Does Aromatherapy work?  Is there any science behind it?

I've dug into some research on the subject with special needs caregivers and stress management in mind...  
UPDATE: Here is a new link from the University of Maryland Medical Center: Aromatherapy

I hope the following information on this highly enjoyable relaxation resource will bring some needed stress relief and fun into your life!


First off, the sense of smell is one of the most powerful we have in relation to memory. According to research, the part of the brain that deals in long-term memory, the hippocampus, is responsible for associating scents with memory.  Scent memory can be far more powerful than visual memory in recalling events.

Catching a scent of something decades after an event, can bring that memory flodding back to you in the blink of an eye.  So a scent you associate with "comfort" and "relaxation" may be very powerful to you personally for bringing back that sense-memory.  To try this, find a beautiful memory you can assosciate with a particular smell, preferably a non-food scent as to avoid the temptation!  

Food smells are very powerful in our memories, but it might lead to over-indulging (chocolate chip cookies baking in the if only I could stop at just smelling them!)  I once heard of a real-estate agent that couldn't get a house to sell, so she held an open house, put a turkey in the oven with all the scents of a holiday meal, and the house sold that very day!  I'm guessing she created the sense-memory of "home" and "family" and "holiday" that allowed the buyers to tap into warm heart-filled memories that sealed the deal.  (Now that's subliminal advertising!!)




Here is a non-food example.  Imagine a summer vacation, or other experience that really took you to a place of relaxation, possibly connection with a loved one or family, etc.  Is there a scent that goes with it?  Coconut from the sun-tan lotion, or the smell of pinion burning in a campfire?  Maybe there was a cinnamon broom in the house during the Holidays which brings back a magic childhood memory?  

Of course, the opposite is true as well.  I had chemotherapy for Hodgkin's Lymphoma in my early twenties.  There was a particular anti-bacterial soap in the bathroom where I went to put on a freezing cold "ice cap" to help keep my hair from falling out - it had a very strong and unique scent.  I still run into this soap at doctor's offices and hospitals and it makes me want to gag as the memories of nausea and illness return.  Bleck.  In the earlier example of the real-estate agent's turkey, if someone had horrible memories of Thanksgiving and holidays, this might backfire and turn it into a negative experience.


Each person has their own unique bank of scent-memories to pull from, and what works for one person may not work for another.  This makes scientific testing of Aromatherapy a challenge. 



Aromatherapy as a "science" is still in its infancy.  There is some scientific data available, and the results are interesting.

Folk wisdom has long haled lavendar as good for helping someone relax in order to get to sleep.  Some studies are beginning to validate what folk medicine has long promoted.

A review of randomized studies on the anti-anxiety potential of aromatherapy concluded that aromatherapy could be beneficial as a complimentary therapy for people with anxiety symptoms. 

A study asking the question "Does [Aromatherapy] help to relieve pain, depression, anxiety and stress levels in community dwelling older-persons?" concluded that, although there was no significant reduction in physical pain, there was a significant reduction in negative emotions - depression, anxiety and stress.

Another beneficial oil that was shown to reduce pre-operative anxiety is the essential oil bergamot (Citrus bergamia). Sweet orange oil (Citrus sinensis) has also been studied and the results show it has potential to calm general anxiety.  

Essential oils of orange and lavendar were combined in a study that showed they reduced anxiety for individuals going in for dental work.



Safety first!!  Do not ingest essential oils.  Keep your child safe from them, as they can be very toxic if ingested!  Placing essential oils directly (undiluted) onto the skin can cause burning/irritation - this should be generall avoided. Be careful of spraying essential oils into the eyes!


Spray bottle (atomizer) of dilluted lavender and bergamot essential oils - spray into the air (not on your body like perfume).

Aromatherapy diffusers - place oil mixture in the top of the diffuser and allow the heat to release the scent into the air - safety first again on this one!

Some people will use diluted essential oils in an oil base or lotion and apply it to the skin. There are many ready-made products for this that an online search or trip to your local fancy health-food/body product store will turn up.  Remember you are looking primarily for lavender, bergamot and sweet orange if you are going to follow the research.  



Aromatherapy, in my own experience, can simply be delightful.  The act of going to a store and sniffing the various oils they offer, finding what appeals to me personally, and then taking that special scent or mix of scents home is an act of luxurious self-care.  Be sure to find pure essential oils and not "smell-alike" man-made products, as those have not been studied and may lack the effective properties of pure essential oils.  Try the lavender and bergamot with your child with an "atomizer spray" in their room at night, or at a stressful time - you can take a little atomizer bottle with you on the go!



- Lynn Morgan Rosser, 2014

(Updated resource - 2017)



Science Blog: Smell and Memory - The Frontal Cortex

Aromatherapy Study Review - NIH

Effect of lavendar on Sleep - NIH

Bergamot Study - NIH

Sweet Orange Study - NIH

Lavendar & Orange Study - NIH


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