Background: The use of aromatherapy in nursing care continues to be popular in many settings. Most of the nursing literature relates to the use of essential oils in low doses for massage or use of the oils as environmental fragrances. Information from the wider literature may add to the evidence base for use of this therapy in nursing.
Aim: This paper reports a literature relating to the use of aromatherapy by nurses and critically evaluates the evidence to support this practice.
Method: Medline, CINAHL, MANTIS and EBSCO Host databases were searched for papers related to use of essential oils and/or aromatherapy. Papers were also obtained through cross-checking of reference lists. A total of 165 articles have been included in this review. Nursing papers were published since 1990 were included, but some references from 1971 onwards relating to scientific research conducted on essential oils were also included. These remain valuable as they are probably the only reference available for a specific oil or property, or show the development of knowledge in this area. Papers were excluded if they consisted only of brief case studies presented in abstract form. The review covers key professional issues and the principal areas of clinical practice where aromatherapy is used.
Findings: Despite calls for more research in the 1980s and 1990s, there is still little empirical evidence to support the use of aromatherapy in nursing practice beyond enhancing relaxation. Its popularity needs to be balanced against the potential risks related to allergies, safety and inappropriate use by inexperienced users.
Conclusions: There is great potential for more collaborative research by nurses to explore the clinical applications in greater detail and to move beyond the low dose paradigm of application of essential oils.