Can essential oils increase absorption of cancer treatment drugs?

Hello! Thanking you in advance for your time…I have a question regarding something that I read about peppermint and eucalyptus oils increasing the skins absorption of 5-fluorouracil, an anti-cancer drug. The study cited was Abdullah et al 1996, Williams & Barry, 1989. I am unable to find that particular study and wondered if you have any input as to the validity of this statement. If this is indeed true…do you have any special recommendations for those with cancer, undergoing chemotherapy or for those taking cancer relapse prevention drugs?
With great regard, Tiffany

Hi Tiffany,

A number of essential oils enhance the transcutaneous penetration of other substances. This is a widely-studied phenomenon, and research is ongoing. It happens because some essential oil constituents are very good at crossing the epidermis. In a 1991 paper, Williams and Barry found that 1,8-cineole, the major constituent of eucalyptus oil, enhanced the skin permeability of 5-FU by an incredible 95 times.

5-FU is only applied to the skin to treat skin cancers. In those situations, it would be prudent to avoid applying any essential oils or aromatherapy products to the same area of skin. When 5-FU is given intravenously (for internal tumors) applying essential oils to the skin will have no effect. Similarly, ingested essential oils will not affect the dermal delivery of 5-FU, or any other substance.


By | 2012-03-07T11:49:58+00:00 March 7th, 2012|Aromatherapy / Research, Q & A|20 Comments

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  1. Rosalie Lackie March 7, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I would really appreciate more information on using oils for those who are undergoing cancer/chemotherapy treatments eg what particular oils suit certain cancers; how many drops to use in capsules to be taken internally (eg frankinsence and/or oregano come to mind) and any precautions to be aware of. Thanks for all the help you give us!!!

  2. robert March 7, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Rosalie, this is a very important question, and one I cannot do justice to in a few sentences. I have a close relative who is currently undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and we have had long conversations about essential oils and herbs. She is currently seeing a Chinese Medical Herbalist, and is finding this very helpful. There is a difference between using oils to mitigate the effects of radiation or chemo, and using them to help prevent disease recurrence. Some of the most helpful oils for mitigating side-effects might be the antioxidant ones, such as oregano, thyme and clove, and there is research showing that some oils can help prevent the loss of white blood cells during chemo. When I discussed this with my relative’s oncologist, he was concerned about possible interactions, and wanted to see evidence that this would not happen. There is very little evidence of this, and of course there are many drugs and combinations used in chemotherapy. We might be able to show that a particular oil works well with cyclophosphamide, or 5-FU, or epirubicin, but what about all three together? The advice often heard is not to use antioxidant herbs or oils that may protect normal body cells from damage, because they may also protect the cancer cells that the chemo or radiation is trying to eliminate. It is certainly a concern, and it might be best to wait until that phase of treatment is over, before using essential oils.

  3. Nicola McGill March 14, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I am so pleased that essential oils and cancer treatments are being discussed. I have been using Aromatherapy for nearly 20years now and in the past 4 years my client population is mainly oncology patients. Working in the hospital I am not currently permitted to use the oils but I do in my private practice. I have never prescribed internal use of oils and probably never will. I use the oils topically and for inhalation purposes to SUPPORT the patient through their journey from diagnosis onwards. Even after completion of treatments many patients experience long term physical, mental and emotional side effects. I choose oils to mitigate the side effects and each week I see my patients they have a different concern which I address and the dilutions are very low. So far I have not had a patient with any adverse reactions to using essential oils and in fact aromatherapy is a highlight of their week if they have been experiencing a bad time with their treatments. I hope this small amount of input helps

  4. Shahida Siddique April 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Hello Robert, I am using my French aromatherapy product Altearah Bio in my holistic spa Spadunya Club located in Dubai. I have a spa guest who has suffered from recurring cancer for the last fifteen years. She has been using the above product regularly via massage at the spa and inhaling the scents and has in her own words “never felt better”. She has also used it immediately after a chemotherapy session in spite of my advising against it. She strongly believes she has never felt better and links it to this product and the expertise of her therapist.

    Needless to say my healthy clients are feeling healthier and better. I am loving this journey. I am new in this industry and am learning every day. I would love to attend one of your training sessions. I think we met in a professional show in Dubai a number of years ago. Best regards

  5. Audrey marcinkiewicz July 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    I am confused as to whether I should use my essential oils during chemo treatments. Some have told me that they offset the effectiveness of the chemo treatments. Is there any truth to this?

  6. robert July 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Yes Audrey, I believe there is some truth to this. Many essential oils protect cells from what’s called oxidative stress, and this action manifests in many ways (such as preventing skin cell death from too much sun exposure). What we don’t want to happen is for essential oils to protect cancer cells from the chemotherapy or radiation that is intended to eliminate them. My advice is to not use essential oils during, or for 2 weeks before and 4 weeks after treatment.

  7. Bea Eatherington August 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Hello Robert,

    After reading the above post from Audrey on July 23, I am hoping that you would be able to offer some advice to me for a family member who is just about to undergo chemotherapy.

