Does Aromatherapy Work?

Aromatherapy adherents will tell you that basil can clear headaches and lemon can be an antidepressant. The idea that scents can be used medicinally has become so widely accepted that so-called "essential" oils, or highly concentrated plant scents, have found their way into a slew of lotions, candles, sprays and massage products promising to help you sleep, wake you up or relieve your stress. But do they work?

While it's true that a pleasant smell can put you in a good mood, new research casts doubt on some of the reputed healing powers of aromatherapy. Researchers at Ohio State University found that lemon and lavender oil had no physiological effect on study subjects, despite lemon's reputation as a stimulant and lavender's as a sleep aid. They taped cotton balls that had been dipped in lemon oil, lavender oil or water to subjects' noses and conducted a variety of tests ranging from pain response (dunking feet in cold water) to mood studies (completing psychological tests). Although lemon oil had a positive effect on subjects' moods, lavender didn't have any perceived effect, and neither essential oil significantly affected pain responses, heart rate or blood pressure.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, the Ohio State professor who conducted the study, said stores market some aromatherapy products as pain relief, despite her findings. "I don't think the stores do harm," she said. "I just don't think that [the scented products] do good in the ways that they suggest they do."

Still, research in the field is limited, and it's doubtful these findings will curb spending on aromatherapy products. Study participant Sue Repke, 44, said she was surprised at the researchers' findings. Repke, a Columbus-based occupational therapist, buys a variety of aromatherapy products, including a citrus gel she applies to her temples for alertness. She says she's probably going to keep buying them, regardless of what studies may conclude. "I know when I smell something like lavender I feel more relaxed."