Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to promote wellbeing. Essential oils are liquids that are distilled from the scented parts of a plant, such as lavender or rosemary. Aromatherapy can be delivered in many ways, most simply by heating essential oils in an oil burner or a candle to produce particular aromas. Aromatherapy is also often combined with massage by using scented oils on the body.
The way essential oils might work to improve mood is not understood, although it has been shown that they can have an effect on the brain's electrical activity.
Essential oils can be used in a number of ways. For example, they can be placed in a diffuser and vaporised, mixed in with massage oils, or added to candles or a bath.
Some studies have found that when combined with massage, aromatherapy can be beneficial in improving mood. However, in these studies difficult to tell whether any improvements in depressive symptoms were due to the aromatherapy or the massage itself, and not all of the people in these studies had clinical depression. For more information on massage in the treatment of depression, you can visit our entry about massage.
There is very little scientific evidence on aromatherapy inhalation (without massage) for the treatment of depression. One review which looked at 12 studies found that aromatherapy was linked to an improvement in depression symptoms in about half of these studies, however the quality of these studies was low. Not all of the participants in these studies had clinical depression.
More evidence of better quality is needed to see if aromatherapy could be helpful for people with clinical depression.
Essential oils should not be applied directly to skin without diluting them in another oil, as undiluted oils can irritate or burn the skin. Some people may experience irritation or an allergic reaction when using essential oils even if they are diluted, so make sure to do a patch test (placing a small amount of diluted oil on a small area of skin) before using any essential oils.
Care should also be taken to ensure that essential oils are kept away from the eyes, ears and mouth. Essential oils should never be swallowed.
Some essential oils are toxic and should never be used. This includes camphor oil, pennyroyal oil and wintergreen oil.
Aromatherapists and massage therapists are listed in the Yellow Pages. Many massage therapists offer an aromatherapy component to their massages. Essential oils can be purchased online and in many natural health shops.
Aromatherapy can be a pleasant, low risk complimentary therapy, although there is not enough good evidence at this stage to recommend aromatherapy as a treatment for depression.
Last updated and reviewed: 1 November 2019