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Does Aromatherapy Work for Sleep? Maybe. Here’s What We Know

Aromatherapy is widely used to improve sleep, but there’s not much evidence it’s actually effective. Sleep experts recommend focusing on sleep hygiene first.
Published
2023-05-16
Updated
18 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
woman falling asleep with aromatherapy

Does Aromatherapy Work for Sleep?

  • There’s not enough scientific evidence to say for sure whether aromatherapy works for sleep.
  • Because aromatherapy is relatively harmless, fairly low cost, and easy to access and use, certainly safer than other sleep aids, smells nice, and many people find it helps them sleep better, there’s no reason not to enjoy essential oils as part of your bedtime relaxation routine if you’re so inclined.
  • But don’t focus solely on aromatherapy for relaxation and better sleep. Good sleep hygiene is the proven path for relaxed and restful nights and positive, productive days. The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day for better sleep and more daily energy.

If you’ve been struggling with poor sleep and tempted to experiment with essential oils as a way to get the elusive zzz’s you’re after, we get it.  

But before you spring for a new diffuser and a starter-pack of essential oils, consider that, despite its popularity, there’s not much scientific evidence behind claims that aromatherapy works for sleep. While there’s likely no harm in trying it out as an add-on to your bedtime routine, sleep experts don’t recommend relying on aromatherapy and forgoing healthy sleep hygiene – habits scientifically proven to improve your ability to sleep better. 

Here we’ll dive into the science behind aromatherapy, what the research says about its impact on relaxation and sleep, how to use aromatherapy, and, calming scents aside, some science-backed strategies for boosting relaxation and sleep. We’ll also share how the RISE sleep and energy app can guide you through these sleep hygiene habits (with or without aromatherapy) for more restful sleep and daily energy.

How Does Aromatherapy Work?

Aromatherapy is a centuries-old holistic healing technique that uses the essential oils extracted from aromatic plants to promote physical and emotional well-being. These essential oils can be inhaled, diffused, or applied to the skin.

Aromatherapy is thought to work through the sense of smell, which is closely linked to the brain's limbic system. This system is responsible for controlling emotions, memory, and arousal, among other functions. When you inhale essential oils, they stimulate the limbic system and trigger various physiological responses. Different oils have different properties that can impact the body and mind in various ways, producing a relaxing or invigorating effect. 

Certain plants are believed to have sedative effects, thus promoting relaxation and a good night’s sleep. These include, among others: 

  • Lavender
  • Ylang ylang
  • Bergamot
  • Chamomile
  • Frankincense
  • Clary sage
  • Sandalwood
  • Valerian root
  • Marjoram
  • Linalool

Does Aromatherapy Work for Sleep?

The short answer is maybe, but there’s not sufficient evidence to be certain.  

There is ample evidence that aromas can elicit different psychophysiological responses, such as changes in our emotional states and mood, via our limbic systems. This includes the possibility that certain fragrances (lavender has been particularly well-studied) may help to alleviate anxiety and promote feelings of calm. 

However, the question of whether aromatherapy is universally beneficial to our sleep is another thing. On one hand, there have been many studies done that, at a glance, support the notion that certain essential oils may have a positive effect on sleep. 

For example, a 2010 Taiwanese study of 34 midlife women with insomnia concluded that lavender inhalation may help alleviate the short-term sleep difficulties associated with menopause. And in another 2010 study of 64 ischemic heart disease patients, researchers found that sleep quality was “significantly improved” after patients were exposed to lavender aromatherapy. 

But, on the other hand, the findings of such studies are limited in their real-world applications. Not only have these studies typically been quite small, they’ve also been focused on very specific groups of people, as shown in the above examples. 

This means that, for most of us, there’s no assurance that we’ll have the same outcomes when we’re using essential oils in our home environments and in the context of our everyday lives. And limited study size and participant populations aside, there are some other issues with the research done to date: 

