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MAKING SCENTS OF IT ALL

It's happened to all of us. A scent of lilacs drifts past your nose and zap! It's a summer evening in southern Indiana and you're walking down the lane that winds past the house where you grew up.

A puff of cinnamon and your grandmother practically materializes in your kitchen. You're a kid being hugged.

Ah, roses! Ultimate nostalgia. Or a pungent whiff of patchouli and groovy! Beam me back to Woodstock, Scotty.

Aromas are such powerful provocateurs of feelings, it's no wonder we've been capturing and bottling them for most of our human history. Extracting the essences from flowers and plants is an ancient art. The Egyptians used resins and essential oils to embalm their dead, and the Greeks used perfumes for healing and probably for some really great parties. Rumor has it that Cleopatra snagged Antony whilst wearing jasmine oil, the quintessential turn-on.

A few years ago, about the only sources of essential oils for everyday folks were places like crystal shops, mystical-type massage therapists and the more metaphysical health food stores. The major market for essential oil was the perfume industry, which typically combines pure plant essences with some synthetics to come up with its eau de colognes.

Now, the term "aromatherapy" is popping up in the mainstream _ beauty salons, cosmetics counters and even when Avon comes calling. You can buy books on the healing effects of oils and attend workshops to learn how to mix your own. Companies such as Aveda Products of Minnesota present a whole line of skin and hair products that claim to contain nature's healing oils.

In candle and potpourri shops, you're likely to find essential oil paraphernalia _ candle and electric air diffusers, or rings you fill with oil and place on a light bulb. As the oil heats, the scent fills the air.

The spring issue of Mothering magazine, an article on aromatherapy listed recipes using essential oils for pregnancy ills. Lavender and geranium baths to relax the expectant mother. Peppermint oil for morning sickness. A mixture of six oils, including lavender, frankincense and lemongrass, for stretch marks. Sage combined with assorted florals for pain during labor.

Essential oils are extracted from plants by several methods, including pressing and distilling. For some of the really primo oils _ like rose and French lavender _ distilling equipment is sometimes rolled right into the fields where the flowers are organically growing. The oils are extremely potent _ the tiniest amount can anoint you all day. This is a good thing considering it takes 400 pounds of rose petals (2,000 tons of roses) to make 16 ounces of rose oil.

Jasmine, one of the few oils that cannot be replicated synthetically, retails at $131 an ounce in one shop, and along with rose is one of the most expensive oils. Most are much cheaper. Lemon oil, for example, is a couple dollars an ounce, and essential oils are typically sold in tiny 4-milliliter bottles.

"It's an inexpensive escape," says Louise Hamilton, co-owner with husband Ron Hamilton of Great American Natural Products in St. Petersburg, which sells essential oils, a plethora of herbs, dried flowers and natural foods and grains. A Vivaldi concerto ripples softly in the background, the air has a clean, playful scent of lemon. A virtual apothecary of antique perfume bottles fills huge shelves with more than 900 botanicals that the Hamiltons say they carefully scrutinize for purity. Just linger and sample sniff, and you're almost guaranteed a little trip to la-la land, courtesy of your hypersensitive olfactory system.

"The sense of smell is peculiar compared to the rest of our senses," explains Gerald Robinson, a biology professor at the University of South Florida, and an expert on medicinal plants.

When a stimulus _ like sound or touch _ comes into one of the other four senses, it travels through the thalamus, which acts as a switchboard to sort impulses and send them to the appropriate center of the brain.

"But the routes for the smell receptors go directly into the hypothalamus and limbic system," Robinson says. They are not screened by the "switchboard" _ and tend to have a direct emotional hit rather than a more reasoned response. "Odors trigger a type of memory that we do not see triggered by other sensory inputs," he says. This is why a certain fragrance can evoke such nostalgia, or overpower you with a wave of well-being.

"Oils are being used a lot of places that you don't realize," Hamilton says. For example, clever antique store owners often vaporize a little frankincense and myrrh, which makes everything smell old. "Realtors come in here and buy apple and peach scents, for houses they are selling."

In the 11 years she's worked with oils, most of Hamilton's clients were massage therapists and cosmetologists, she says. But then there was sort of an olfactory revolution. Maybe the environment got more noxious. Maybe people got tired of being blasted out by commercial perfumes.

