Psychology Department

Health Psychology Home Page

Papers written by students providing scientific reviews of topics related to health and well being

Search HomeWeight LossAlternative Therapy | Supplements | Eating Disorders | Fitness | Links | Self-Assessment | About this Page |







Erica Utegaard



What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy can be defined as “The use of plant oils, including essential oils, that induce physical and psychological well-being.” (  Aromatherapy can be used as an alternative medicine to accompany traditional medicine.  People most often practice aromatherapy to induce certain moods or feelings or to reduce physical ailments depending on the type of essential oils used.

How Can You Practice Aromatherapy?

The most common means of practicing aromatherapy are by olfactory senses from essential oils and candles or through the skin by massage or baths.  The different essential oils induce different moods and feelings depending on the aroma.  These oils and their effects will be discussed in a later section.  The use of essential oils while receiving a massage is supposed to increase the desired effects of the massage. This is because the odor of the essential oil combines with the relaxing pressure of the masseur on one’s muscles and throughout their body.  While bathing, pour a few drops of essential oil into hot water and inhale the aroma as the steam fills the air.  By inhaling the steam, the aroma flows through the lungs and into the bloodstream, dissipating the reaction throughout the body.


What are the Origins of Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy was first practiced China and Egypt, though the term aromatherapy was not coined until centuries later.  The ancient Chinese cultures burned incense for harmony and balance.  Ancient Egyptians used cedarwood, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and myrrh to pay tribute to those who died.  Egyptians used both distilled and infused oils.  Infused oils were mostly used for fragrant purposes, much like we use perfume today.  One of the first significant times aromatherapy was used was during the 1500’s when the Black Death struck Europe.  History reports that some perfumers may have avoided the plague due to constantly being surrounded by the aromas.  The term aromatherapy was named by René-Maurice Gattefossé during the early 1900’s.  He burned his arm while working on an experiment and quickly stuck it into the nearest liquid.  The liquid happened to be lavender essential oil.  Since his burn was fast healing and did not leave a scar, he called the healing powers of essential oils aromatherapy. (

Information on Essential Oils


Essential oils are distilled liquids from parts of a plant.  These parts are usually the leaves, stem, root, or flower petal ( Essential oils are almost always mixed with carrier oils in order to reduce its potency and high concentration.  Carrier oils are fat based oils that allow the application of essential oils onto the skin.  There are several types of carrier oils that can be chosen based upon how well they combine with the essential oil and on the desired treatment effect of the individual.  A few examples of carrier oils are sweet almond, apricot kernel, olive, sesame, and wheat germ.  There are some essential oils that are toxic and therefore harmful to people.  These oils should not be used for aromatherapy.  A couple examples are horseradish, wormwood, garlic, and bitter almond (  There are safety precautions people must take while using essential oils as well.  As mentioned earlier, they should never be used in pure, concentrated form.  When applying the oil to the skin, a carrier oil must be mixed with the essential oil for dilution.  Some essential oils are hazardous to people with certain medical conditions or to pregnant women.  Lastly, essential oils should never be used internally.  Aromatherapy is designed for olfaction and tactile purposes only.

Popular Essential Oils

There are dozens of essential oils. All oils have different scents, uses, and effects. The oils can be used for relaxation, rejuvenation, pain relief and more. The following is a table of some of the common essential oils with their scent, use, and possible effects. A more complete listing of essential oils can be found on the following websites. (,

Essential Oil


Aroma description



Dandruff, arthritis

Woody and sweet

Soothing, strengthening


Headache, insomnia, nausea, stress

Crisp, sweet

Soothing, relaxing


Colds, poor circulation, arthritis

Fresh, earthy

Balancing, stimulating


Colds, nausea

Warm, spicy



Depression, mental tension

Floral, exotic

Soothing, relaxing


Depression, anxiety, burns, muscle pain

Fresh, slightly fruity

Calming, therapeutic


Muscle aches, stress

Fresh, lemony



Head ache, nausea

Mint, fresh, strong

Refreshing, stimulating


Sensitive skin, anxiety, stress

Rich, sweet, delicate

Warming, relaxing



Rich, warm



Is Aromatherapy Legitimate? Here are the Experimental Results:

