Just a whiff of impurity in the air

Scent: In the perfumed world of aromatherapy, some smell a rat -- in the form of artificial ingredients.

March 05, 2000|By Robin Fields | Robin Fields,Los Angeles Times

Tina Rocca-Lundstrom dips her head toward the candle dubbed Meditation and takes a sniff. The label says it contains patchouli and ylang-ylang, pure essential oils. True enough, but Rocca-Lundstrom, with her trained chemist's nose, also picks up a hint of synthetic perfume.

"None of this is real," she says. "None of it."

Controversy is intruding into the mellow, lavender-scented world of aromatherapy, the quasi-science of smells that purportedly enhance health, mood and brain function.

Purists such as Rocca-Lundstrom, co-owner of Aroma Naturals in Irvine, Calif., say their tiny niche is being invaded by mass marketers who pass off candles, oils and lotions made with cheap synthetics as aromatherapeutic.

"They're slapping the word 'aromatherapy' on everything," said Pamela Parsons, founder and editor of the Aromatic Thymes magazine. "We have to protect the public from fraud."

A cadre of aromatherapy traditionalists recently formed a new industry group and issued a seal to label all-natural products, distinguishing them for consumers.

Skeptics, however, counter that a smell is a smell, whether it originates in a test tube or a plant. They dismiss the product-certification program as a ploy by small manufacturers of overpriced goods to regain the competitive edge they have lost to cosmetics giants.

"There's nothing about pure essential oils that have a halo around them," said Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, an arm of the International Fragrance Industry Association, a perfume-business trade group. "That's their shtick, but it isn't true."

Until recently, aromatherapy didn't generate enough profit to spark such debates.

Then, in the mid '90s, stressed-out Americans discovered well-being and began looking for ways to bring home the spa experience.

Aromatherapy has grown into a more than $300 million-a-year industry, moving beyond specialty boutiques and bath and body shops into the mainstream.

Department store sales reached $9.3 million in the first nine months of 1999, outpacing sales of $8.5 million for all of 1998, NPD Beauty Trends said. Even Target Corp. now sells the AromaSphere, a gadget that disperses feel-good scents, as well as the Inner Spirit Morale Booster set of aromatherapy tonics and lotions.

Aromatherapy's expanding consumer appeal has attracted an influx of big new players such as Coty Inc. and Lancome to an industry populated by thousands of tiny operators, most with less than $500,000 in sales a year.

Because pure essential oils can cost hundreds of dollars per ounce, many of the industry's newest entrants use artificial fragrances to increase profit margins or charge lower prices. A 4-ounce bottle of Aveda's all-natural Pure-Fume body mist retails for $28, while an 8-ounce bottle of Coty's Positivity body mist sells for $7.95.

Synthetics "are much more cost-efficient," said Brian Harris, marketing director for Coty's Healing Garden line, which blends natural oils with synthetics. Begun in 1997, the line had sales of $60 million for the year ending Nov. 28, Harris said. "We can bring aromatherapy at a much more economical cost."

Government regulators lump aromatherapy with cosmetics, so manufacturers are not obliged to use all-natural ingredients. Traditionalists, however, complain that their competitors deceive consumers by selling synthetic products labeled as "handcrafted with pure essential oils" or containing "natural fragrance."

"It doesn't say 100 percent natural, but it sure makes you think so," Rocca-Lundstrom said. "There's a lot of consumer confusion."

Aiming to clear the air, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy began the True Aromatherapy Product program in 1995. The group surveyed members to define product standards, but has had trouble reaching a consensus.

The organization continues to inch toward product certification, but a handful of members -- led by former president Jeanne Rose and Aroma Naturals -- decided not to wait. Last year, they launched the breakaway Aromatherapy Certification Association in San Francisco and started their own program.

"They had bogged down in arguments and divisiveness, fighting over details and 'Who's going to tell me my oils are good or bad?' " said Rose, a well-known author on aromatherapy and the use of herbs. "Meanwhile, all sorts of second- and third-rate products are calling themselves aromatherapy."

Rose's group uses gas chromatography to test products and has certified that candles made by about eight manufacturers, including Aroma Naturals, are all-natural.

Rose said she does not expect mass marketers to submit products for analysis but hopes consumers will learn to look for the seal.

"The idea is it will be like Good Housekeeping or UL [Underwriters Laboratories]," she said. "They'll have some assurance about what they're getting."

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