If you start searching for alternative treatment options for an illness or physical problem, you’ll inevitably run into someone who recommends aromatherapy.

Turning down the lights, shutting off your phone, and spending some time in front of a diffuser with some lavender oil seems like it would be a relaxing experience. Does it work to provide an actual treatment benefit?

Although the elements of massage and meditation which are often included with aromatherapy do have health benefits, the pleasing experience of smelling something nice is not necessarily therapeutic.

What Does Aromatherapy Research Suggest?

Clinical research into the health benefits of aromatherapy is surprisingly limited. Two studies that were supervised by the University of Exeter, one in 2000 and the other in 2012, found that there was no convincing evidence that aromatherapy provided any positive health effects.

Dr. Edzard Ernst, who is the former Chair of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, oversaw the research.

“Aromatherapists claim that specific oils have specific health effects,” he told Time Magazine during a 2016 interview. “This, in my view, is little more than wishful thinking.”

There are research studies which suggest the opposite is also true. There is evidence to suggest that using lavender oil for aromatherapy may improve personal pain tolerance levels. Ginger oil can be used to lower feelings of nausea after a surge.

Even people with severe dementia find added calmness when a lotion with lemon balm is applied to their skin.

What makes the issue of aromatherapy research a challenge is that the studies which show benefits may be attributed to other factors that happen.

Is Expectancy a Medical Reality?

The mind does incredible things. If someone thinks they are taking a miracle cancer drug, then their body heals from cancer – even if that “drug” was just a sugar pill. The power of the placebo is real.

With aromatherapy, there is also the power of expectancy to consider. If you believe that your pain tolerance will be higher after you spend time smelling lavender, then it will be.

There may be real benefits to aromatherapy, but it may also be caused by certain placebo benefits which do not always apply.

And then we must also remember that plant oils and chemicals are potent substances. They can bring poor results just as they can provide positive ones.

Could Aromatherapy Cause Allergic Reactions?

Aromatherapy products may produce a variety of allergic reactions when they are used. People have experienced everything from a rash on their skin to inflammation to breathing problems.

Just because the product is naturally-based does not mean that it is free from risk.

Some elements may even encourage changes to the body. The compounds in tea tree oil and lavender are linked to the formation of gynecomastia, which is an abnormal amount of breast tissue, in adolescent boys. 

Women who are pregnant or are breastfeeding are often encouraged to avoid aromatherapy.

Most aromatherapy research does not turn up an adverse reaction. Avoiding aromatherapy may not be the right choice. At best, there are still unanswered questions to resolve when asking if aromatherapy works.