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DO SCENTS MAKE SENSE AS TREATMENTS?

Barb Johnson has replaced all of her alarm clocks with a bulbous test tube that's hooked up to a fishtank air pump.

The homemade vaporizer spews a brew of lemon and cedarwood oils so pungent the scent awakens even her sleepiest child, who stumbles out of bed just minutes after Johnson plugs in the contraption."It's just real pleasant to wake up to," Johnson said, breathing deeply.

The reason her family wakes to a sensory rush of lemon rather than a ringing alarm clock is simple, Johnson said: "The nose knows."

Johnson is a certified aromatherapist who swears by scent. Aromatherapy, she explains, is the use of essential oils, which essentially are steam-distilled extracts from flowers, plants, leaves, stalks, roots, woods and resins.

"These oils are so volatile they go right through your skin," she said. "In fact, if you were to rub a clove of garlic on the bottom of your foot, in about 15 minutes you'd have garlic breath."

The oils work through olfactory membranes, which carry impulses to the limbic portion of the brain where memory, hunger, sexual response and emotions are evoked, said Johnson, who uses aromatherapy about 30 times a day.

She opened a shop 11/2 years ago in Park City primarily because she was frustrated with the quality of scented oils and potpourri in Utah. Her store, It Makes Scents, is the largest supplier in the state of aromatherapy products.

"It seems like we really started trusting science and now I think there really is a push back to the natural," she said.

Aromatherapy's popularity in the United States has grown in the past 10 years and aromatherapists hope it will be accepted as an alternative medicine.

Still, Johnson acknowledges that the therapy has a long way to go. Even her own children call her a witch doctor and she recognizes that many people view the therapy as "some hippie type of thing."

The products are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and no licensing exists for aromatherapists. There also is no formal training, although some companies offer certification programs.

"You have to market it as a cosmetic and then what I can do is tell people this works for me," Johnson said. "We cannot make any medical claims, although I think the uses of aromatherapy work wonders for all kinds of things."

Despite lacking FDA approval, aromatherapists do claim that individual oils can provide various therapeutic functions.

For instance, peppermint oil rubbed on a person's temples and the back of the neck produces a cooling effect similar to the liniment Ben-Gay. And there's no better oil for motion or morning sickness, Johnson claims.

Lavender oil can be mixed with a bath to treat insomnia, headaches, sore muscles, burns, wounds or infections. Or there's pine, which aromatherapists say can help respiratory tract infections or poor circulation.

FDA spokesman Mike Shaffer said manufacturers are breaking the law when they make such claims about products that lack approval. But he said limited resources prevent the FDA from prosecuting companies over products that do not pose an immediate risk.

The idea that aromatherapy is going unchecked is a concern to Dr. Alan Hirsch, a psychologist and director of neurology at the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago.

"I have a lot of problems right now with people who call themselves aromatherapists," he said. "When you see a lot of these essential oils you don't know what the h. . . - is in them so you don't know if they're safe.

"As a consumer I think it's fine to use odors around the house, but if you had an actual disease I would be very reticent to treat it with aromatherapy."

Hirsch's center treats smell and taste disorders and is now conducting about 85 studies on the effects of scent. Much of his research concludes that there are direct links between scent and behavior.

But like Hirsch, Dr. Paul Clayton, chairman of the Utah Medical Association's committee on unproven health practices, is worried about the unregulated experimentation of aromatherapy.

"Our concern is that therapists are telling patients that these will work," said Clayton, who also is an anesthesiologist at Alta View Hospital.

"If they help you, wonderful," he said, "but don't leave your physician in the dust. Be sure that treatable medical conditions are taken care of."

Michael Scholes, a Los Angeles-based aromatherapist who teaches 100 classes a year and has certified 600 aromatherapists, acknowledges that some of the essential oils can be toxic if ingested.

"You could drink half a bottle of these and you'd die, but then again if you swallowed a bottle of Tylenol, you'd die or if you ate three pizzas, you'd probably die, too," he said.

But at the same time, Scholes said the best way to become familiar with aromatherapy is experimentation.

"The only way to be an aromatherapist is to actually use the oils on your family and yourself," he said. "You could compare aromatherapy to cooking, the best thing I could say is buy some things throw them in a saucepan and see what you can get."

That's why when Johnson's family suffers insomnia or stress she reaches for a bottle of Neroli, or when they have congestion or sore muscles she hands them some eucalyptus oil.

"You know when you can feel that type of physiological response to one drop of something you have to think, wow, there's got to be something to this," she said.