  • Sleep quality has largely been self-reported. Research that relies on self-reporting when it comes to sleep is inherently going to be subjective, and subjective assessments of sleep are known to be very inaccurate.
  • There is no scientific consensus definition of sleep quality, let alone consistency in how you or I understand the term. Many of these studies rely on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), a self-report questionnaire that measures sleep quality across 19 different subjective assessments of sleep. In contrast, polysomnography (PSG), which examines physiologic parameters during sleep through brainwave activity, is considered the gold standard of sleep assessments. The ambiguity in assessing sleep quality applies to a lot of sleep research – not just studies of aromatherapy – but it’s always worth highlighting when we’re trying to understand how any variable impacts our sleep. 
  • Aromatherapy isn’t always the sole focus. Many essential oil sleep studies involve various methods of administering essential oils (orally, topically, via bath water etc.), which introduce additional variables that aren’t present when we’re simply inhaling aromas. For example, in one study of critical care healthcare workers, researchers noted progressive improvements to sleep quality when lavender essential oil was used in combination with massage. But researchers here didn’t investigate whether the lavender oil provided the same benefits without the massage.
  • Establishing a “blind” control group is difficult. In studies using oral medications, participants may not know whether they’re receiving a placebo. But with aromatherapy, establishing a blind control group isn’t so easy, since we tend to know when we’re smelling something and, often, what it is.
  • “Effective” concentrations might not be available to consumers. Many studies also use amounts or concentrations of essential oils that the average person won’t have access to. So even if they’re effective at alleviating sleep problems in the research setting, it’s not something we can easily replicate at home.
  • Existing studies are all over the map. In addition to what’s already been mentioned, factors like how much essential oil is used and over what time period, etc., vary drastically from study to study, which limits our ability to draw any meaningful conclusions about efficacy through comparing research data or systematic review. It’s also worth noting that while some research does point to potential sleep benefits from using certain essential oils, other studies have reported finding little to no change in sleep quality or duration between the experiment and control group. 

To throw one final wrench in the aromatherapy argument, scientists also acknowledge that our sense of smell is highly individual and subjective, and can vary across gender or even time of day. While smelling fragrances like lavender or chamomile may evoke relaxation in many, for those who find the scents unappealing, it’s likely to have an opposite effect. 

Potential Benefits of Aromatherapy for Sleep? 

  • Anecdotal evidence: While the jury’s still out when it comes to how much of an objective impact essential oils have on sleep, the fact that many people swear by them makes it hard to dismiss the notion entirely. 
  • Safe and low-cost: Because aromatherapy is relatively harmless, fairly low cost, and easy to access and use, there’s no reason not to enjoy essential oils as part of your pre-bed relaxation routine if you’re so inclined. 
  • Likely safer than sleep aids: If making space for a diffuser on your bedside table means you’re less likely to reach for other sleep supplements or medications, even better! 

One older study, though very limited at just 4 people, concluded that geriatric benzodiazepine-dependent patients experienced profound relief from withdrawal-related insomnia when exposed to lavender aromatherapy. 

And even outside of controlled substances like benzodiazepines, there’s increasing evidence that popular so-called sleep aids like melatonin, cannabis, or even Benadryl may actually be harmful to our sleep and wellness long term. Unlike essential oils, which appear to have far fewer (if any, when used correctly) notable side effects. We cover potential risks of aromatherapy below. 

The Bottom Line 

Even if the science on the effects of essential oils for sleep is inconclusive to date, we do know that being relaxed before bed is an essential ingredient to getting enough healthy sleep (more on this in a moment), so anything we can do to promote a sense of calm before bed is encouraged, including aromatherapy.  

Just keep in mind that using aromatherapy to improve sleep may not work for everyone, and should always be used in tandem with good sleep hygiene practices, which the science is solid on (more on this soon, too).  

Interesting aside: Research on oral lavender for promoting relaxation and sleep is much more promising than anything we have on other methods of administration to date, including aromatherapy. 

How To Use Aromatherapy?

One thing we like about aromatherapy is that it’s very user-friendly. While many people opt for a diffuser (which functions a lot like a small humidifier, where you add a few drops of essential oil to the water reservoir), there are other ways to enjoy essential oils that don’t require any special equipment. You can also try: 

  • Making a room spray by filling a spray bottle with water and a small amount of essential oil
  • Sprinkling a tissue or piece of clean cloth with essential oil and holding it near your nose
  • Adding a few drops of essential oil to an unscented body lotion
  • Adding a few drops of essential oil to your bath water or bath salts
  • Applying essential oil topically by dotting it on your pulse points or using it in combination with massage 

Important! If you’re using essential oils in a way that they’ll come in contact with your skin — such as in bath water, on your pulse points, or as part of a massage treatment — you must first dilute them with a neutral “carrier” oil like coconut, argan, jojoba, or olive oil. Never put undiluted essential oils directly on your skin. (You can find dilution charts — such as this one — to help you determine a safe ratio of essential oil to carrier oil.)

Risks to Using Aromatherapy?

