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 the essential oils to produce particular aromas. Aromatherapy is also often combined with massage by using scented oils on the body.
The way essential oils work on the brain is not understood, although it has been shown that they can have an effect on the brain's electrical activity. Aromatherapy can have effects via inhalation and the sense of smell, and through absorption in the skin when used with massage.
A few 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. There is there is limited evidence of its effectiveness for people with clinical depression, and more studies of better quality are needed. For more information on massage in the treatment of depression, you can visit our massage page.
There is very little scientific evidence on aromatherapy inhalation (without massage) for the treatment of depression. Three experimental studies have found small positive effects of aromatherapy inhalation on mood for postpartum women, cancer patients and the general population. However, there is currently no evidence for its effectiveness for people with chronic 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. Care should also be taken to ensure that essential oils are kept away from the eyes, ears and mouth.
Aromatherapists and are listed in the Yellow Pages. Many massage therapists offer an aromatherapy component to their massages. Aromatherapy 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 December 2016