    My brother in law will be having a chemotherapy course that consists of a once-weekly injection over 7.5 months. If he were to follow your advice of not using essential oils for 2 weeks before and 4 weeks after treatment, this would mean that he would not be able to use essential oils for a number of months.

    He relies heavily on daily use of a tea tree and lavender mouthwash (diluted in aloe vera) to successfully control recurrent oral thrush which is a side effect of previous radiotherapy treatment.

    I have two questions…

    1. Would he still be able to use the above mouthwash due to the absorption of essential oils that occurs whilst gargling?

    2. Do you recommend abstaining from diffusing and inhaling EOs to combat nausea before, during and after a chemotherapy course as well as application via the skin?

    Many thanks,

  8. robert September 3, 2013 at 1:27 am

    Hi Bea,

    Thank you for your questions.

    I think the mouthwash would be fine. There is some absorption as you say, but there is also significant benefit, and the absorption will not be significant.

    In regard to nausea, it does depend on quantity. Absorption via the respiratory system can be significant, so I suggest go ahead if it’s helpful, but keep quantities as low as possible, and it might be best not to saturate a room by using a diffuser.

  9. SusLock October 10, 2013 at 5:29 am

    Hi Robert. I start chemotherapy in 2 weeks – for an oestrogen positive cancer. I had planned to use an oil burner in the bedroom to soothe and help with nausea – lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, and maybe some rosewood. I have also been cleaning using tea tree oil, have a tea tree toothpaste and use it for cold sores. Is this not the best idea then? I am on FEC-T chemo for 6 mths. I would really appreciate and help and guidance.

  10. robert October 16, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    Hi SusLock, that’s quite a heavy treatment, I wish you health! You can certainly use those oils as you outlined – no problem. The nausea can be challenging, so do whatever works for you. Ginger might be another option.

  11. B. Unger October 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Hi Robert,
    My 9 yr old son was recently diagnosed with leukemia (ALL). I have been reading the posts. I gather that the use of EO’s during chemo is not recommended? What do you think about using a GRAS oil such as lavender or roman chamomile, diluted AT 1%? Also, I have been diffusing it. I was I unaware that dilution is also important for diffusion. Is it okay to diffuse oils while on chemo? Do I need to keep the percentage of EO at 1% also? My son will undergo 8 months of extensive chemo. I do not want to interfere with his chemo treatments, but he has been finding in great comfort in aromatherapy massage and diffusion. I am trying to decide the best way to move forward. Any input would be appreciated.

  12. Samira November 5, 2013 at 4:20 am

    Dear Robert
    One of my friend has Papilomatoz cancer,she has had three operations one and after each other but because of the recurrence of the tumor it wasn’t possible for her to get the chemotherapy. I would like to know what kind of essential oils can help her to get better.
    I would be glad to hear from you.

  13. Regina November 25, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Hi Robert,

    I know someone who has been on and off chemotherapy for four years for breast cancer that is now in her liver. Right now she gets a treatment for three weeks and is off one week. Although she is a fighter and is doing well (enough…), her feet are now extremely swollen and hard to feel. She cannot wear socks or any tight fitting shoe. I want to make her an oil to put on her feet to help bring down the swelling, but after reading some things online about wait times and negative interaction I am unsure if I should. Is it unwise to try to naturally bring down the swelling with oil therapy? And if it is safe, which oils are better for cancer patients and swelling?
    Thank you,

  14. robert November 26, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Regina, I don’t know why her feet are swollen (possibly edema?) but it would not be risky to apply some diluted essential oils to her feet, such as lavender.

  15. CAG November 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Hi Robert,

    Just reading this very interesting thread and I’m wondering if you can clarify something.
    In your post to Audrey you explain, “What we don’t want to happen is for essential oils to protect cancer cells from the chemotherapy or radiation that is intended to eliminate them. My advice is to not use essential oils during, or for 2 weeks before and 4 weeks after treatment.” But then to SusLock you say to go ahead and use EOs before and during her agressive chemotherapy treatment. Would you mind please clarifying. Thank you in advance.

  16. robert November 29, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Hi CAG, I do recommend avoidance of essential oils as stated to Audrey, but this would not apply to the minimal amounts inhaled from an oil burner placed in a room. Similarly, it would not apply to the use of personal care or hygiene products (shampoos, toothpastes, face lotions..) containing essential oils.

  17. fong February 27, 2016 at 12:17 am

    Hi Robert. Can a breast cancer patient use eo massage and oil burner to calm down their bad mood? She had her chemo done last year. If yes is frankincense and Cypress suitable for her. Because she always feel depressed.

  18. Robert Tisserand February 27, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Certainly if the chemo is over, there’s no problem at all. Whether essential oils in themselves are sufficient to alleviate clinical depression is another matter, but they can do no harm.

  19. Diane April 5, 2016 at 3:40 am

    Hi Robert, I have a friend that will be doing radiation treatments for 6 weeks on her back for a metastatic sight of breast cancer (estrogen feeder). I’d like to make her a cream with lavender to help with the burns and discomfort. My question is would that be ok. Thank you for your time

  20. Robert Tisserand April 6, 2016 at 12:38 am

    Hi Diane, if you do a 2% Lavender oil blend I think that would be fine.

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