Does Aromatherapy Really Work?

Dawn Chan

Aromatherapist, MIFPA, MNAHA

Clarifying some misunderstanding of aromatherapy

Some people see aromatherapy as a branch of the fragrance industry, the natural aroma of essential oils usually helps promote a refreshing, delightful or relaxing atmosphere.  Some simply take aromatherapy as a kind of massage.  These are however only partial understanding of what aromatherapy really is.  Think of the fact that quite a number of essential oils are not-so-nice to smell but still produce amazing therapeutic effect!

To understand what aromatherapy is, we must first study the key to aromatherapy – essential oils.

Like medical herbs, essential oils are derived purely from plants (flowers, leaves, barks, roots, fruits etc).  They represent the life-force of plants, are fragrant as well as highly volatile, and exhibit medicinal or therapeutic properties (such as antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, sedative, antispasmodic etc).  With proper blending and applications (such as inhalation, massage, bath, compress, mouth washes and gargles etc), essential oils help balance or promote physical, emotional and psychological well-being.


How does inhaling essential oils help reduce stress/enhance mood?

Just imagine the dizziness you may experience once you breathe in chloroform, you will appreciate the powerful effect of inhalation!

Obtaining therapeutic benefits by inhalation is a unique application of aromatherapy as a complementary therapy.  Any substances that can be detected by the sense of smell must be volatile.  The molecules of essential oil are so tiny and highly volatile.  Upon passing through the mucous membranes of nasal cavity, the aromatic molecules stimulate nerve endings and trigger the transmission of messages, which directly penetrate and affect the central part of brain (including thalamus, hypothalamus and other structures of the limbic system).  This part of brain supports a variety of functions including emotions, behaviour and even sleeping pattern and the endocrine system.  To influence this part of the nervous system, no other application works more directly and effectively than inhalation!  Besides, by inhalation, aroma molecules can also enter our blood circulation through the lung, and thereby able to exert its influence on various organs and systems.


Simple and trouble-free applications for “lazy” people

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids and should not be used undiluted.  Vaporization, bath and massage are all effective applications of aromatherapy.  But if you do not have the time or related accessories, you may consider the following applications:


Inhalation from a tissue paper

Place 1-2 drops of essential oil on a tissue paper.  Place the tissue near your nose and inhale.  Of course the result of using a tissue is inferior to that of using a burner or diffuser, but it still offers therapeutic benefits.

The choice of essential oils is largely determined by the effect you desire:

(1)  Feeling sleepy after lunch, need a quick energy lift or concentration on work:

Consider placing any one or two of the following oils on a tissue : Rosemary, Lemon, Nutmeg, Peppermint

Bear in mind 1-2 drops is sufficient.  When using peppermint, be careful not to inhale excessive amount at one time.


(2)  Early stage of a cold or influenza

Ravintsara, Tea tree, Lemon, Bergamot, Eucalyptus, Niaouli


(3)  For sedative/claming effect, to fall asleep faster

Cape Chamomile, Lavender, Bergamot, Frankincense, Sandalwood, Mandarin, Marjoram


Neat application for first-aid purposes

Beware – only under the following circumstances can certain essential oils be used undiluted on skin:

(1)  Minor cuts/burns

Apply 1-2 drops of Lavender (or Geranium, Tea Tree) neat to the affected area.


(2)  Insect bites

Apply 1-2 drops of Tea Tree or Lavender to the affected area.


(3)  Dry coughing at night or sore throat

Apply 1-2 drops of Sandalwood on throat and massage gently.