The latest New Age remedy, aromatherapy, is a relaxing indulgence too. We sniff out the best products around
Click to follow
AROMATHERAPY has distanced itself from all traces of Seventies hippy associations - forget patchouli joss-sticks, this is now a serious alternative therapy, which involves transmitting the effects of various plants either through the skin as oils or inhaled as aromas. Few people would deny that different smells have an effect on their mood; quite how specific those effects are is another matter. Quite apart from smelling nice, aromatherapy promises to relax, soothe or energise, and some practitioners - who use massage in conjunction with the essential oils - claim that physical and mental ailments can be eased, too.


Geraldine Howard of Aromatherapy Associates was our expert, as she is an aromatherapist of 25 years' experience and a founder member of the International Federation of Aromatherapists. As well as treating clients, she produces her own brand of essential oils (not tested here; for information call 0171 371 9878). Other testers included Lindsay Stewart, Nicola Scicluna, Stephanie Rich, Abbey Rudge, Anna Shilton and Lynn Insall.


A proliferation of aromatherapy products caters to an increased interest in their alleged restorative powers - yet the efficacy of any aromatherapy product depends primarily on the quality of the essential oils it contains. This in turn depends on the way the plants are grown and the oils distilled - a connoisseur's nose will immediately detect the difference, but even the average consumer will be offended by some perfumes. We looked primarily for quality of smell, then appeal of application.


pounds 7.95

Crabtree & Evelyn's novel glass phial - which comes with a rollerball for anointing your neck and wrists with basil and rosemary as a cure for headaches - was widely applauded. Testers were invited to try out the remedy as soon as a headache appeared. Abbey Rudge praised its presentation, and wanted the product to work: "It's such a perfect size for the handbag, and I loved the packaging, the cooling effect and very fresh smell. My headache remained, however - I would use it as well as taking strong tablets, but not instead."

Geraldine Howard seemed puzzled by the choice of oils: "I use lavender with a bit of peppermint and it works well for my clients; and I'd apply it to the temples or the cranium rather than the neck." Lindsay Stewart noted that "the smell is a constant reminder that you may be being healed, which is a psychological plus. But I couldn't say it had definitely worked." Nicola Scicluna also alluded to the pamper factor: "The idea alone is soothing; you lie down on the bed with your nasty headache and roll this on ... Maybe it's the rest in a darkened room that does you good."


pounds 7.45

Sylvia Plath once wrote, "I don't know of anything a hot bath won't cure," and many testers admitted that the application of this product was a major factor in its success. "This was relaxing and lovely and scented my whole flat," reported Stephanie Rich, while Lindsay Stewart confessed to a prejudice: "Because Neal's Yard products contain such worthy ingredients, like nettle and arnica [this one doesn't] I always think they're doing me so much good - which is half the battle, isn't it?" Only Geraldine Howard voiced technical doubts. "I found this a disappointing product for Neal's Yard, both in effect and fragrance," she said. "I'd normally prefer a higher concentration of oils in a bath product, and frankly lavender and geranium are the sort of thing you mix up when you first qualify in aromatherapy, because they're meant to be balancing, whereas I find they work against each other." The rest of the panel loved it.


Heat Pillows, pounds 10; Shoe Trees with Bag, pounds 15

Easily determined up by Lindsay Stewart as "the least pleasant of all the pongs", these novelty heat pillows were a complete disappointment as far as most of the testers were concerned. Available only by mail-order, the pillows - filled with a crunchy perfumed substance which can be heated in a microwave or chilled in a freezer before application - are available in various shapes including teddies, stars, crescents and hearts (although the patterned coverings - described by some as "garish" - may not be specified). The so-called "aromatherapy shoe trees" (toe-sized scented pillows with matching drawstring bag) caused cynical members of the panel to ask whether shoes can be said to need aromatherapy. Nevertheless, they did seem to improve the smell of sweaty shoes and Nicola Scicluna said that she liked the bag and would give the shoe trees away as a present.

