TORONTO — Karen Christopher, a counselor who works with emotionally disturbed children, has an unusual way of dealing with stress. For the last four years, she has been undergoing monthly "aroma treatments," which she says have helped her entire body to function more efficiently.
On this day, Christopher is suffering from indigestion. So for the next 75 minutes, Aromatherapy Institute Director Anne Roebuck will massage her body with a combination of natural oils--thyme, fennel, ylang-ylang and lemon--in one of the closet-size treatment rooms that keeps the pungent aromas intact.
"The effects are very subtle," Christopher says, "but I'm totally convinced that I won't age as quickly as someone who doesn't use the oils."
"If you haven't had this done before, you think, 'What can they do for you?' " another client, Betty-Ann Fransson, says. "But they do something for the mind. Lavender puts me right to sleep."
While flourishing in Canada, the concept of aroma-therapy massage has not become popular in the United States. However, research-and-development departments of big American cosmetics companies are now beginning to view fragrances as more than something to make us smell pretty.
Based on what is now being learned about how the mind and body can respond to different fragrances, it appears that the smells we take for granted might one day become the cosmetics industry's alternative to the evening cocktail, midday pick-me-up and, if the research proves correct, the appetite suppressors of the future.
Bath oils, shampoos--even deodorants--may one day incorporate the ever-increasing knowledge about the powers of aroma, as perfumers may be trained not only to combine ingredients that create an appealing scent, but also one that contributes to a person's psychological or physiological wellbeing.
In the words of Charles of the Ritz executive Hank Wasiak: It's the "hot topic" of the cosmetics industry.
While some companies such as Avon are conducting in-house research, the cosmetics industry is mostly relying upon the American medical community to lead the way with new information to make so-called aroma therapy products possible. At least five clinical research centers devoted to the study of smell and taste have been established across the United States in the last five years.
In one important study, Gary E. Schwartz, a Yale professor of psychology and psychiatry, reported that a scent called Spiced Apple had a noticeable effect on people's stress levels when they were asked a series of questions expected to cause tension. Blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension were lower in the group exposed to the apple scent than in the group not exposed to it.
Henry Walter, chairman of the board of International Flavors & Fragrances in New York, the world's largest producer and supplier of scents, is such a big believer in the potential of aroma therapy that his company has made a multimillion-dollar commitment to research by making grants to universities, research centers and individuals over the last three years, including Schwartz at Yale.
"We're putting our money where our nose is," says Walter, who likens the burgeoning field to the "beginning of antibiotics."
"We envision a zillion different possibilities," he says, including "pumping" stimulating aromas into schools to wake people up.
At Charles of the Ritz, researchers are working to isolate fragrances that can be used in automobiles to help drivers stay alert.
But aroma-therapy pioneers--such as Walter and Michael Waldock of PPF Industries, another large fragrance supplier in New York--agree that stress relief will be the most likely function of the first aroma-therapy products manufactured on a large scale. Walter says it is possible that some kind of anti-stress perfume, shampoo or bath oil will be on the market before the end of the year. Waldock says it will be another five years.
But the long-term goal will be to provide consumers with a whole collection of fragrance choices, or "behavioral fragrances," as Annette Green, executive director of the Fragrance Foundation in New York, calls them.
Three years ago, this nonprofit industry organization established a tax-exempt arm to support such scientific odor research. Although Green could not specify locations, she has heard that some salons in the United States include forms of aroma therapy with their massages.
"One day," Green believes, "you'll be able to choose a fragrance when you wake up in the morning to get your mood up, another at noon to calm you down, another at 5 when you have a date and want to be sensual or sexy and another when you go home and want to go to sleep."