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A Lesson in Aromatherapy

Network - Spring 2008


By Asma Sidiqqi

Cherie Perez, R.N., dislikes housework as much as most everyone else, but unlike others, she has learned to make it manageable and relaxing. Using her knowledge as a certified aromatherapist, she turns “chore time” into “therapeutic time.”

She mixes her favorite secret combination of essential oils into baking soda and sprinkles it on her carpet. Then, she goes about her chores and every so often she takes a deep breath. The soothing smell of the oils calms and unwinds her. When she’s done, she vacuums up the homemade relaxation kit and is happily on her way.

Perez was in the midst of becoming a massage therapist when she discovered her hydrotherapy instructor also was a certified aromatherapist. She began taking aromatherapy classes at Source Vital, a long-time professional organization in the field. She was soon certified in massage therapy as well as aromatherapy and continues to learn more about each one.

“I think that having the knowledge is really important when I talk to people about [complementary medicines]. Patients come to us with questions, and I don’t want to discourage them, but I need to be able to inform them if it’s a safety issue,” say Perez about why she became an aromatherapist.

Aromatherapy testimonials

The aromatherapy and self-massage class she teaches at M. D. Anderson’s Place … of wellness allows Perez to interact and inform everyone who attends. From patients to caregivers, there is a wide range of people who are curious about the beneficial effects of natural oils.

Roslyn Burney attended Perez’s class when her father was a patient at M. D. Anderson. “I had always been interested in health and wellness and had previously dabbled in aromatherapy,” she says.

Her favorite, sweet orange oil, is perfect for a refreshing start to the day. Because of its strength, Burney puts the essential oil into a carrier oil, which makes it safer for her skin. She starts off each morning rubbing a few drops of the oil into her hands and inhaling deeply.

What you should know

There are some important safety rules that Perez stresses in her class. The first is where to purchase the essential oils and what to look for. The bottle is the best way to determine a quality product.

“One element of the bottle is that it has to be light- and heat-protected. The next is truth in advertising. The bottle must be labeled whole oil or diluted, and it must provide the botanical name. Also, it’s important to ask the salespeople questions. They should have sufficient knowledge about the product,” Perez says.

Keep in mind never to apply the essential oils directly to the skin. Although it may be a small amount, the oils are extremely concentrated and may cause a serious skin reaction.

It’s quite different from cutting mint leaves in the backyard and adding them to a bath or tea, Perez says. A small bottle of peppermint oil uses up to two tons of the plant material. It’s extremely strong, and although that bath or tea may have been harmless, reaction to the whole essential oil may be different.

This is why carrier oils are used. Carrier oils can be any type of vegetable oil, without an aroma, that can dilute the essential oil. They are called carrier oils because they can safely carry the essential oil to your skin. The most popular ones are sweet almond oil and grapeseed oil.

Another safety concern is how to begin aromatherapy. The first time someone uses an essential oil, it’s a good idea to have a short inhalation period. Perez suggests a few drops of oil on a napkin. If the oil does not suit you, it’s easy to dispose of.

Lastly, there is such a thing as fake aromatherapy, Perez warns. Store-bought room sprays, air fresheners and usually products like laundry detergent that claim to have aromatherapy benefits tend to be false.

“They’re synthesized, meaning the scent was artificially created in the lab,” she says. “Because they do not have a therapeutic intent, they may actually make someone sick.”

A brief history

Aromatherapy has been in use for centuries. The ancient Egyptians and other ancient civilizations used it for embalming the dead, for baths and massage. Since the 1980s it has become a complement to cancer medication. Its use in cancer care began in hospices in England and France where nurses wanted to provide comfort to their patients.

Since then, studies have tried to determine how aromatherapy helps people and what effect it has.

One study conducted with 288 cancer patients tried to determine the effectiveness of aromatherapy massage on anxiety and depression in cancer. Head researcher Susie Wilkinson, Ph.D., at the University College in London, divided the patients, who were all diagnosed as clinically depressed, into two groups. The first group was assigned usual supportive care plus weekly sessions of aromatherapy massage while the second group received regular care but no aromatherapy sessions.

After a four-week period, questionnaires showed that the four weekly sessions of aromatherapy massage improved clinical anxiety and depression in cancer patients up to two weeks after the therapy, but the benefit was not sustained after six weeks. The research also found that the aromatherapy massage had no effect on pain, insomnia, nausea or vomiting throughout the four-week period.

Although this study had a weak outcome, Perez says aromatherapy can be helpful to anyone who is open to its benefits. Its strength lies in immediate and part-time relief of anxiety and sleep problems, she says, and if used correctly, it can become a positive experience for cancer patients.


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center