How Aromatherapy Has Found Its Way Into the Mainstream

During her first year of medical school, Sara Panton started experimenting with essential oils, such as lemon grass, peppermint and rosemary, to stay alert and focused while studying. “I loved learning how scent affects different parts of the brain,” she says. The 26-year-old was so blown away by the therapeutic mind-body benefits that she set out to bottle the oils. In 2014, Panton put medical school on hold and, with her brother, Sean, launched Vitruvi, a modern aromatherapy line that’s gaining in popularity and is part of a movement that’s bringing this ancient art to a new generation. So robust is the demand for Panton’s essential oil products—which are made in Vancouver and carried in specialty boutiques, like Shen Beauty in Brooklyn—they often sell out.

Such fervour would have been unheard of five years ago. Before the rise of the wellness industry and the mainstreaming of mindfulness, aromatherapy was considered something for yesterday’s hippies, and herbal oils were sold in crunchy health food stores. Today’s blends, by contrast, have a super-chic air to them. The bottles are often sleek and minimalist. “It’s a return to a simplified, cleaner way of living,” says Shrankhla Holecek, 33, the founder of Uma Oils. “Whether it’s trying to eat organic, reducing the amount of processed ingredients in your food or turning to thousand-year-old forms of exercise, like yoga, people are seeing notable results from returning to what feels natural.” The ingredients in many aromatherapy elixirs are as natural as those found in a cold-pressed green juice. Holecek’s curative Wellness Oils, for example, rely on just a handful of organic botanicals (geranium, jasmine, lavender and sandalwood) that are sourced from the soil, not a lab. (“We farm and harvest all of our essential oils,” she notes.) What could be purer?

Traditional perfumes have much less holistic cred. Many contain a complex list of ingredients, including synthetic fixatives and solvents, which allow a scent to linger on your skin longer. Their “chemical” nature could explain why mass-produced eaux have been on the decline—celebrity scents, in particular, lost a steep 8 per cent market share this year—while the aromatherapy and essential oils industries are booming and were valued at $7.5 billion in 2015. Perfume might also be falling by the wayside in the wake of our collective obsession with #goals and results. Sure, a spritz or two can make you smell nice—with extracts that often mimic what’s found in nature—but is that all? Aromatherapy’s potpourri of active botanicals scents your skin like perfume but then goes one step further. “Essential oils are a really powerful way to medicinally use plants to heal the body,” says Sarah Buscho, 35, co-creator of Earth Tu Face and Cosmos Botanicals. “They are potent extracts of plant material that cause marked positive changes in and on our bodies.” The only downside to wearing aromatherapy oils as perfume is you’ll need to reapply them more often during the day, since their natural notes evaporate more quickly. But whether you want to improve your sleep, digestion or concentration, there’s an aroma for that.

Vitruvi’s Wake Face & Body Mist, for example, is spiked with uplifting juniper and bergamot (and, as Panton notes, can even be spritzed on to set your makeup). Uma’s Pure Calm is laced with relaxing chamomile and clary sage. Each bottle also comes with a six-step Ayurvedic application guide, which involves rubbing the oil between your toes, where the skin is thinnest, and cupping your hands over your nose and mouth, then inhaling to trigger a sensory response in the brain. Postworkout, Buscho likes to mist on her Cosmos Toner, which is spiked with anti-inflammatory witch hazel and soothing lavender (and is also great for easing a headache). Vancouver-based Ceremonie, meanwhile, crafts its Terrain Good Vibes Elixir with an earthy mélange of vetiver, sandalwood, patchouli, geranium and ginger that’s meant to be swept over dry skin or rubbed into the temples and wrists to help quiet a scattered mind. Ila’s Inner Peace Aroma Roller, which centres the mind/spirit with moringa and jasmine, comes in a handy rollerball so you can refresh your aura on the go.

As stress levels are at an all-time high in today’s wired, fast-paced world, the soul-balancing aspects of aromatherapy are major—some might even embrace it as a natural form of medicine. “People are more receptive to alternative healing,” says Willie Tsang, 35, the founder of Way of Will, an aromatherapy line that caters to a fit, active lifestyle. The brand’s olfactive inhalers are dosed with naturally stimulating essential
oils such as peppermint, eucalyptus and pine. Inhaling the solid aromatic stick before a workout helps regulate your breathing, so you can reach your athletic peak. (Smelling the minty one before the start of every workout can cue your brain and body that it’s time to move, he says.) But like with any practice, you have to keep up with it to see the results. “It’s not like taking a pill,” says Tsang of aromatherapy. “It will take some time for it to be effective.”

Of course, some are eager to play the part of aromatherapist to customize the benefits and are turning to bespoke blending kits. Panton offers sets geared toward sleep or spalike relaxation that contain all the necessary oils and a blending guide. But in the end, the rise of aromatherapy might have less to do with the formulas and more to do with the deeper meaning behind our obsession with finding inner calm. “The new pinnacle of luxury seems like it is all about having a balanced lifestyle,” points out Buscho. “It includes eating clean, organic food, using high-performance natural products, having a workout routine suited to your individual needs, getting plenty of rest, avoiding stress and yet still having time for a fulfilling career, meaningful relationships and family.”

Perhaps that goal is too lofty and we’re just driving ourselves crazy trying to achieve the impossible. This idea is worth contemplating and even meditating on—but in the meantime, bring on the clary sage.