Something in the air This holiday season, home fragrance products - also known as aromatherapy - are enjoying the sweet smell of success

Focus on scents.

December 20, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.

Not the buttery aromas of baking cookies or the scent of pine, but something much more complicated.

Scented candles, potpourri, upscale incense, room sprays, environmental oils, fragrant drawer liners, scented hangers: These are only some of this season's gifts designed to appeal to what Helen Keller once called "the fallen angel of the senses."

"People have rediscovered the sense of smell in the last decade," says Annette Green, president of the Olfactory Research Fund. "And the industry has responded."

Hundreds of years ago, scent was necessary to combat unpleasant odors. We no longer need fragrant herbs and perfumes to make our surroundings bearable; now consumers are buying scented products because they want to create environments that please all their senses.

Some of the latest trends are:

* Travel candles that create a "home spa" feeling wherever you are.

* "Object" potpourri, such as pretty stones and glass shards infused with scent.

* Little sachets to be placed behind couch pillows for an elusive fragrance in the living room.

* Fragrances that evoke a mood, such as a "scented botanical" (i.e., potpourri) that supposedly will remind the consumer of a walk in the woods in autumn, with the smell of dry leaves underfoot.

* "Fragrance" has become a verb, as in, "You can fragrance your house with a scented botanical that smells like dry leaves."

* Residential architects are building fragrance delivery systems into air-conditioning systems.

* The newest trend, says Green, is "fragrances of the imagination." The industry is searching the world for never-before-smelled scents.

In the '90s, sales of home fragrance products in the United States have increased an average of 10 percent a year, according to research by Kline & Co., an industry consulting firm. The growth is fueled in part by aromatherapy, which has become both mainstream and upscale. In fact, the use of fragrant oils for their therapeutic properties has become so popular that almost anything scented, including bathroom sprays, is now labeled "aromatherapy."

The word itself suggests nature and natural healing, spirituality and reduction of stress. No wonder the centuries-old technique has such New Age appeal - even if many people don't realize that aromatherapy is alternative medicine as well as a way of adding fragrance to their lives.

"Three years ago, no one even knew what it was," says Michelina Frix, co-owner of La Joie de Vivre, an Annapolis shop that offers a premier line of aromatherapy products. Now the store does well selling everything from the essential oils themselves to $120 diffusers that mist the oils into a room.

Sophisticated home fragrances have never been this easy to find or, if cost is a consideration, this affordable. You can spend as little as $1.99 for Glade's new Soothing Vanilla "aromatherapy" room spray; but if you're serious about the real thing, you can get aromatherapy oils at stores like La Joie de Vivre, Touch the Earth in Baltimore, health-food stores and even supermarkets like Fresh Fields.

When Carol and David Schiller first got interested in aromatherapy in the '80s, they could find only two books on the subject. Now their new "Aromatherapy Basics" (Sterling, 1998) is one of over 200 publications.

"People instinctively have a need to connect with nature and plants," says David Schiller, trying to explain aromatherapy's popularity. "It's hard to be depressed in a flower garden."

Aromatherapists feel that the so-called "essential" oils - that is, pure oils extracted from plants - can treat a variety of mental and physical problems, from menstrual cramps to procrastination.

Some people may be a little wary about some of the more outlandish claims, but at the very least, a house filled with natural fragrances is so pleasant it probably does reduce stress. Unlike surgery, say, or psychoanalysis, there's not much of a downside to aromatherapy.

The essential oils are volatile and evaporate quickly. They can be administered by adding them to "carrier" oils and using the mixture in massage, skin- or hair-care preparations. Or they can be misted into the air with a variety of aroma lamps, sprayers, and other diffusers.

Don't expect every home fragrance product labeled "aromatherapy" to contain these pure, natural oils.

"Lots of good-smelling stuff is synthetic," says certified aromatherapist April May. "It doesn't have the therapeutic qualities. The pure oils should smell like living things."

But natural isn't necessarily better, warns Annette Green, who had an aromatherapy facial and her face "blew up. My skin is very sensitive." (OK, maybe there are some downsides.)

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