Written by Helen Seers, Katja Boehm and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated May 20, 2017


Does it work ?

The overall evidence for aromatherapy based on systematic reviews and randomised clinical trials provides limited evidence suggesting that aromatherapy might have positive short-term, effects on quality of life, physical and psychological problems for people with cancer. There were large variations in the type of aromatherapy used, controls and outcomes in the assessed studies. Most studies had methodological limitations.

No published studies have looked directly at aromatherapy as a cancer treatment. Instead, the literature has investigated aromatherapy’s possible effects in supportive and palliative cancer care such as quality of life and psychological/physical problems associated with cancer.

Systematic reviews

Shin et al. (2016) published a Cochrane review of massage with or without aromatherapy for symptom relief (pain, anxiety, symptoms relating to the breast, and quality of life) for people with cancer 9. Six of the included studies capturing data from 561 participants compared aromatherapy massage with no massage.  The quality of the evidence was judged as very low as studies were generally at a high risk of bias. Although there was some indication of benefit in the aromatherapy-massage groups, this benefit is unlikely to translate into clinically relevant benefit. Results included one RCT showing medium-term pain relief (n= 86, mean difference, MD 5.30; 95% CI 1.52 to 9.08), one RCT showing long-term pain relief (n = 86, MD 3.80; 95% CI 0.19 to 7.41); two RCTs reporting positive results for aromatherapy and anxiety (n= 253, combined MD -4.50; 95% CI -7.70 to -1.30), one RCT (n=86, MD -9.80; 95% CI -19.13 to -0.47) helping with physical breast cancer symptoms;  one RCT (n = 30, MD -2.00; 95% CI -3.46 to -0.54) reporting a medium-term quality of life score was lower (better) for the aromatherapy-massage group compared with the no-massage group. 

Two of the included studies (n=117) compared massage with aromatherapy and massage without aromatherapy. Results showed a lack of evidence for the clinical effectiveness of aromatherapy for the relief of pain, anxiety, depression, physical symptom distress or quality of life.  Key outcomes of studies were not reported in detail due the small size of the trials.  Overall, Shin et al. concluded that there was unclear clinical evidence of any benefit in terms of pain and anxiety relief, due to the methodological limitations of the evidence available 9.

Chen et al. (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of RCTs to look at the clinical effectiveness of aromatherapy massage on reducing pain 10. The authors identified three studies meeting their criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis, only one of these studies was also included in the above Cochrane review by Shin et al. Chen et al.’s meta-analysis pooled data from 278 participants (135 in aromatherapy and 143 participants in control group). Aromatherapy had a nonsignificant effect on reducing pain (standardized mean difference, SMD=0.01; 95% CI −0.23, 0.24) 10

Yim et al. (2009) carried out a systematic review including six randomised and non-randomised controlled clinical trials on aromatherapy massage in patients with depression 11. Three of these studies evaluated the benefit of Swedish massage (two with lavender oil) for depressive symptoms of cancer patients (mainly women with breast cancer). Results showed significant short term-improvement in anxiety and/or depression compared with usual care. According to the authors, this improvement might be explained by the induction of a relaxation response in the autonomic nervous system. Wilkinson et al.’s (2008) earlier reviews on aromatherapy arrived at similar conclusions; however, none of them deal specifically with the topic of cancer 5.

Randomised controlled trials

An additional 13 RCTs not included in the above reviews have been published and are described in Table 1 12-24. (Chang, 200812, Graham, 200313, Lai, 201114, Lua, 201515, Maddocks-Jennings16, Nakayama et al. 201617, Ndao, 201218, Pimenta 201619, Potter, 201120, Serfaty, 201221, Stringer, 200822, Tamaki et al., 201723, Tang, 201424).

Overall, the evidence of the above RCTs seems to confirm the findings of the systematic reviews and  points to a short-term benefit of aromatherapy massage   with improvement in general quality of life, potential improvement of some physical problems (pain, fatigue), psychological difficulties (anxiety, depression, sleep) and salivary gland function. It is difficult to draw overall conclusion of the evidence as the RCTs used different types of aromatherapy (n=7 relate to aromatherapy massage while n=6 relate to aromatherapy inhalation), use different controls and the findings are not consistent across all of the trials described in Table 1. It is also not possible to assess the efficacy of specific essential oils. The quality of the trials up until now has ranged from low to mediocre.


Helen Seers, Katja Boehm, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Aromatherapy [online document]. http://cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Herbal-products/Aromatherapy. May 20, 2017.

Document history

Summary fully revised and updated in May 2017 by Helen Seers.
Summary fully revised and updated in December 2015 by Helen Seers.
Last updated in September 2013 by Katja Boehm.
Summary fully revised and updated in June 2012 by Katja Boehm.
Summary first published in March 2011, authored by Katja Boehm and Thomas Ostermann.


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