Essential Oils for Cancer?

Essential Oils for Cancer?

I recently befriended the brilliant adventurer Sheena Smith. I am proud and excited to have her as a guest author on the GIGI Blog this week. With a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Illinois, her research has focused on engineering proteins to target cancer cells. In addition to a passion for science and research, Sheena is a strong advocate for environmental conservation and natural living practices.

About 4 years ago after taking several aromatherapy workshops, Sheena began incorporating essential oils into her life by making her own cleaning and spa products as an alternative to commercially available products. As a proponent of scientifically-backed natural medicine, she has began to explore the medicinal properties of essential oils from an academic’s perspective.  Here she summarizes research on a novel medical application of essential oils that has been recently proposed: The use of essential oils and their chemical components for the treatment and prevention of cancer.

Essential Oils: Natural Medicine for Cancer?

By Sheena Smith

What are essential oils?

Essential oils (EOs) are aromatic extracts prepared from extracting oils and associated chemicals from plant materials, including flowers, leaves, wood, herbs and more. In addition to having pleasing aromas and mood-altering effects, chemical compounds identified in certain EOs have been shown to have a variety of biological activities, including medicinal properties. But why are these compounds effective and how do they relate to modern, lab-created medications?


Medicinal properties of EOs

EOs have been used since the Middle Ages to treat a variety of aliments. EOs are highly complex mixtures of plant-derived chemical compounds. Each EO contains 20-70 components in varying amounts that endow the EO with its aromatic signature and biological properties [1]. The chemical compounds contained in EOs are very important to plant physiology and have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and insecticidal properties. While most EOs have some antimicrobial properties, others can reduce inflammation, serve as pro- and anti-oxidants, relieve muscle spasms, alleviate pain, and calm or stimulate the body. Although EOs have been recognized for their medicinal properties since ancient times, scientific research linking compounds in EOs to their medicinal properties is starting to show potential for applications in modern medicine. EOs are already being used in experimental treatment of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, and recent studies have suggested EOs may have the potential to treat and prevent some cancers [1-3].


Advantages of EOs

One of the primary challenges of modern pharmaceuticals is delivering biologically active drugs to the interior human cells where they exert their biological effects. Due to their natural chemical composition, EO compounds are able to easily pass through the cell membrane without chemical modification to act where they’re needed most [1]. Additionally, although they are chemically complex, plants have evolved to produce these compounds seemingly effortlessly, where chemical synthesis in a lab of the same compounds is very difficult due to their complex structure and potential for harmful bi-products [1]. Additionally, many medicinal properties of EOs have been ascribed not to single chemical components, but to the naturally-derived plant EO mixture as a whole [1]: an elegant and powerful gift from Mother Nature.


The Frontier: EOs and Cancer

Most recently, scientists have begun to explore the use of EOs for the treatment of cancer. EOs from a variety of different plants have shown to have positive effects against a variety of cancers, including breast, lung, mouth, prostate, colon, liver and leukemia in cancer cell lines and tumor-bearing animals (Select EOs summarized in Table) [1-3]. Current studies focus on deciphering the mechanisms by which EOs are able to affect cancer cells and whether EOs have a potential role in cancer-treatment regiments.


Table: Select Oils with Potential Anti-Cancer Properties [1]



Melissa officinalis
(Lemon Balm)
Citrus, herbaceousShowed cytotoxic activity in certain lung, colon, breast and leukemia cancer cells lines in a mouse model [4] as well as antitumor effects in a glioblastoma cell line [5]
Melaleuca alternifolia 
(Tea Tree)
Herbaceous, green, leatheryA component of the oil, called TTO, has been shown to inhibit growth and kill melanoma cells [6] and other cancers [1]
Thymus vulgaris
Warm, herbaceous, floral, powderyEffective against a head and neck squamous cell carcinoma [7] as well as prostate and lung carcinomas and breast cancer cell lines [8]
Citrus bergamia 
Citrus, spice, with a high floral noteTreatment reduced cell viability in a neuroblastoma [9] and breast cancer cells [10]



Interested in trying essential oils? You can purchase them from Sheena Smith at



  1. Russo R, Corasaniti MT, Bagetta G, Morrone LA. Review Article: Exploitation of Cytotoxicity of Some Essential Oils for Translation in Cancer Therapy. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015;2015(6):1–9. doi:10.1155/2015/397821.
  2. Bayala B, Bassole IH, Scifo R, et al. Anticancer activity of essential oils and their chemical components – a review. Am J Cancer Res. 2014;4(6):591–607.
  3. Gautam N, Mantha AK, Mittal S. Review Article: Essential Oils and Their Constituents as Anticancer Agents: A Mechanistic View. BioMed Research International. 2014:1–23. doi:10.1155/2014/154106.
  4. de Sousa AC, Alviano DS, Blank AF, Alves PB, Alviano CS, Gattass CR. Melissa officinalis L. essential oil: antitumoral and antioxidant activities. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2004;56(5):677–681. doi:10.1211/0022357023321.
  5. Queiroz RM de, Takiya CM, Guimarães LPTP, et al. Apoptosis-inducing effects of Melissa officinalis L. essential oil in glioblastoma multiforme cells. Cancer Invest. 2014;32(6):226–235. doi:10.3109/07357907.2014.905587.
  6. Calcabrini A, Stringaro A, Toccacieli L, et al. Terpinen-4-ol, the main component of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil inhibits the in vitro growth of human melanoma cells. J Invest Dermatol. 2004;122(2):349–360. doi:10.1046/j.0022-202X.2004.22236.x.
  7. Sertel S, Eichhorn T, Plinkert PK, Efferth T. Cytotoxicity of Thymus vulgaris essential oil towards human oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma. Anticancer Res. 2011;31(1):81–87.
  8. Zu Y, Yu H, Liang L, et al. Activities of ten essential oils towards Propionibacterium acnes and PC-3, A-549 and MCF-7 cancer cells. Molecules. 2010;15(5):3200–3210. doi:10.3390/molecules15053200.
  9. Berliocchi L, Ciociaro A, Russo R, et al. Toxic profile of bergamot essential oil on survival and proliferation of SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells. Food Chem Toxicol. 2011;49(11):2780–2792. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2011.08.017.
  10. Russo R, Cassiano MGV, Ciociaro A, et al. Role of D-Limonene in autophagy induced by bergamot essential oil in SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells. Nakano H, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(11):e113682. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113682.