Don't dwell on scented candles. For a practitioner of aromatherapy like Tampa's Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, burning cloves and cinnamon is a perfect waste of essential oils that benefit from noncombustion.
Sheppard-Hanger, a 59-year-old former hair salon owner and active massage therapist, founded the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy in 1989 to teach the subject of therapeutic scents. She topped that off with a charitable venture called Unitedaromatherapy.org.
The nonprofit has delivered essences like peppermint oil, frankincense and orange blossom to the put-upon nostrils of New York firefighters, New Orleans hurricane cleanup crews and soldiers in Afghanistan. She's working on scented care packages for her nephew's unit at Camp Phoenix near Kabul.
The Times recently ventured into the colorfully cluttered — and highly aromatic — confines of Sheppard-Hanger's Carrollwood office. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Tell us about the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy. How is business?
One of my early teachers was Kurt Schnaubelt, who ran the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy. I said, "I'm going to be your sister on the Atlantic coast." It's not made me lots of money, but I love doing it. The economy has been tough. Last year people just stopped spending. But I still sell my aromatherapy manuals and course books, mostly to massage therapists and natural-care practitioners. I've had a little run on the courses since (President) Obama told everyone to go back to school.
It's the use of oils from plants, flowers, trees and shrubs for health, healing and well-being. Most are very effective against infection. You can kill germs that cause acne. It changes your consciousness. When my daughter was a child I'd put lavender and marjoram in her bath. Oils all have an emotional barometer. If you switch over to using cedar wood, for example, you can switch from being cautious to courageous.
What's that yellow stuff in the spray bottle?
This is our signature scent. It's called purification mist. It's one-third essential oil blend, one-third water and one-third vodka. It's got rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus, tea tree, pine and peppermint. To me it's a cure-all. It's one of the first things I sent to Afghanistan since I had a gallon left over.
That's strong stuff. Aren't all those tough guy soldiers worried about using scents that could be considered feminine?
Everybody tries to pooh-pooh this as girly spa stuff. But this is more than smell-good-feel-good. These soldiers aren't pampering themselves with bath oils. They're using it to breathe. We're not only cleaning the air over there, we're trying to keep them from identifying with the smell of Afghanistan. We know smells are triggers for post-traumatic stress. These guys living in tents and shipping containers want something the doesn't smell like field artillery and dirty clothes.
Tell us how you got started with the charity.
When 9/11 happened on a Tuesday, by Wednesday everyone was lining up to give blood. I'm a breast cancer survivor and couldn't do that. I got the message we needed to aromatize Manhattan. I got on the Internet and put the word out. We drove a U-Haul up with massage chairs and $10,000 worth of product. We went to individual firehouses and gave out oils and massages. Twenty-two people donated $500, and we bought vaporizers and 500 pounds of oil. Then along came Hurricane Katrina, and we turned my car into the United Aromatherapy Mobile Unit.
What are some of the best-known aromas, and where do they come from?
When I was recovering from breast cancer, I took a lot of geranium baths. Geraniums perk people up when they're down and calm them down when they're anxious. That was our house scent for 10 years. A normal geranium smells like a tomato plant, but there are special varieties whose leaves are aromatic and lemony. … Flower oils like rose and jasmine are the most expensive. It takes so many petals to make a liter of oil. Some people go to Turkey and buy oil straight from the rose supplier. The U.S. is the largest producer of orange, lemon, peppermint and spearmint.
Why use things like vaporizers and diffusers to spread the scents around? Why not just burn scented candles?
When you use heat, you're breaking down the oils. You're not going to get the therapeutic effect. When you use a diffuser and vaporizer, oil molecules are so light that they can stay suspended in the air for hours.
How is that different from a Vicks vaporizer you use for colds?
Vicks is synthetic. They never use real eucalyptus since they can't patent it. So they isolated the natural ingredients, synthesized it and patented the results.
Two of the natural oils on your shelf are frankincense and myrrh. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
They both are gum resins. Eucalyptus, for example, is from a leaf. But frankincense and myrrh are like pine sap. They cut the trees and collect the tears of sap. That is distilled into oils. If you're Catholic, you know frankincense. They use it in church incense. Myrrh's scent is a lot warmer. They used it for embalming Egyptian mummies. In the old days I used to sell them at Christmas. They don't smell much until you burn them. That's another thing about synthetics: If you burn them they smell like burning tires.