Aromatherapy is one of the safest forms of complementary and alternative medicine. When used under professional guidance by low-risk adults, aromatherapy is very unlikely to cause serious side effects. Most people use some form of aromatherapy (however unconsciously) when seeking out candles, bath products, and perfumes that have a soothing, calming, or uplifting effect on their emotions. However, there are some people who should view aromatherapy as off-limits. If you fall into any of the following categories, don’t use aromatherapy without your doctor’s explicit guidance and recommendation.
People with Severe Asthma
Although many people with mild asthma can use weak aromatherapy products (like candles and body washes) with no problems, essential oils used in massage or diffusers can sometimes be dangerously irritating to the respiratory tract of a person with asthma. Use aromatherapy cautiously and only with your doctor’s help if you have a history of severe asthma.
Aromatherapy can be safe for moms-to-be, but it still warrants some caution. Some essential oils used in aromatherapy, including sage and fennel, can affect levels of certain hormones, possibly interfering with pregnancy. Others, like rosemary and spike lavender, can raise blood pressure. Talk to your doctor or qualified midwife before using aromatherapy during pregnancy. If you get a massage or other aromatherapy-inclusive spa treatment in pregnancy, make sure the aromatherapist knows that you are pregnant.
People with High Blood Pressure
If you have hypertension, certain aromatherapy oils are off-limits. That’s because some scents have stimulating properties that might elevate your blood pressure, making your condition far worse. In particular, stimulant scents like peppermint oil and rosemary are best avoided by all people with high blood pressure. And, since individuals react differently and sometimes unpredictably to aromatherapy, some doctors recommend staying away from aromatherapy altogether if you have any form of heart disease.
People Using Certain Medications
We don’t know exactly how aromatherapy might interact with some drugs, but it’s best to err on the side of caution. While you don’t necessarily need to toss your shaving cream or shampoo because of the essential oils in them, it’s best to avoid stronger forms of aromatherapy while taking prescription drugs. In particular, it’s best to avoid sedative scents like lavender and chamomile if you take drugs that may cause drowsiness. Eucalyptus seems to affect the efficacy of drugs that treat ADHD and epilepsy. Some aromatherapy oils can also interact unpredictably with chemotherapy drugs.
Patients with Hormone-Sensitive Cancers
Several essential oils affect levels of the hormone estrogen, and that could be bad news for people with certain forms of cancer. People with breast cancer and ovarian cancer should usually avoid any hormone-affecting treatments except under a doctor’s guidance. Of particular concern are the estrogen-elevating herbs aniseed, fennel, and sage, which could actually encourage the growth of tumors in the breasts or ovaries.
In general, it’s best to be cautious before using any kind of complementary or alternative medicine, including aromatherapy. If you have any kind of medical condition that could be worsened by the use of aromatherapy, it’s best to use it only with the help of a qualified medical expert. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with your doctor if you’re not sure whether aromatherapy is safe for you.
The University of Maryland Medical Center offers more complete information about the safety and efficacy of aromatherapy.