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The Sweet Smell of Excess

Aromatherapy Candles. Aromatherapy Spas. Aromatherapy Dish Soap. L.A.'s in the Middle of a Scent Revolution, But Is the "Ancient Art" at Its Core Simply the Art of Marketing?

June 15, 2003|Nelson Handel | Nelson Handel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

I lie face down on a massage table. Below, accessible to my nose through the table's face hole, is a cloth saturated in aromatic oil. The smell is overwhelming. Acupuncture needles protrude from, among other places, the top of my head. Piano music plays. I'm sweating slightly and have a mild case of the spins.

I'm in this generic-looking Westside medical office to relieve the throbbing pain in my lower back. Before the session began, my aromatherapist/acupuncturist and I discussed the healing powers of odors. She believes that scents can help heal, and has saturated the cloth below me with hemp oil. Its scent reminds me of headier days. She reassures me that this essential oil form is quite legal, yet gently soporific. "Some people say they haven't been this relaxed since the '60s," she says. Then she applies invigorating peppermint oil to my neck.

I leave smelling as if I've smoked too much pot and then downed too many LifeSavers trying to hide it. I'm terrified by what to say if pulled over by Santa Monica's finest. I feel more relaxed, I suppose, and my backache has eased somewhat, though I can't say if that's from the acupuncture, the aromatherapy, or a side effect of lying face down in a comfortable position listening to George Winston for half an hour. I can say that the hemp oil has given me a huge appetite, and the proximity of a deli across the street makes me very happy.

Perhaps that's the problem with aromatherapy. At times, its benefits are indistinguishable from the joy of a corned beef sandwich and a dill pickle.

My curiosity about aromatherapy began a week earlier, when my wife urged me to a sink filled with dirty dishes. It was the soap: Palmolive Aromatherapy Liquid Soap, Anti-Stress. "Enriched with the essences of Lavender and Ylang Ylang," the label said, it will not only soften hands while you do dishes, but its "soothing and relaxing scent" promised "a whole new sensation in dishwashing."

"What's this?" I asked.

"It's new," she said. "Just use it."

My wife knows that nothing soothes or relaxes me when it comes to kitchen chores; they're just another irritant in a world full of postmodern aggravations. But the soap caught me. The Colgate-Palmolive company wants me to believe that a dish soap will reduce stress. It has spent millions of dollars to develop and market that idea, and no doubt expects to earn hundreds of millions back. With trepidation, I sudsed.

As the floral scent mixed with the smell of greasy fish plates, I began to wonder about the aromatherapy products that now surround us--aromatherapy candles, aromatherapy hand lotion, aromatherapy dish soap, aromatherapy air fresheners. During the past year, major manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive have begun flooding supermarket and drugstore shelves with products based on this once-obscure naturopathic health practice. How did this happen? When did odors become good for you? What does aromatherapy actually mean? Why are we buying this stuff?

I smelled a rat, and set out to find some answers. The search led me from the fringes of the holistic health movement through cutting-edge medical research labs to the corporations that sell aromatherapy products. The journey revealed an unexpected confluence of social and demographic trends that may say as much about American consumers and their eagerness for salvation as it says about how badly American aromatherapy stinks.

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Terry Molnar, executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute in New York City, the research arm of the fragrance industry, says that long-haul truckers and airport traffic controllers sometimes use the smell of peppermint oil to stay awake. This frightens me. If the people piloting large vehicles at great speed feel drowsy, I want them on amphetamines, not Altoids.

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Most people believe aromatherapy has something to do with "essential oils"--the oleaginous distillate of flowers, plants and herbs. These concentrated and usually aromatic oils are associated with a folkloric tradition of medicinal healing. You often hear the phrase "the ancient art of aromatherapy," which gives the whole weird science the sound of legitimacy. Earnest proponents refer to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, various medieval tracts, Indian Ayurvedic texts and a certain biblical passage that has Moses stewing up sacramental oil as proof that essential oils were used medicinally in ancient times.

Others point to aromatherapy's roots in miasmic theory, the idea that foul odors cause disease. From this tradition, which held sway over much of Western Europe through the late 19th century, we get things such as malaria ("bad air" disease). But scientists trashed miasmic theory when they discovered microorganisms and their effects on health.

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