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The Sweet Smell of Excess

By Nelson Handel, Special to The Times

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.


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.


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.

While essential oils clearly have been around a long time, no one actually referred to their medicinal use as aromatherapy before 1928. That year, following a lab explosion, French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé plunged his burned hand into a vat of lavender oil. Noticing how well it healed, he wrote a book, "Aromathérapie," published in 1937, and coined the term. After a temporary flowering of interest, the practice fell dormant until revived briefly in the early 1960s. It wafted around Europe but never roused American interest. The big bloom in the U.S. happened about a dozen years ago, when a number of factors combined to create a fertile field for the sense of smell.

What has followed in the past decade is a canon of aromatherapy literature claiming that essential oils can be used as everything from an anti-inflammatory to an aphrodisiac, and to treat a wide range of diseases and conditions from simple stress to hypertension to hormonal irregularities.


When visiting an aromatherapist, I wonder, should one wear deodorant?


Aromatherapy first took root in America in the early 1990s with people such as Angela Melia, a longtime holistic healer from Point Dume in Malibu. Essential oils seemed to her a natural adjunct to her practice in reflexology and body work. Melia uses essentials oils as responsibly as any holistic healer can, and is careful not to make any medical claims even though she is convinced that they have healing effects. "I know it sounds strange," she says, "but I feel that in the connection between the energy of the body and the energy of the plants, something holy takes place."

She begins our aromatherapy session with my feet, using reflexology to correctly identify my aching lower back (still not healed after the acupuncture treatment). From her kit of a hundred little brown bottles, she blends oils in her cupped hand and massages them into various parts of my body. Her work is incredibly focused, not the sort of whole-body rubdown you get at a day spa. By the session's end, I feel like Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man, except instead of sporting tattoos, each part of my body tells a different olfactory tale—my feet smell of mint and ginger; my back, of pungent wild sage; my chest, a breezy pine and cypress forest; and my head, a bouquet of red roses and lotus blossoms. The cornucopia of smells makes identifying the subtleties of each impossible, but Melia explains that the systemic absorption of the oils, through my nose and also through my skin, provides the therapeutic effect. "You may try to separate it," she tells me, "but your body puts it all together."

Like any sort of intense, personalized healing treatment, this is aromatherapy at its most effective. The point where the personal care and massage leaves off and the properties of the oils begin seems almost irrelevant. Heaven knows, my feet have never smelled better. But my back feels better too, and I'm happy as a pismo clam.

Aromatherapists almost always use essential oils as an adjunct to more traditional types of therapy such as massage or acupuncture. It's almost impossible to find someone who treats exclusively by olfaction, which makes it difficult to assess aromatherapy's true benefits. Yet Melia's work clearly has integrity. From an aromatherapy viewpoint, it is the stone in the pond, if you will, from which concentric rings ripple all the way out to Palmolive's Aromatherapy Anti-Stress dish soap. Its maker wants consumers to believe that sniffing $1.69 dish soap will ease you as much as a $90 hour with Angela Melia.


At Aroma Spa & Sports, a gym in Koreatown, nothing actually smells. Except sweat, of course. "It's a mistranslation from the Korean," the receptionist tells me. Studies show that Korean Americans—whose cuisine is noted for its plentiful use of garlic—have the most acute sense of smell. Better than whites, better than African Americans, and better than Japanese, in descending order.


Smell is fuzzy logic. science recognizes about 10,000 different scents and considers about 1,000 of them primary odors. The rest are combinations, like musical chords. No two people perceive odor the same way; the range of what is considered normal sensitivity is vast. Age, race, gender and other variables can all play a role.

Smell is the only truly effective sense, meaning you judge whether you like or dislike a smell before you identify it. This happens occasionally with other senses, such as when you hear fingernails scratching a chalkboard. But it always happens with odors. Doctors suggest that this is a vestige of evolution. In the wild, scent serves as an early sign of danger. Our long-range sensors—scent and hearing—remain "on" when we sleep.

Based on this, aromatherapy advocates commonly claim that smell is the most primary sense, that somehow odors go directly to your brain and are hard-wired to your emotions. As attractive as this idea is, it's just not true. Although odors do enter the body through a tunnel in the face, they do not ride a bullet train to the brain. The chemosensory receptors in your nose catch odor molecules and destroy them. The olfactory nerve translates the energy released from that destruction into a coded signal that travels to your brain for processing. Both odors and emotions decode in the brain's limbic system, but their proximity is irrelevant. Nothing in the brain is very far apart.

