science research: aromatherapy for cancer patients
science research: aromatherapy for cancer patients

Science Research: How Aromatherapy Can Help Cancer Patients


Aromatherapy with Essential Oils (PDQ®)- Patient Version

 Published by the “National Cancer Institute.”

A display of four aromatherapy bottles of various sizes along with some fresh and ground herbs

1. What is 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 stressanxiety, 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.

Woman getting a massage with essential oils absorbing into her skin

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 chamomilegeraniumlavenderteatreelemon

gingercedarwood,  bergamot.

Three dark bottles of essential oils with their molecular chemistry written out

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.

2. How is Aromatherapy Given or Taken?

Wooden essential oil diffuser diffusing some essential oil into the air
Older woman dressed in a white robe inhaling some essential oils
Woman pouring essential oil in hand to massage another person

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.

Two tinctures of essential oil bath salts and bath salts lotions

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

3. Have any preclinical (laboratory or animal) studies been done using Aromatherapy?

In laboratory studiestumor 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 have tested the effects of essential oils. Animal studies are done before a substance is tested in people.

  • Studies in animals show sedative and stimulant effects of specific essential oils as well as positive effects on behavior and the immune system. 
  • Functional imaging studies in humans support the influence of odors on the limbic system and its emotional pathways.

4. 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.

Woman curled up in corner with arms wrapped over knees suffering from anxiety and depression

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.

Study on anxiety and depression

Three tinctures of essence of flower essential oil
Young woman getting her head held by an orthopedic surgeon
  • 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.

Studies on health-related quality of life

Sick woman in hospital bed going through chemo therapy for cancer

Newly diagnosed patients with acute myeloid leukemia who were hospitalized to receive intensive chemotherapy inhaled an essential oil through a diffuser overnight for 3 weeks

  • Patients were given the choice of lavender, peppermint, or chamomile. Improvement was reported in sleep, tiredness, drowsiness, lack of appetitedepression, anxiety, and well-being.

Radioactive iodine may cause damage to salivary glands. Increased saliva production during treatment may decrease damage to salivary glands.

Young female doctor in a green vest doing some radiology for cancer treatment

In a randomized controlled trial, patients who inhaled a mixture of lemon and ginger essential oils had increased saliva production compared with the placebo group

Ginger root essential oil tincture with various forms of ginger around it
  • 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.
  • 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.

Studies on procedure-related symptoms

Graphic of a biopsy
Essential oil dropper and tincture

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 receive 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.

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

5. Have any side effects or risks been reported from aromatherapy?

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.

Three tinctures of citrus essential oils used for cancer research

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.

6. 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.

Young female naturopath doctor with an essential oil tincture

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy ( and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists ( are two organizations that have national educational standards for aromatherapists.

The Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists ( certifies aromatherapists in Canada.

See the International Federation of Aromatherapists website ( for a list of international aromatherapy programs.


“Aromatherapy With Essential Oils (PDQ®)–Patient Version was originally published by the National Cancer Institute.”


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