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.”
Experts point out that throughout civilization certain fragrances have been credited with health-promoting effects, from combating gout to protection against the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. Even Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” experienced the powerful effects of aroma when she walked drowsily through a field of poppies.
Chemists say many derivatives of drugs today can be traced back to plants or herbs. But natural remedies were abandoned, except by Eastern cultures, with the beginning of organic chemistry and the capability to synthesize drugs.
Yet aroma therapy has continued to be practiced in Europe throughout the 20th Century, thanks to the rich anecdotal “folklore” of plant properties. And it is on such information that practitioners such as the Aromatherapy Institute’s Roebuck draw for an encyclopedic knowledge of herb, plant, flower and fruit oil properties.
For example, tangerine, lemon and orange oils are said to help lift someone out of a depression. Basil is said to calm nerves. “There are formulas to help people relax,” Roebuck says, “and there are formulas that stimulate.”
Roebuck says she learned this information in a beauty college in London and from direct experience working with the oils on clients.
“It’s not a science in the medical sense,” she says. “It is what it is.”
While in California, masseurs are not required to be certified by the state, aroma-therapy practioners in Canada--many of whom Roebuck trained--must hold a license in massage therapy.
(Roebuck is chairman of the board of the Masseurs of Ontario, the licensing body under the Minister of Health.)
But even when science enters the picture, aroma therapy has its skeptics--including the classic perfumers in France.
“They have said ‘ugh’ to the whole thing,” International Flavors’ Walter says. “They say you shouldn’t make anything more of perfumes than the mystery of beauty.”
“I certainly don’t believe in anything as uncomplicated as presenting an odor to produce an automatic reaction,” says Howard Ehrlichman, professor of psychology in the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, who is studying odor.
“Think how complicated food is,” Ehrlichman adds. “When you’re hungry, a garlic smell may make your mouth water. But if you’re full, it may produce other feelings. . . . There are very, very few stimuli that have an immediate effect of good or bad.”
Schwartz, who conducted the apple fragrance study, said, “I was a disbeliever--I thought it was unlikely that a specific fragrance could have a demonstrable relaxing effect in the laboratory. But it makes sense to me now.
“The nose plays an important role in the lives of lower animals,” he said, “and it’s no accident that the nose will have a more powerful effect on our feelings and physiology than we’ve given it credit for.”
“I believe with a conviction of 100% that the biomedical community is now within striking distance of understanding how the sense of smell works,” says William S. Cain, professor of environmental health and psychology at Yale University’s John B. Pierce Foundation Laboratory.
“Within 10 years, we’ll know more about the sense of smell than we have learned in the history of time,” Cain adds. “The sense of smell sits there and registers a range of chemicals that allows us to make decisions. Once we completely understand how it works, including the structure of the brain to which smell feeds, we will understand much more about human behavior--including memory, imagery and emotions.”
When that information becomes available, it looks as if the cosmetics industry will be ready and waiting to make full use of it.
Susan Schiffman, a medical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center who has been studying emotional reactions to smell since 1965, says she has been besieged by cosmetics companies wanting to sign her on as a consultant.
“I’ve had more than 20 calls in the last three weeks,” she says. “All the major companies have consulted me. They want to know how to make use of fragrances to alter mood.”
But PPF’s Waldock worries that if some cosmetics companies prematurely manufacture aroma-therapy products before all the clinical evidence is available, then there is a danger that aroma therapy could become the industry’s “equivalent of snake oil--drink this and it will cure everything.”
The potential, he believes, is definitely there. “But if aroma therapy gets a bad reputation before, then we kill something that’s very valuable.”