Jennifer Edge(2003) conducted a pilot study in which she tested the effects of aromatherapy massages on mood, anxiety, and relaxation on eight subjects.  Each subject was given a Hospital Anxiety and Depression (HAD) Scale where these levels were tested both before and after completing the massage treatments.  Every subject received an aromatherapy massage for one hour, once a week, for six weeks.  The average improvement in relaxation and anxiety was 50% and mood was 30% after each individual massage.  The subjects were each tested again with the HAD six weeks after the completion of their massages to measure their relaxation, anxiety, and mood scores.  Six weeks post-massage their levels had dropped in all three areas but were still 30%, 10%, and 10% higher, respectively, than before the experiment started.   Only one of the eight subjects did not show any improvement in any of the three areas.  This study can conclude that aromatherapy massage does have positive effects in the short term with relaxation, anxiety, and mood but the effects drop off if the aromatherapy use is not persistent. (

Two studies tested the effects of the essential oils lavender and rosemary.  One study concentrated on how the oils affect cognition and moods and the other tested how they effect moods and EEG patterns of alertness. In the first study by Moss, Cook, Wesnes, and Duckett (2003) the main findings were that the subjects assigned to the lavender group were less alert than those exposed to rosemary.  Also, subjects in the control who received no aromatherapy treatment were unhappier than those who did.  This indicates that aromatherapy can have positive effects on moods.  A final finding of this experiment was that the aromatherapy produced a slower reaction time to memory and performance, most likely due to a higher state of relaxation.  In the second study by Diego, Jones, Field, Hernanzez-Reif, Schanberg, Kuhn, McAdam, Galamaga, and Galamaga (1998), 40 adults were exposed to three minutes of lavender or rosemary aromatherapy.  The subjects were given a sheet of math computations to complete before and after the aromatherapy.  Participants exposed to the lavender were more relaxed and drowsy, but were still more accurate at the second set of math problems.  Participants exposed to the rosemary claimed to be more alert and answered the math problems more quickly after the exposure, but were no more accurate than before receiving aromatherapy. This evidence can lead to the belief that aromatherapy does in fact mildly induce different mood states. (,

Brian Cooke and Edzard Ernst (2000) completed a systematic review of aromatherapy by compiling and studying the results of six experiments dealing with aromatherapy use.  The general conclusions were that aromatherapy massage can be beneficial for short periods in reducing anxiety, stress, and increasing well-being.  This data is congruent to the findings of the first study mentioned above.  Five of the six experiments concluded that aromatherapy causes positive effects.  Since six different experiments were conducted by six different researchers, none were exactly alike.  Every experiment was conducted by health care officials to patients in a hospital setting.  The participants were tested in performance by mostly completing written questionnaires.  However, the questionnaires answered were different depending upon the study.  Also, different studies used different essential oils and had massages that lasted varying amounts of time.  Although none of the experiments were standardized amongst one another, five of the six did prove that the well-being and stress levels of patients improved with aromatherapy use.  The key points of the review, as stated by Cooke and Ernst are:


There are several conclusions I have drawn from my study on aromatherapy and its uses.  Aromatherapy is a growing practice of people today to help reduce stress and invoke certain moods and feelings.  While aromatherapy massages, baths, and candles do have positive short term effects on most people, it is not an actual science or medicine that should be used to treat illness.  Not all aromatherapy is beneficial to one’s health.  There are precautions people must take before practicing aromatherapy.  Some oils are unhealthy and some can have negative effects on pregnant women or people with certain medical conditions.  The study of aromatherapy is relatively new and unexplored.  More research must be done to make scientific conclusions about the use and effects of aromatherapy.


Cooke, B., & Ernst, E. (2000). Aromatherapy: A systematic review. British Journal of General Practice, 493-495.

Moss, M., Cook, J., Wesnes, K., & Duckett, P. (2003). Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differently affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. International Journal of Neuroscience, 113(1), 15-38.

Diego, MA., Jones, NA., Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., McAdam, V., Galamaga, R., & Galamaga, M. (1998). International Journal of Neuroscience, 96(3-4), 217-224

Edge, J. (2003). A pilot study addressing the effect of aromatherapy massage on mood, anxiety, and relaxation in adult mental health, (available online)

La Torre, MA. (2003). Aromatherapy and the use of scents in psychotherapy. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 39(1), 35-38.

Aromaweb -

A world of Aromatherapy -

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy -


Psychology Department

The Health Psychology Home Page is produced and maintained by David Schlundt, PhD.

Vanderbilt Homepage | Introduction to Vanderbilt | Admissions | Colleges & Schools | Research Centers | News & Media Information | People at Vanderbilt | Libraries |Vanderbilt Register | Medical Center 

  Return to the Health Psychology Home Page
  Send E-mail comments or questions to Dr. Schlundt