Follow your nose

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 June, 2008, 12:00am

Aromatherapy has been part of human civilisation for millennia and is now undergoing a renaissance despite being dismissed by sceptics as a pseudoscientific alternative treatment. Ancient Egyptians used pure essential oils for massage, bathing and medicine. The practice passed to the Romans and Greeks. Cleopatra is believed to have soaked the sails of her ship in rose oil in a bid to seduce Marc Antony.

Aromatherapy took off in its modern format in the 1980s but waned in the mid-90s. However, recently it has been enjoying a revival, with the launch of oils from brands such as In Essence, Aromatherapy Associates and more mainstream companies such as Aesop and The Body Shop.

Aromatherapy's appeal stems from a rising preference for a more holistic, organic lifestyle, says

In Essence general manager Greg Moses. 'Aromatherapy was very popular in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it was overtaken by our hectic and fast-paced society and we somehow lost sight of it. And now there's a real move back to aromatherapy. People are saying they don't want synthetic options, they want to know what is in their products and they're looking for more natural alternatives.'

Kat Lai Kam-yin, director of DK Aromatherapy in Hong Kong, says that since the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, people have become more health conscious. His store holds classes on aromatherapy and Lai says lessons on how to make products such as one's own moisturisers are gaining popularity. 'People want to know which oil is good for them and what ingredients can help their particular skin conditions. They also want to know exactly what is inside their products. There are many oils on the market but many of these are fakes and not true essential oils.'

So how to discern a fake from the real thing? In Essence national training and education manager

Pat Princi-Jones explains that many are just fragrance oils and are 'rectified' by the addition of chemicals or synthetic materials (that is, not 100 per cent pure).

'It's easy to tell if an oil has been adulterated with synthetic ingredients. There are telltale signs. For instance, if you're vaporising synthetics, the smell will change in the burner. It will begin to smell like petrol and it's a noxious feeling - like you want to escape from the room. But a 100 per cent pure essential oil means that there is always aromatic movement in the bottle, so that when you open the lid the smell comes towards you and impacts how you think and feel within four seconds.'

Aromas are not only for having homes smell good, but can be used therapeutically, for relaxation. For instance, geranium is good for premenstrual syndrome, peppermint for an upset stomach and eucalyptus for cold and flu.

One of Lai's favourites is lavender essential oil traditionally used for relaxation. 'Lavender is very popular because it has many uses. Normally you cannot put essential oils directly on the skin but lavender is the exception. If you have a cut or insect bite you can pat lavender on it because it's good for healing.'

Lai also claims lavender has anti-fungal qualities and can help treat acne.

Body Shop public relations and marketing executive Dona Lin Dai-yao says lavender oil is their most popular seller, followed by chamomile and bergamot.

Aesop assistant public relations manager Shirley Sun Pui-ching says their three new oil burner blends were inspired by French actresses Isabelle Adjani, Anouk Aimee and Catherine Deneuve. Sun says the oils are more user-friendly because they are pre-mixed with several botanical ingredients, compared to other single essential oils.

Lai says more and more customers are asking for organic essential oils. 'The price tag for organics can reach up to 50 per cent more than regular oils but people are looking for that guarantee of quality,' Lai says. 'You can really tell the difference when you use organic oils because the smell is better and for skin application the result is better as there are no chemical residues.'

So just as the aromatherapy is thought to have reinvigorated the ancients, modern-day Cleopatras can use today's oils, so long as they get the right stuff, to acquire allure for their next battle in the home or office.