City: New men and the feel good factor. Mmmm...

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You've come a long way, baby, when it comes to using designer toiletries. But it's not just the smells that maketh the man, says Peter Baker. Which is why the enlightened male is waking up to the feelgood factor of aromatherapy products.

"Aahhh!", "Brrr!" and "Woah!" might sound unlikely names for products designed to tackle stress, promote relaxation or create a positive mental attitude. But a range of aromatherapy treatments specifically for men is clearly intended to convince blokes that soaking in a tub reeking of essential plant oils will make them seem neither effeminate nor a wally.

These lotions and potions have have hit the shelves at a time when the men's consumer market is expanding exponentially: younger, professional men in particular seem to have few inhibitions when it comes to splashing out on designer clothes and toiletries. But men are still notorious neglecters of their wellbeing - they are reluctant to visit the doctor if they discover a strange lump or even call an ambulance when they are having a heart attack. So how likely is it that they'll start buying toiletries with a whiff of complementary healthcare about them, even if they are called "Yesss!", "Mmmm!" and "Ooh!"?

Psychologist Mick Cooper, co-author of The MANual: The Complete Man's Guide to Life, believes men are now much more likely to take better care of themselves. "Men in the Nineties are becoming less concerned with maintaining a macho image," the author says. "As they begin to soften up, they are willing to spend more time and money on relaxing and feeling good - as well as taking their health more seriously." This trend, unsurprisingly, is most obvious among middle-class men.

They are not only buying magazines which encourage a healthy lifestyle - Men's Health now has a monthly readership approaching 500,000 - but are also ready to try out a wider range of treatments than a couple of paracetamol with a whisky chaser. A Men's Health reader survey published last year found that 36 per cent had visited an alternative practitioner, most commonly a chiropractor or a hypnotherapist.

According to The Research Council for Complementary Medicine, up to five million people in the UK visit a complementary practitioner each year and 45 per cent of them are male - a higher proportion than can be found in general practice. A recent analysis of attitudes to complementary medicine by market analysts Mintel also revealed that men are only slightly more sceptical than women about the efficacy of alternative medicine and just as likely to consider complementary treatment for back pain.

Men's greater willingness to try a different approach in part reflects the blurring of some of the distinctions between orthodox and alternative medicine. Most pharmacies now stock a range of complementary remedies, and retail sales of herbal, homeopathic and aromatherapy products have increased by over 40 per cent since 1992. Many doctors routinely recommend osteopathy or chiropractice for back or joint problems. This mainstreaming of complementary medicine is almost certainly helping to overcome men's suspicions of its less "rational" and more intuitive, "feminine" approach to healing.

Women have always played an important role in maintaining men's health and it seems they now are proving crucial in introducing men to new types of treatment. One-third of aromatherapist Aline Wharton's clients are male and, she says, "a lot of them have been sent by their wives whom I've already treated. They are often quite sceptical at first but, once they get into it, they find it just as helpful as the women do. In fact, many keep coming back after their main problem has disappeared simply because they love the treatment."

Stress is also emerging as a key factor in encouraging men to take better care of themselves, at least according to Gabriel Mojay, principal of the Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy. "Men are now working longer hours and they have less job security at a time when support from the state if things go wrong is shrinking. Many therefore feel they have to take greater responsibility for their own health, which is why more are giving up smoking, going to the gym and trying out complementary medicines." Most of Wharton's male clients are looking for help with stress or stress-related problems like impotence.

So it may well be that Superdrug's new aromatherapy products will find takers among the legions of stressed-out men eager to find new ways of looking after themselves.

But will they have the claimed effects? Smells are known to influence the limbic system, a part of the brain that influences moods and emotions, but there is as yet little hard scientific evidence for or against aromatherapy.

At the very least, however, the kind of man who douses himself in cedarwood or sandalwood oil is likely to be considerably easier on the noses around him than if he had stayed loyal to many of the better known, but distinctly more malodorous, men's deodorants.