Slick Salves

PHOTO: Slick Salves

SINGAPORE - Now that Jennifer Aniston has embraced the ancient treatment of cupping, while "going Paleo" actually applies to a diet rather than an insult for those prone to imbecility, it's no surprise that the age-old practice of aromatherapy has made a comeback.

Today, essential oils are regarded way more seriously than overpriced air fresheners. In fact, they have been adopted to aid counselling sessions, promote concentration and even fend off an outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease.

Too good to be true? Try telling that to legions of devotees, and businesses with a nose for aromatherapy's lucrative potential.

"The recent increase in the use of essential oils is definitely in sync with the growing interest of people in search of a lifestyle improvement, thinking healthier and wanting natural products to live with," says Will Halterman, South-east Asia general manager of Young Living Singapore.

"This growing trend is most prominently seen in cities such as Singapore where a stressful and busy work life is seemingly unavoidable."

Young Living is perhaps the biggest success story for the practice, which can be traced back to the use of incenses by the ancient Egyptians in honour of their deities.

The US-founded network marketing company retails pure essential oils cultivated and distilled on farms in locations such as Ecuador, France, Oman and the US. Sales have grown a mindboggling 816 per cent since it started its office in Singapore almost three years ago.

Another aromatherapy company that has been making plenty of cents from natural scents is homegrown chain Mt Sapola. After successful forays into 12 countries, including the US, UK and Bahrain, the group has recently made its debut in Taiwan, 17 years after former civil servant Cheryl Gan decide to pursue her passion for naturopathic aromatherapy.

Starting out as a company selling natural handmade soaps in Thailand, Ms Gan opened her first store here in 2007, and witnessed a huge demand for aromatherapy products. With already 10 stores in Singapore, she plans to add six more outlets to her aromatic empire by the end of this year.

She also attributes the rise of alternative therapies such as traditional Chinese medicine, osteopathy and chiropracty to the greater acceptance and availability of aromatherapy.

"One interesting insight that we received is that the demand for 'natural' and 'ecological' products in body care and food industries has moved from a niche area to a booming market in the recent years," says the IT engineering graduate.

"People are more concerned about the increasing use of powerful medical drugs and their side effects, information is easily available with the access of Internet, and consumers are therefore better informed and are more willing to try alternative therapies, especially the use of natural remedies."

That said, conclusive studies on the subject have been limited, one reason being that it's impossible to implement blind tests, since participants are able to whiff out essential oils from placebos.

According to Eugene Tay, a psychologist and programme director at PsycHealth Practice, it remains unclear if aromatherapy is effective as a medical intervention in treating conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress-related symptoms.

Nevertheless, its other benefits appear promising: inhaling lavender essential oils have been shown to help reduce some symptoms associated with dementia, especially that of restlessness; while another study found that the use of rosemary and lemon helped with cognitive functions in elderly patients with Alzheimer's disease, according to Mr Tay.

"Within my practice, I use various essential oils as they bring forth a sense of tranquillity and concentration," says Mr Tay, who is drawn to working with patients experiencing mood-related disorders.

"Some of the common oils used to help focus are that of peppermint or a blend of rosemary with lemon. Usually in my counselling sessions, I diffuse lavender or eucalyptus as they provide a pleasantly delicate scent, which seem to calm nerves and help clients feel more relaxed."

Such mood-enhancing benefits of aromatherapy has led to a host of beauty companies incorporating essential oils in their products.

Australian-founded brand Aesop, for example, has enjoyed a strong following in part thanks to its fragrant concoctions such as the best-selling Resurrection Aromatique Hand Balm, infused with botanicals such as rosemary, cedarwood and lavender.

It has also recently launched a marketing campaign called Aesop Nasotheque in Australia to draw attention to all things olfactory - from offering "nose casts" of customers' sniffers' at certain stores, to an online initiative tracing the historical and cultural associations with the sense of smell.

And apart from adding an evocative edge to skincare, essential oils are finding their way into medicine cabinets.

The purest extracts - which don't come cheap at sometimes over $50 a pop, are attractive alternatives to synthetic drugs and supplements for modern-day mums, eager to try out more natural treatments on their kids.

"The first oil I used on my children was Young Living Thieves essential oil and now it's an oil I absolutely can't imagine my life (or their lives) without," says Tania Boh, a mother of three who is an aromatherapy devotee.

"I apply it on the soles of their feet every morning before they go to school, after school and before they sleep to keep them protected from bugs in school or public places."

A blend of several essential oils including that of cloves and rosemary, the highly popular Thieves Oil is believed by others to support the immune system, and even reduce the duration of certain viruses such as hand, foot and mouth disease, although there isn't any scientific evidence of its efficacy.

So is this enthusiasm for oils just another hippy-dippy novelty, or a movement that's here to stay?

"Essential oils have been around for thousands of years, and were even used in ancient Egyptian times," elaborates Mr Halterman.

"And if aromatherapy is something that you can utilise to simply reduce stress, or soothe your body and mind, isn't it already a benefit? Would it then require any further scientific backing to prove that it relieves stress if you feel more relaxed?"

Probably not, especially if debating the effects of oils in itself would cause much unnecessary stress.

This article was published on April 19 in The Business Times.

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