Some swear aromatherapy cools, calms and cures


March 14, 1991|By Diane Winston

Think bar. Think smell. Think smoke, sweat and beer.

Now think again.

At Turner's, a modest-looking watering hole in Federal Hill, the air smells sweet. A scent, gently tickling the brain, pricks the edge of memory. Sometimes it's cedar, redolent of winter holidays. Other times it's eucalyptus, Mother's warm compresses on the chest.

Customers at the bar keep time to Motown and swill their beer. It's relaxed here and the regulars say it has something to do with the small, cream-colored machine gurgling behind the bar.

"It's fresh here," said one fellow, a local welder.

"It's clean," said another perched beside him.

It's aromatherapy, says James Turner, the plain-spoken proprietor who seems as though he'd be more at home with middle-age angst than the New Age accouterments, such as the electric smell diffuser, which make his bar special.

"People here think I'm crazy, but they like the smell," said Mr. Turner, who admits to a fondness for natural soaps and aromatic shampoos. "Women say they like the smell a lot. But the men, they like it, too."

People everywhere are going to be smelling more and liking it, too -- if Mr. Turner and the culture-conscious cognoscenti are right. According to its advocates, aromatherapy -- the use of "essential oils," concentrated extracts from herbs, plants and flowers that purportedly possess beneficial properties when inhaled or absorbed through the skin -- can soothe the mind, heal the body and renew the spirit.

"It changed my life," said Theresa Mueller, co-owner of Touch the Earth, a New Age cornucopia of crystals, incense, candles and essential oils on Read Street. "My hair was falling out. I had bald spots on my head. I went to Mercy Hospital and they gave me shots. Then I went to a health food store and the owner told me to throw away the medicine and start using essential oils.

"I used rosemary, cedarwood and tea tree. I bathed in them and rubbed them into my scalp. My hair came back healthier than ever."

Ms. Mueller, whose immersion in essential oils inspired a career change, too -- she quit her job as a flight attendant to study and propagate New Age healing -- discovered aromatherapy five years ago. While the rest of Baltimore is slowly catching up, enthusiasts in the field say aromatherapy is centuries old.

"Oils have been around since the time of Cleopatra," said Tony Sartori, owner of Sartori 2000 and Sartori 2001, two Baltimore beauty salons that offer aromatherapy treatments for the hair. "Americans just don't know much about it."

In fact, the ancient Egyptians were among the first peoples to document the use of fragrances for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. But they weren't alone. The Greeks, Romans and Hebrews all used plants and flowers to scent the body, treat the sick and worship the gods.

The modern art of aromatherapy began in France when, in 1937, a research chemist plunged his burnt hand into a nearby container of lavender oil. The chemist, claiming his wound healed miraculously, touted lavender oil as a cure-all. Schools of aromatherapy blossomed in England, where it became part of the herbalist tradition, and France, where the medical establishment incorporated it into the mainstream.

But aromatherapy's acceptance across the Atlantic only occurred a decade ago.

"I have seen a steady interest in this since 1981," said Kurt Schnaubelt, the scientific director of the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy in San Rafael, Calif. "Now it's very trendy.

"Since it has been discovered, it makes me smile -- you have the people who are trying to guard the integrity of the movement and the people who don't know too much but want to hop on the bandwagon."

That bandwagon is fast becoming a parade.

Catching a whiff of potential profit, cosmetic companies -- including Avon and Estee Lauder -- have introduced aromatherapy lines. Aveda, a Minneapolis-based cosmetic company, is entirely based on aroma- therapy principles. And dozens of small, specialty companies nationwide are selling incense, essential oils and other aromatic products.

"In 1989, consumers spent $260 million on potpourri-related products," said Jerry Smith, sales manager at Liberty Products, a Portland, Ore. company that distributes essential oils, citing Health Foods Business, a health food trade journal. "Aromatherapy is something new and different. Whether it is a fad or a trend remains to be seen. But anything new and different, especially with European accents, appeals to Americans."

In Baltimore, aromatherapy is just beginning to catch consumer fancy.

* At Touch the Earth, Ms. Mueller says customers range from Mr. Turner to a local businessman who says a home diffuser helps his wife's allergies.

* Mr. Sartori and other local salon owners are offering aromatherapy treatments for the hair, and they are also selling Aveda products for home use.

* Marie Colandrea offers "aromassage" at Ashley's, a beauty salon at the Inn at the Colonnade. Ms. Colandrea uses a diffuser to scent the air during a massage.

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