In that vein, here are a few other things to be aware of before you begin experimenting with essential oils:

  • They’re not for everyone. Those who are pregnant, nursing, or who have existing medical conditions should seek medical advice before introducing any essential oils to their home environment. Likewise, some essential oils may cause unwanted side effects or allergic reactions in some people. If you know you’re allergic to the plant that the oil is extracted from, don’t use that oil.
  • They’re not regulated by the FDA. This means that no one is keeping tabs on essential oil retailers to ensure that they’re selling honest products. So you’ll need to be diligent about doing your own research to make sure you're purchasing high-quality oils from reputable brands.
  • Dosing has not been standardized. Similarly, there’s no consensus about what the optimal amount is, or how often to use it for best results.
  • Not all essential oils have a calming effect. If your aim is relaxation and sleep, you’ll want to select scents that are explicitly intended for that purpose, like lavender, bergamot, or ylang ylang. Citrus scents like grapefruit or lime, or “spicy” scents like spearmint, cinnamon, ginger, or peppermint oil (among others) should be saved for the daytime, as they’re believed to have a more energizing influence.
  • They can be toxic to pets. Many essential oils that are considered safe for human use are toxic to dogs, cats, birds, and other small animals. Tea tree oil is a particularly well-known offender, but many more are on the “no” list.

Why Is Relaxing Before Bed Important?

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have. Keep your sleep debt below five hours to feel your best.

Relaxing before bed is important because it helps prepare our minds and bodies for sleep. When you relax, the body's parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated, which lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, allowing you to enter a state of rest and relaxation. Conversely, when you're stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Tapping into our PNS after a long, busy day of tight work deadlines and/or tending to toddlers can be easier said than done, but it’s an essential part of meeting our sleep need (the individual amount of sleep that each of us requires each night in order to function optimally — the number varies from person to person). Getting enough healthy sleep each night keeps our sleep debt low and helps ward against the negative consequences of lost sleep that range from a lack of energy and worse mental health to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

So, if you’ve found aromatherapy helps you relax before bed, that’s great news! But to make sure you’re really improving your sleep and doing so sustainably, we recommend adding some science-backed sleep-health tools to your toolkit as well (we dive into these next).

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need and here to view their sleep debt.

Other Ways to Relax Before Bed?

RISE app screenshot showing your wind down activities
Let the RISE app help you design your ideal relaxing evening routine and make it a nightly habit.

A wind-down routine is a practice of engaging in calming activities before bed – one of the core elements of sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a set of behaviors scientifically proven to help us get enough healthy, naturalistic sleep night after night (find our comprehensive Guide to Sleep Hygiene here). Aromatherapy may enhance relaxation before bed, but studies show it’s likely more effective when used in conjunction with sleep hygiene practices.

For instance, in the aromatherapy study on menopausal women mentioned earlier, sleep hygiene was part of the research protocol, and researchers acknowledged that it was integral to their findings. Similarly, in a study on the effects of lavender odor on the sleep of college students, sleep hygiene considerations were included in one test group, and researchers concluded from this that sleep hygiene plus lavender was the winning combination.

Good sleep hygiene also helps us align with our circadian rhythm (our internal biological clock that dictates our sleep-wake times and our daily natural energy fluctuations). When we’re living in sync with our circadian rhythm, we sleep more soundly, wake up more readily, have more energy during the day, and are able to relax more naturally in the evening (not to mention reduce our risk of a whole host of health issues). 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.

Here’s how you can improve your sleep hygiene for better relaxation, energy, and sleep:

1. Establish a relaxing wind-down routine

Establishing a relaxation-promoting wind-down routine is one of the best things you can do for your sleep and energy. What constitutes a good wind-down routine varies from person to person, but the goal is to engage in activities that calm our bodies and minds 1-2 hours before bed. This helps us activate the PNS for restful sleep. Whether or not you choose to bring essential oils into the mix, here are some scientifically-proven strategies for winding down before bed: 

  • Journal or try a “brain dump”: Even just five minutes of “evening writing” has been shown to make it easier to relax before bed, especially when we focus on writing down our future to-dos. (Use the “brain dump” feature in the RISE app to make it a no-brainer!)
  • Do yoga or gentle stretching: While we want to steer clear of vigorous exercise too close to bed, gentle movement can help us tap into our PNS and relax both mentally and physically, leading to better sleep. 
  • Take a warm bath or shower: When we step out of a warm bath or shower, our body temperature drops slightly in reaction to the colder air, supporting the natural temperature drop our bodies need to prepare for sleep. Not only that, but a warm bath or shower also relaxes our muscles, increases circulation, and aids in the elimination of metabolic waste. (Don’t have time for a bath? Wearing socks to bed can also help you cool down for sleep.)
  • Try a science-backed relaxation exercise: You can find guided audio for some of the most effective relaxation techniques for sleep – autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and listening to soothing sounds – in the RISE app. Learn more about the best relaxation exercises for sleep and the best breathing exercises before bed here.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to all four relaxation techniques. 