Whatever, Hamilton says her business has burgeoned markedly during the past year. Spend an hour at the store on 16th Street N in St. Petersburg, and you'll watch a steady steam of seekers after scents au naturel.

"It's the urge to feel good, to feel comfortable," she says.

Oils also can treat what ails you externally, says Hamilton, who does not recommend oils for internal use. She thumbs through a pink recipe file and removes the card for her secret facial oil, a combination of seven oils to help reduce wrinkles, sun damage and dryness.

There's also a lavender and vitamin E mixture for acne. In fact, lavender (you know, that wonderful fragrance that can waft through a summer evening and make you fall in love with a street sign) has all kinds of healing effects on the skin, Hamilton says. "It rejuvenates cell production." Ancient women apparently used rosemary to put shine in their hair, and basil oil is an old remedy for dry scalp.

A Chinese oil for coughing and headaches is called "Jing Ho," which means correctal. Nail technicians buy myrrh, she says, because they say it speeds fingernail growth. Sage in air vents or burned inside will chase out nasty house germs, Hamilton says, and peppermint on the sofa will keep the doggie on the floor. One teacher buys certain oils for her classroom that she believes calm her learning disabled children.

Everyone has different preferences, and Hamilton tries to match people with scents. "When they come in, I ask them what their favorite color is." People wearing pastels usually prefer floral scents. People with dark complexions lean toward spices.

Then there are the Love Potion Number Nines _ aphrodisiacs _ such as ylang-ylang (a flower that grows in Hawaii), patchouli (a '60s favorite) and musk (an earthy number extracted from, ahem, musk glands). Vetiver, which smells like a plowed field after rain, comes from a Louisiana river bank root that plantation owners used to put on the windowsill to cool the house and keep out mosquitoes.

Cheryl Lenard, a customer at Great American, uses rose geranium to repel mosquitoes, and a mixture of lavender and tea tree to repel the fleas on her canines. "It works," says Lenard, who raises show dogs.

"We do experience healing from plants," says Robinson, who has studied medicinal plants in rural Mexico for the past 13 years. One-third of our laboratory pharmaceuticals are agents found in botanicals, he says. But the known effect of plant oils for healing is mostly external, for example, to reduce inflammation on the skin. As for internal healing, Robinson doubts the plausibility of "smell therapy." It's hard for medicinal agents to get in the bloodstream in sufficient quantities through the olfactory system, he says.

Fifteen years ago, Tampa beautician Sylla Sheppard-Hanger started playing around with oils and mixing her own perfume. A little of this, a little of that, and pretty soon she created a fragrance that seemed just right for her.

But when she wore it, she attracted people like moths to a flame. Friends came around and didn't want to leave. "People would just follow me places. They'd say, "What is that you're wearing?' "

She started reading and studying everything she could find on essential oils. Today, ask anyone who knows a little about aromatherapy, and they'll probably say: "Call Sylla."

Leaning back in a barber's chair in The Rare Pair, a tiny salon in north Tampa, Sylla says there is no question in her mind that plant essences are both magical and medicinal. And although she takes oils internally for her own ills, she does not dispense such advice to others, she says. Her use of essential oils is restricted to external use, in the air and for massage. Sylla is a licensed massage therapist, working from a home studio, and also gives workshops throughout the state operating as the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy.

On this day, the delicious aroma of rose geranium fills the shop, from a diffuser quietly humming in the back room. Sylla changes fragrances daily. "People come in for their lunch hour, just to sit. They stay for hours. They know it feels good. They don't know what it is."

She's a library of information on the history of aromatherapy, a term coined in the 19th century by a French cosmetologist and chemist. Now, Sylla says, French doctors use aromatherapy in their practices, and some treatments are covered by health insurance.

In the United States, she says, aromatherapy is coming into its own. "Everyone is jumpin' on the scent wagon," she says, a gentle southwestern twang playing in her voice. "Once you learn, you never want to be without your oils. You travel with them. You keep your air scented."

Because oils come from the essence of the plant, they contain "concentrated vital force" that rejuvenates and detoxifies the body and aids in respiration and circulation, Sylla says. For stress and muscle strains she mixes a "warming muscle tonic" with six oils and uses it during massage.