Every other sense functions the same way.


Scentco, a Georgia company, recently introduced a scent additive for paint called Paint Pourri. Applied to walls, it will scent a room for as long as a year. The company markets this experience as "A-Room-a-Therapy." The thought isn't new. In the Middle Ages, Moors added frankincense to the mortar used to build their mosques, reputedly rendering them fragrant for as long as 100 years. A thought strikes me: Writing about scent is like trying to smell architecture.


"How do you describe sex?" asks John Steele rhetorically. "you can't. If you haven't done it, you haven't done it. Smell is the same."

Steele is an aromatic consultant and fragrance designer who has lectured worldwide on aromatherapy. He did his doctoral research in anthropology and archeology at UC Berkeley, and he runs a small business selling high-quality essential oils. We're sitting in the living room of his 1960s ranch home in Sherman Oaks, discussing sensorial anthropology, the study of societies based on the relative importance they assign to different senses.

"We're a smell-impoverished culture," he says. "Western culture is 70% visually dominant. Ancient cultures were more orally dominant, more tactilely dominant and especially more smell dominant, until this aromatherapy renaissance."

But why smell, and why now? "The deepest sense of smell is intuitive," he says. "You'll use a phrase—'I smell a rat,' or 'Something smells fishy'—when something looks OK but doesn't feel OK. You're using 'smell' as a substitute for 'feel.' On a spiritual and psychological level, that's what people are cottoning on to. We're literally following our noses."

Like many of the people involved in holistic aromatherapy, Steele treads the line between the pragmatic and the spiritual: grounded and insightful one moment, vaguely metaphysical the next. As we talk, he treats me to successive snifters of fragrant floral waters called hydrosols. "This is the next aromatherapy," he says, adding a few drops from a small bottle labeled Jasmine Sambac to some spring water in a wine glass. Hydrosols are the water residue of the essential-oils distillation process. "The magic is in the trace elements," he says. "The soul part of a plant happens in parts per billion."

I sip gingerly. The bouquet is huge, the taste pleasantly sweet; it's surprisingly thirst quenching, and it gives me an enormous head rush. Soul? Histamine reaction? I don't know. But it's a lovely beverage and I get a little giggly drinking it. I buy a bottle.

"Aromatherapy is a misnomer in some sense," he adds. "True aromatherapy is dermal application, respiratory reception and oral ingestion. But it's come to be, 'Oh, aromatherapy? We have scented candles.' Everyone plays fast and loose with the term. True therapeutic use is different than putting in some oil so you can say, 'This is aromatherapy.' "


Every year, about 80 people pay Jim Llewellyn an average of $1,700 to arrange vacations to smelly places. Llewellyn, who has a degree in applied chemistry, is co-founder of Aroma Tours, an Australia-based travel company that packages trips to flower fields and essential oils distilleries the world over. "Nature has its wisdom, you know?" he says. "And I can see evidence of that on the molecular level." He begins to detail the symmetries in botanical organic chemistry, then he veers into something far less tangible. "The spirit of the plant is in the place it was grown," he says. "When I'm standing in a field of lavender in Provence, the sound of the bees, the smell, the sun, it's just so.... The plants absorb the joie de vivre in Provence. How can that not be in the oil?"


Essential oils, the basis of aromatherapy, are composed of terpenes, alcohols, esters, ethers, phenols and other substances. These same chemicals form the basis of synthetic scents. Aromatherapists point to each oil's unique formula when they assert medicinal claims, claiming nature's balance provides healing properties.

Scientists generally believe that this is a bunch of malarkey. "We've studied the effects of oils versus synthetic scents," says neurologist and olfactory researcher Alan Hirsch of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. "It makes no difference at all. The physiological effects, on an EEG, for example, are exactly the same."

But can science duplicate the "soul" or "spirit" of a plant?

"Even if the plant had a soul," replies Hirsch, "if it had an effect, we should be able to measure it. Otherwise you're talking religion, not science." He adds: "The only true aromatherapy is smelling salts."

Science has two ways of thinking about the medicinal effects of odors. The first is the lock-and-key theory, which suggests that fragrance acts like a specific neurotransmitter. If lock-and-key thinking governed aromatherapy, specific odors would have specific effects. Lavender would relax, for example, and citrus would stimulate. Like smelling salts, these effects would be identical for everyone.

