseen by the NCI's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). Health care professionals who offer alternative cancer therapies submit their patients' medical records and related materials to OCCAM. OCCAM carefully reviews these materials to see if any seem worth further research.
Questions to Ask Your Health Care Provider About CAM
When considering complementary and alternative therapies, patients should ask their health care provider the following questions:
- What side effects can be expected?
- What are the risks related to this therapy?
- What benefits can be expected from this therapy?
- Do the known benefits outweigh the risks?
- Will the therapy affect conventional treatment?
- Is this therapy part of a clinical trial?
- If so, who is the sponsor of the trial?
- Will the therapy be covered by health insurance?
To Learn More About CAM
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilitates research and evaluation of complementary and alternative practices, and provides information about a variety of approaches to health professionals and the public.
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CAM on PubMed
NCCIH and the NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM) jointly developed CAM on PubMed, a free and easy-to-use search tool for finding CAM-related journal citations. As a subset of the NLM's PubMed bibliographic database, CAM on PubMed features more than 230,000 references and abstracts for CAM-related articles from scientific journals. This database also provides links to the websites of over 1,800 journals, allowing users to view full-text articles. (A subscription or other fee may be required to access full-text articles.)
Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine
The NCI Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) coordinates the activities of the NCI in the area of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). OCCAM supports CAM cancer research and provides information about cancer-related CAM to health providers and the general public via the NCI website.
National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer Information Service
U.S. residents may call the NCI Cancer Information Service toll free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
Food and Drug Administration
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates drugs and medical devices to ensure that they are safe and effective.
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Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces consumer protection laws. Publications available from the FTC include:
- Who Cares: Sources of Information About Health Care Products and Services
- Fraudulent Health Claims: Don't Be Fooled
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Last Revised: 2018-08-07
If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.