RISE app screenshot showing relaxation session
The RISE app can guide you through relaxation techniques for sleep.

2. Make your sleep environment cool, dark, and quiet

Creating a sleep-conducive environment helps to relax the mind and body and is an essential aspect of sleep hygiene. The optimal sleeping environment should be cool, dark, and quiet. Set your thermostat between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, use blackout curtains, and wear earplugs and an eye mask.

Your bedroom should also be somewhere where you enjoy being, and where you can disengage from the stresses of daily life. Keep your space clean and clutter-free, and avoid doing schoolwork or replying to work emails in bed if possible. Make sure your pillows and mattress are genuinely comfortable to you, and we recommend opting for non-restrictive bedding and sleeping attire, ideally made from natural, breathable fibers.  

Can your sleeping direction impact your sleep? We investigate that here. 

RISE app screenshot showing bedtime environment settings
The RISE app can remind you to check your environment as bedtime nears.

3. Get more light in the morning and less light at night

Getting bright light first thing in the morning resets your circadian rhythm for the day, helping you feel relaxed and sleepy come bedtime. Aim to get at least 10 minutes of natural light as soon as possible after waking up if it’s sunny, or 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window.

On the other hand, you want to avoid light close to bedtime, as it suppresses production of the body’s sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. One to two hours before bed, dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses to keep melatonin production in high gear. 

4. Avoid the sleep-disruptors caffeine, alcohol, large meals and intense exercise before bedtime

Avoid caffeine, alcohol, large meals, and intense exercise too late in the day, as all four can make it difficult to relax in the evening, push back your bedtime, and wake you up during the night. But don’t worry–you don’t have to give them up altogether. RISE can help you figure out daily cut-off times for each. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.

We Don’t Know if Aromatherapy Works for Sleep; We Know Sleep Hygiene Does 

More research is needed before we can say for sure whether aromatherapy works for improving sleep.

Because it is, for the most part, safe, if you like it and find it works for you, there’s little risk in using it as part of your bedtime routine. 

But don’t focus solely on aromatherapy for relaxation and better sleep. Good sleep hygiene is the proven path for relaxed and restful nights and positive, productive days. Let the RISE app help you lock in your best routine. The RISE app can help you stay on top of 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day and tell you the ideal time to do each one based on your circadian rhythm to make them more effective. 80% of RISE users feel the benefits within five days, so you could be sleeping better within the week, with or without essential oils.

FAQs

Does aromatherapy work for sleep?

While there’s some evidence that certain scents may help us sleep better by alleviating stress and anxiety, more research is needed on aromatherapy’s effect on sleep before we can say for certain. Instead, turn to proven sleep hygiene habits like keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, and avoiding sleep disruptors like caffeine and alcohol before bed.

How does aromatherapy work?

When we inhale certain scents, the particles enter our lungs, where they’re absorbed into our bloodstream. At the same time, the particles travel along our olfactory highway to our brain, where they act on our limbic system, which is the brain's emotional processing center. This can lead to a sense of calm and relaxation, which may facilitate sleep.

Is it good to sleep with essential oils?

While there’s little data to support the efficacy of essential oils for sleep, some people find that certain scents help them relax and fall asleep more easily. Just make sure you’re using scents that are meant to be calming like lavender, chamomile, or ylang ylang, and diluting them with a carrier oil if applying them topically. Also, make sure to choose high-quality, pure essential oils to avoid potential side effects.

How to use essential oils for sleep

Choose a calming scent like lavender or chamomile and either apply it topically after diluting with a carrier oil, add it to bath water, diffuse it, or make a room spray by adding a few drops to water in a spray bottle. However, it’s important to note that aromatherapy is just one aspect of a comprehensive sleep hygiene routine that also includes factors such as a comfortable sleep environment, regular exercise, and consistent sleep schedule.

What are the best essential oils for sleep and relaxation?

Some of the most popular essential oils for sleep and relaxation are lavender, bergamot, ylang ylang, chamomile, and frankincense. However, it’s important to choose scents that work best for you, as individual responses to scents can vary. Experiment with different scents and methods of use to find what works best for you.

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