Unfortunately, that's not how it works.

Louis Monti probably knows as much as anyone about the pharmacological possibilities of smell. As the vice president of research at Pherin Pharmaceuticals in Mountain View, Calif., he develops drugs using the lock-and-key theory and would like nothing better than to find out the claims for aromatherapy are true. But he says he has tested whether essential oils can cause physiological changes in those who smell them, and he has found no such lock-and-key effect. In fact, he found no effect at all.

"I'm skeptical of the claims," he says. "Effects on pregnancy and hypertension, anti-inflammatory and aphrodisiac effects? These are well-defined fields. People die from hypertension; it's a serious issue. If the claims were true, a lot more science would be going on."

The other way to look at the effects of odors is through the General Affective Theory, which holds that if you like a smell, it makes you happy, and when you're happy, you do almost everything better. Science has shown that happy people learn better, sleep better, feel less pain, heal more quickly and get sick less often. Unfortunately, the happiness principle undercuts Western medicine's definition of therapy as the treatment of underlying diseases. A "Star Wars" movie might make you happy, as Hirsch noted in a 2001 article, but no one is claiming to be a "Lucastherapist." There's also the problem that a smell liked by one person might be repulsive to another. Thus it becomes impossible to claim that a specific oil has any universal benefits; lavender may relax me, but if it reminds you of your flatulent grandmother, you're not likely to experience the same effect.

But all the science in the world hasn't slowed aromatherapy's continuing march into our bathrooms and kitchens. Perhaps other forces are at play?


Bad smells make people tense, angry and aggressive. Studies show this. Students asked to give their friends electric shocks of varying intensity uniformly increased the charge when in the presence of foul odors. Another study showed that the number of motor vehicle accidents in Los Angeles increases when malodorous air pollution is high, indicating that people drive more aggressively in a polluted environment. Also, the smell of secondhand smoke has been demonstrated to exacerbate aggressive behavior in nonsmokers.


Charting aromatherapy's journey from obscure naturopathic practice to a fixture in your supermarket aisle reveals a lot about how ideas resonate through a culture and how commercial interests exploit those ideas for profit.

The story begins at the close of World War II. Returning GIs rushed to suburbia with their new families in tow. The American consumer products industry blossomed, promising better living through chemistry. To create products with added value and consumer appeal, it turned to the scent and flavor industry, which proceeded to stink up everything from Lemon Fresh Joy to TV dinners. "Scent always played a special role in consumer products, a halo effect," says Kari Arienti, senior perfumer for consumer products at Givaudan, a Swiss-based multinational powerhouse in the fragrance and flavor industry. "Scent signaled that the product was working, that it was cleaning your house, making your hair shiny, or nurturing your skin."

In 1977, aromatherapist Robert Tisserand began to write and edit aromatherapy books in the U.S., including a translation of Gattefossé's "Aromathérapie." No one paid much attention, despite our burgeoning alternative lifestyle movement. Then, in 1988, the psychology of scent in America began to change. Aging baby boomers facing their mortality began trying to live a "healthier" lifestyle. The health food and health products industries expanded dramatically, and "all-natural" products moved into the mainstream. People started taking greater control of their health decisions, motivated perhaps by the rising influence of HMOs. More and more, Americans embraced alternative "feel-good" therapies as an adjunct to institutionalized medicine. High-end spas and holistic healers began incorporating essential oils into their treatments and calling it aromatherapy.

As boomers spent more time "cocooning," they began searching for ways to make their homes contribute to an overall sense of health and well-being. A number of small companies, such as Los Angeles-based California Baby (baby products) and Irvine-based Aroma Naturals (candles) arose to meet that growing demand, creating a niche market in specialty products that are scented with essential oils. "When we started making candles in 1991," says Aroma Naturals president Tina Rocca-Lundstrom, "there was nothing without synthetic scent. We set out to make an all-natural product that contributed to health and well-being."

Aromatherapy products found their way onto the shelves of health-food markets, into the menus of spa treatments and into the consciousness of the average American consumer.

One other social change occurred in the early 1990s, perhaps affecting the largest single change on American olfaction. "Cigarettes," suggests neurologist Hirsh. "The elimination of indoor smoking changed us. With the environment free of it, we could concentrate on other ambient odors." Suddenly, American noses woke up.

But the biggest force pushing aromatherapy into the mainstream was the fragrance industry itself. "About 15 years ago," says perfumer Arienti, "we started testing fragrance for mood associations. We started associating scent with a state of being."

