Use of Aromatherapy Diffusers in Maternity Care Settings
Diffusers are a great way to gently infuse essential oils into the air. We love the way they can cleverly change the mood, ease symptoms and enhance relaxation and heartily recommend their use.
It has recently been suggested that diffusers have no place in maternity care settings, as they could be dangerous, and therefore unethical, however on delving into the evidence, we are delighted to share that we find nothing to support this assumption. Conversely, we found that the evidence suggests that inhalation of essential oil is unlikely to reach any dangerous level via all means of aromatherapy application due to the low concentrations of essential oils used.
To gain some perspective on the matter, we consulted world-leading expert aromatherapist Robert Tisserand. He has written and co-written several evidence-rich books on aromatherapy including: ‘Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals’ Oct 2013 with Rodney Young published by Elsevier.
Robert Tisserand agrees that there is no evidence to suggest that diffusers are unsuitable for use in maternity care settings. His book (Tisserand & Young 2014) cites numerous studies looking at the effects of inhaling oils and although there is the potential for irritation with oils in high concentration in confined spaces, none of the subjects in the studies described reported irritation, all of whom were inhaling significantly higher concentrations of essential oils than is used in aromatherapy.
The book does state that there is the potential for compounds inhaled by individuals to be neurotoxic when central nervous system pathologies exist such as epilepsy, however, such reactions are only recorded in doses spectacularly bigger than concentration levels used in aromatherapy. Of all the oils included in our course Peppermint is the most likely to be associated with neurotoxic effects, however, the dose given via one drop used in a diffuser is so tiny compared to that which is regulated as safe to be used directly on mucous membranes as in toothpaste.
Aromatherapy has the potential to irritate people with smells that they don’t enjoy. We see this in our pre-course prep homework lavender experience. Many attendees have fond memories associated, often linked to childhood and cherished relationships with grandparents, however, there are generally one or two in the group who had a grouchy or downright toxic grandma, resulting in especially negative responses to the aroma of lavender. This is one reason communication with those you’re using aromatherapy with is so important and if the smell is unappealing , then thanks to overlapping properties, there is nearly always another way to achieve the same effect via an alternative oil.
Tisserand did have some interesting notes about their use, which have informed our recent update to our guidelines. This updated copy is available on request to all who have attended our study day.
He advises using diffusers intermittently, so for 15, 30 or 60 minutes on, the same amount of time to be turned off. This relates predominantly to effectiveness rather than safety. One study found that the psychological impact of the effects, such as aiding relaxation were reduced over time. He also mentioned a study by Vicks which found that the therapeutic effects on the respiratory system were reduced after 30 to 60 minutes.
Looking in Johnson (2015), we found lots of studies about diffusing essential oils. Besides one mention of a few participants experiencing headaches linked to continual diffusion – all the more reason to use diffusers intermittently – none other of these studies warned of untoward side effects. Here is what they find:
Exposure to lavender oils in the air has an anti-stress effect. One study measured an endocrinological stress marker in the saliva, and noted significantly lower levels in the aroma group (Toda & Morimoto, 2008).
Inhalation of humidified lavender oil positively improved blood pressure, heart rate, pain, anxiety, depression and a sense of wellbeing in cancer patients (Kowalski 2002).
Two studies showed that inhalation of lavender oil in the waiting room reduced the anxiety and improved the mood of dental patients (Lehrner et al 2005, Kritsidima et al 2010,).
Stress responses were found to be reduced following inhalation of Lavender oil, blood pressure, skin temperature and heart rate all were found to be decreased. Mood improvements such as feeling fresh and relaxed as well as increased activity were also noted in those who inhaled (Sayorwan et al 2012).
Inhalation of lavender oil following caesarean section was shown to reduce pain perception compared to a placebo group (Olapour et al 2014).
Inhalation was decreased and exhalation was increased in healthy sleepers when both Lavender and Vetiver oils were diffused, this was given overnight up to 37 times, for a duration for up to 15 minutes at a time (Arzi 2010).
So, we continue to encourage use of diffusers in maternity care settings. Intermittently and with checking in to see if it’s bugging anymore, which can be easily remedied by turning it off.
Arzi A., Sela L., Green A., et al The influence of odourants of respiratory patterns in sleep. Chem Senses 2010 Jan;35(1):31-40 in Johnson 2015
Kowalski L., Use of aromatherapy with hospice patients to decrease pain, anxiety and depression and to promote and increase sense of wellbeing. Am J Hosp Palliate Care. 2002 Nov-Dec;19(6):381-386
Lehrner J., Marwinski G., Lehr S., et al (2005) Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in a dental office. Physiol Behav. 2005 Sep 15;86 (1-2):92-95. Kritsidima M., Newton T., Asimakopoulou K. The effects of lavender scents on dental patients’ anxiety levels: a cluster randomised controlled trial. Community Dent Oral Epidemiol. 2010 Feb;38 (1):83-87 Both in Johnson 2015
Olapour A., Behaeen K., Akhondzadeh R., et al The effect of inhalation of aromatherapy blend containing lavender essential oil on caesarean post oferative pain Anaeth Pain Med. 2013 Summer;(1):203-207
Sayorwan W., Siripornpanich V., Piriyapunyaporn T. et al The effects of lavender oil on emotional states, autonomic nervous system, and brain electrical activity J Med Assoc Thai. 2012 Apr;95(4):598-606
Toda M., Morimoto K., 2008 Effect of lavender aroma on salivary endocrinological stress markers accessed online at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.archoralbio.2008.04.002 30/04/17
Johnson, S., (2015) Evidence-based essential oil therapy Scott A Johnson: Amazon
* Tisserand, R, Young, R, Essential Oil Safety (second edition) 2014, Elsevier: Edinburgh
Interested in studying Aromatherapy for Childbirth?
Study anytime, anywhere with our online learning platform ecourse
Aromatherapy for Childbirth equips midwives, doulas and other birth workers with ready-to-practice confidence and competence to apply aromatherapy for women in labour.
Accredited by Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and International Federation of Aromatherapists (IFA).
IFA awards 7 CPD points for course completion.