Aromatherapy myth busting

Aromatherapy oils, burners and other paraphernalia are on sale across Australia, and everyone seems to have their favourite scent or blend, but how effective are they? And how safe? We examine the wellness claims made by essential oil advocates and assess any potential health drawbacks for you and your family.

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writer

Staff writer

Whether it’s at your local hippie hang-out, health food store or hospital, aromatherapy is a branch of herbal medicine using aromatic materials – usually essential oils extracted from plants – to promote health and wellbeing. Oils are usually delivered via direct inhalation, diffusion to fragrance the environment, or topical application – where the essential oil is mixed with a ‘carrier oil’ and applied to skin through massage or rubbing. Practitioners use different oil blends for different purposes: to treat minor conditions, for health promotion and general feelgood vibes. Despite its popularity, research on the effectiveness of aromatherapy treatments is limited, and government bodies have raised safety concerns over some popular uses.

The case for aromatherapy

Most practitioners place aromatherapy somewhere on a spectrum between ‘feelgood’ and ‘medicine’. They believe there are two mechanisms at work: one that’s pharmacological, the other psychological. Following the pharmacological route, molecules from the aromatic product enter the body and alter physiological processes, just like any other chemicals would do. The psychological impact is more about the connection between our sense of smell and our mood, emotions and behaviour.

Advocates might use peppermint for digestive disorders; rosemary for muscular pains and mental stimulation; lavender for headaches, insomnia, burns, aches and pains; or tea tree for respiratory problems and antifungal use. Aromatherapists believe essential oils can enhance wellbeing and also treat some minor health issues such as colds, muscle aches and dry skin.

Research into aromatherapy

Some studies suggest aromatherapy may have limited health benefits, including relief from anxiety and depression, better sleeping patterns, and pain management. The Cancer Council notes the use of aromatherapy massage in improving quality of life for advanced-stage patients. Epilepsy Action Australia also supports the use of some essential oils for stress reduction. Australian researchers have even experimented with the use of aromatherapy and hand massage to reduce disruptive behaviour in people with dementia.

Overall, though, the message from medical experts is: aromatherapy might help some people, and it probably does no harm when administered correctly. No reputable practitioner would turn to aromatherapy exclusively for treating anything beyond minor complaints; these days it is considered a complementary medicine, designed to be used on top of and alongside conventional treatments. Even so, many health professionals are wary of the practice. The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia advises pharmacists not to recommend complementary medicines, including aromatherapy, as many products “have limited evidence of efficacy”.

While most essential oils are naturally derived products, that does not mean their use is always benign. Here’s what to look out for when practising aromatherapy.

Caution 1: What’s in the bottle?

Some aromatherapy preparations sold in retail shops – like pharmacies or health food stores – will be either listed or registered on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods, and there are limits on the health claims manufacturers can make. However, this limited protection does not cover all products, especially those purchased from international web shops, or in more informal settings like markets. So make sure you buy from a reputable source.

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If you’re using aromatherapy products, make sure you’re diluting, applying, and storing them safely.

Caution 2: Skin sensitivity

Some essential oils may be more reactive than others, potentially causing skin sensitivity or allergic reactions. Oils like tea tree, peppermint, black pepper and cinnamon carry this warning, and experts recommend performing a skin patch test before use, and diluting the oil for application. It’s also worth noting that data is limited on the effects of essential oil use among children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, so many advocates steer clear of aromatherapy treatments for infants and new and soon-to-be mums.

Caution 3: Ingestion

Essential oils can be toxic if taken in by mouth. In light of recent claims by multi-level marketing companies promoting the internal use of aromatherapy products, NSW Poisons Information Centre has warned that eucalyptus oil, clove oil and peppermint oil are particularly dangerous when swallowed: ingesting as little as 2-3ml can cause sedation and 5ml can cause coma. The Victorian government also urges parents to secure aromatherapy products away from children, after a rise in poisoning cases.

_If you’re considering aromatherapy, peak bodies such as the International Aromatherapy & Aromatic Medicine Association can recommend knowledgeable practitioners. You may also want to consult your doctor or pharmacist about the possible risks and benefits. For anyone worried about side effects from aromatherapy products, this guide from the WA Department of Health lists basic first-aid responses to potentially toxic exposure._

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OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writers come from a range of backgrounds including health, wellbeing, music, tech, culture and the arts. They spend their time researching the latest data and trends in the health market to deliver up-to-date information, helping everyday Australians live healthier lives. This is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.