Aromatherapy alternately intrigued and terrified the fragrance industry. It immediately saw the potential upside to selling aroma as a health benefit, but it worried that making such claims might cross the federal Food and Drug Administration line from cosmetics to drugs. The industry couldn't risk having shampoo regulated like a drug, so, through its nonprofit entity, the Sense of Smell Institute, the fragrance folks created a new term—Aroma-Chology.

"Aroma-Chology," says institute executive director Molnar, "is the study of the transitory psychological effects of scent."

"Transitory psychological effects" means mood. Under the banner of Aroma-Chology, the institute began funding studies setting out to prove scientifically that —ready?—good smells can make you happy. Avery Gilbert, a sensory psychologist, summed it up in a 1991 article in SELF magazine. "Until now," he said, "we wanted only to create beautiful perfumes; now we know fragrances have meaning beyond beauty."

Aroma-Chology is the industry's attempt to separate itself from the folkloric tradition of medical aromatherapy but still capitalize on the association. In the language of advertising, Aroma-Chology "resonates harmoniously" with the vague consumer perception that odors can heal you. Before Aroma-Chology, they could make something smell lemony-fresh, but they couldn't claim any benefits from doing so.

In 1997, Coty successfully launched The Healing Garden, the first mass-produced essential oils-driven product line, and attributed its affective properties to Aroma-Chology. In 2002, Procter & Gamble, the largest brand manufacturer in the world, released Ohm by Olay, a line of Aroma-Chology skin-care products that promises "a holistic and fragrant cleansing experience" and "provides women with total experiential well-being."

In the past dozen years, America's psychological relationship to scent has been turned inside out. Thanks to Aroma-Chology, P&G can put well-being in a bottle and come out smelling like a rose. But—surprise!—later studies showed that consumers assumed Aroma-chology and aromatherapy are the same thing, so the distinction is pointless. Hence, Palmolive Aromatherapy Liquid Soap.

Who cares what it's called, you might say. At least they're delivering healthy, natural products, right? Well, not exactly. All-natural products are expensive to manufacture well, and that effectively makes them too expensive for the supermarket and drugstore consumers that these corporate giants want to reach. So these companies make inexpensive, artificially scented synthetic products and then add a smidgeon of essential oil. Manufacturers address this with coy explanations, such as "we combine nature with science." But the truth is, most aromatherapy products are —like so-called "fragrance-free" products, which can contain synthetic materials with an odor to mask the chemical smell—are not what they seem.

So, American aromatherapy is not all natural, it's not truly therapeutic, it's not based exclusively on essential oils, and it's not healthier for you. It just stinks. Should anyone buy this stuff? "My advice for consumers?" says Arienti. "Do the Toucan Sam, dude, follow your nose. If you like it, if it makes you go yum, then buy it. Isn't that the whole idea?"


When the Santa Ana winds of February blow warm and gentle, Jasminum polyanthum—winter jasmine—blooms its pale white blossoms, filling the late evening and early morning air with its intoxicating scent. At moments like these, Los Angeles seems unbearably light, as if the city were floating above the uncertain earth. There's magic in that smell, and promise, and wonder, a strange transformative silence that whispers to all who hear its faint calling that anything is possible. Anything.


I ask jerry rice, senior advertising production manager at Procter & Gamble, "Off the record, is aromatherapy real or bull?"

"On the record," he replies, "the perception is the reality. If the consumer believes that aromatherapy is adding benefit to their life, then it has worth. We go by psychographics even more than by demographics."

I can't quite take him seriously. "So will we be seeing aromatherapy for pets?" I ask.

He doesn't pause. "If it has perceived value," he says "we'll be first."

There you have it. It no longer matters whether there are any medical, spiritual or psychological benefits to aromatherapy; it only matters that you believe there are. The argument is moot, as are the protestations of the scientists and skeptics. In some strange, postmodern way, this innocent fiction has echoed back on itself, over and over, until the myth has become the truth. In just over a decade, aromatherapy has passed from folkloric notion to nationally accepted idea, now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And growing.

If you ignore the medical claims of aromatherapy and only focus on the psychological, spiritual ones, its co-option by the consumer products industry makes even better sense. Spirituality in a bottle is the perfect marriage of metaphysics and capitalism. Now you can buy a product that gives you religion while you do dishes. What could be more American than that?


Nelson Handel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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