But her response to a teddy-bear-shaped "neck pillow" mirrored that of other testers: "This was a dismal failure. It's too small to support the neck and after it was heated it smelled of wet dough and never regained its original scent of ylang-ylang." In fact all the pillows, no matter what their original perfume, suffered this odd metamorphosis. Geraldine Howard, who declared the aromas in the Hill View products the worst of our trial, felt the idea of the pillows was good - it just needed better execution.


pounds 9.95

Supplied with rosemary or peppermint oil (three extra perfume pads cost 60p), this unique aromatherapy fan for cars (which is powered by the cigarette lighter in the dashboard) struck most of the panel as a brilliant innovation for summer - though it did seem to have teething problems. Lynn Insall, who uses aromatherapy oils a lot at home and was very keen to try them while travelling, couldn't get her fan to work properly. "I found it vibrated itself out of the socket every few seconds in two different cars," she said. "Once it got going, it was pleasantly refreshing, but you have to put up with background buzz above the radio. You'd probably be better off stuffing one of the perfume pads down the air vent."

Geraldine Howard's clients ("especially the smokers") also thought the fan an excellent idea, but she advocated "a subtler blend of oils rather than a single one, which can be overpowering, though the Culpeper oil is better than those used in some of the other products." Some testers wondered whether the fan was safe, since it whizzes round so powerfully. No problem: Isobel Scicluna-Warren (aged four) spent a whole car journey putting her boot in its soft blades to annoy her mother. Lindsay Stewart urged a colleague who smokes and is subject to road rage to try the in- car therapy, but he complained it was cold and that the smell was over- powering. "I think it's safe to say he'll stick with his Silk Cut and jesticulations."


pounds 19.99

This neat, gently glowing child's nightlight incorporates an (optional and child-safe) aromatherapy diffuser which can't burn little fingers, and as such was welcomed by parents. Complaints about the oils provided were uniform, however. The product includes Mr Snuffles essential oil "to help reduce congestion" and Sleepy Time, "to aid restful, calming sleep" - both "rather crude aromas" according to Geraldine Howard's nose. Other testers were less polite. "I wanted to try out the "Sleepy Time" oil on my baby, because he's always waking us up in the night," said Anna Shilton, "but he sleeps in our room and after 10 minutes my husband asked me to 'turn that terrible stink off'. I had to agree, it was nauseating."

Nicola Scicluna was pleased with the design, but quickly substituted her own oils. "Eucalyptus is all you need for a cold," she said.


pounds 32

Despite being the most expensive product tested, this perfumed candle (which does burn for almost 40 hours) was the absolute favourite of all testers. It contains a complex blend of lemon, orange, basil, wild sage, myrrh, camomile, pimento, frankincense, lavender, cedarwood, sandalwood and vetiver essential oils. "This was quite lovely," reported Lindsay Stewart: "Both the olfactory and visual senses are delightfully stimulated by this wonderful smell and the dancing flame in frosted glass. It certainly gave me the impression that I was relaxing." Geraldine Howard pronounced this "a very pleasant aroma, unlike the synthetic smell of so many candles on the market" and Anna Shilton called C&S's candle "the best of the lot - elegant and beautiful". Whether a candle is capable of both relaxing its audience and "restoring balance to the body's functions - relaxing the muscles, reducing viral infection, improving circulation, respiration and digestion" as the manufacturers suggest, remains open to question - some testers thought those effects might be due to the glass of wine taken during the course of a very relaxed evening.


Call Hill View Designs mail order on 07000 875 875; Mountain Breeze nightlight from Argos, or call 0161 947 3170; Crabtree & Evelyn has shops nationwide or call 0171 603 1611; Czech & Speake by mail order on 0800 919 728 or from its shops (39c Jermyn Street, SW1 and 125 Fulham Road, SW3); Neal's Yard Remedies mail order is on 0171 627 1949; Culpeper mail order on 01223 894 054. !