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.)
While cheap synthetic scents can be irritating, the best ones are pleasing and are more stable than some natural oils. Natural or synthetic, home fragrance - like perfume - should be used with discretion. Most people don't know, says scent expert Green, that perfume should only be noticeable within an arm's reach. Likewise, home fragrance should be elusive and should enhance, not overwhelm.
"Fragrance should be part of your life," agrees Elliot Lasky, chief marketing officer for Crabtree & Evelyn, which has put out an extensive line of home fragrance products this season. He points out that it creates an ambience like lighting and decor, "but it's not as permanent as painting your dining room."
The Top 10
The most popular essential oils in descending order, according to aromatherapists Carol and David Schiller (as reported by the companies that produce them):
1. Lavender. Calming; balances mood swings; soothing to the intestines.
2. Eucalyptus. Calming; helps to relieve fatigue.
3. Peppermint. Stimulates the brain, nerves and metabolism. Relieves inflammation and menstrual cramps.
4. Tea tree. Vapors open sinuses. Mood uplifting, improves mental clarity, purifies air.
5. Rosemary. Warming; improves circulation; stimulates other body functions; refreshing.
6. Patchouli. Nerve stimulant; prevents sleep; euphoric; aphrodisiac.
7. Lemon. Reduces stress; sharpens the senses; reduces cellulite and obesity.
8. Orange. Cooling; calming; purifying; calms angry and irritable children.
9. Clove bud. Mood uplifting; aphrodisiac; mental stimulant; repels insects.
10. Ylang-ylang. Relaxing; brings out feelings; enhances communications; loosens tight muscles.
Pub Date: 12/20/98