The oils, she says, reduce lactic acid in the muscles and bring in oxygen. As antiseptics, lavender will help heal burns, and tea tree oil is great on insect bites, she says.

Still, aromatherapy is not anything you can get a license to practice, and the only organized network of practitioners is the American Aromatherapy Association, which Sylla helped found in 1988.

But if you decide to mess with oils, you do need to know what you are using, Sylla says. For example, aromatherapy is not for treating serious illness, or in the place of standard medical or psychological treatments, she says.

Not all oils you buy are pure, Sylla says. Many commercial products are "adulterated" _ the pure oils are diluted with poorer quality oils, synthetics or cutting agents such as petroleum. And they don't work as well, Sylla contends. Some oils are toxic if used improperly, and others can burn sensitive skin.

Recently, Sylla entered into partnership with Michael Alexander to form Essential Products of America, a Tampa-based distributor of essential oils. Their goal is to distribute only the purest of oils from all over the world.

Alexander is quite concerned that many manufacturers are putting a drop or two of essential oil in their mostly synthetic skin products or shampoos and then claiming they are "natural."

So how can you recognize the real thing?

Alexander describes some simple tests: Put a drop of oil on a piece of paper or tissue. If the oil is pure, the aroma will dissipate in 15 to 30 minutes. If the oil leaves a greasy spot on the paper, it's been cut with some kind of fat and is thus not pure.

Essential oils are not water soluble, so a drop will float on top of water. And if the oil is sold in a { ounce or bigger size container, it's probably diluted. Most essential oils are way too expensive to be sold in big bottles.

After you shop around and smell a lot, you get pretty good at spotting the real thing, Sylla says. "Your nose knows."

"The pathway of the olfactory sense to restoring health is very powerful," says Dr. Paul L. Hayes, a Seminole obstetrician who scents his office air with essential oils. Besides a traditional obstetric practice, Hayes, a graduate of University of Kansas Medical School, practices an ancient holistic health care system called Maharishi Ayurveda, which includes aromatherapy among its approaches.

"Modern medicine does a lot of things very well. But there is a gap," Hayes says. "Aromatherapy is a very powerful technology, and a very bewildering science as to how it fits into health and healing."

University of South Florida biologist Robinson remains tentative on the medicinal effects of aroma, but points out the obvious link when he says: "A lot of illness in the United States today has a large psychological component. If you have a greater sense of well-being, you are going to get well sooner. But as far as a physiological effect, that's something else."

ESSENTIAL OILS AND THEIR USES

In the practice of aromatherapy, essential oils are inhaled or massaged into the skin to effect moods, and also applied as antiseptics and anti-inflammatory agents. Here are some of the most popular essences and their potential effects, according to the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy, a Tampa organization that is sponsoring workshops Sunday, and also on July 21 and August 18. For information call 971-6375 .

Aromatherapy will be one of the topics featured today, Saturday and Sunday at the Tampa Health and Fitness Fair in the Tampa Convention Center. Admission is $5. Call 223-8511.

PLEASURE, RELAXATION, STRESS RELEASE

_ Jasmine, rose, sandalwood, ylang-ylang, clary sage: These enance sexuality and have an uplifting effect.

_ Lavender, marjoram, neroli, mandarin: Used in stress management and to relieve depression.

_ Geranium, rosemary: Used to combat weariness, lack of energy.

_ Clary sage, peppermint, marjoram: Used to relieve menstrual discomfort.

HOLISTIC SKIN CARE

_ Chamomile, neroli, sandalwood, lavender: Used on sensitive or inflamed skin for a calming and anti-inflammatory effect.

ELIMINATION OF TOXINS AND WASTE

_ Pine, eucalyptus, niaouli, lavender: Used in connection with heavy smoking, bad skin tone, and pale or yellow complexion. They improve oxygen supply to tissues.

_ Marjoram, rosemary, sage: Used for reducing cellulite and bloatedness, and supporting weight control. They act by improving elimination, controlling abdominal swelling and toning intestinal tissues.

_ Juniper, lavender, lemon: Used to reduce excess fluid and water retention.

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