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Aromatherapy proponents claim essential oils derived from plants can do everything from alter moods to cure bladder infections. It’s certainly big business. But are aromatherapy products harmful? Last July, the Donna Karan Beauty Co. discovered that its Nectar Watermist fragrance, intended to soothe stress and anxiety, contained Burkholderia cepacia. The pathogen colonizes in the lungs and can be fatal to people with respiratory diseases such as cystic fibrosis, according to Food and Drug Administration spokesman Arthur Whitmore.

DKBC responded quickly, reporting the problem to the FDA and recalling the product only weeks after it hit store shelves. But while the company was required to report the recall, there’s not much the FDA can do to prevent such problems, because it doesn’t regulate aromatherapies unless the manufacturer makes a medical claim.

Most aromatherapies are inhalation-based and work by stimulating the brain’s olfactory lobe, which affects the emotions. Few studies have been done to prove whether their claims have any scientific basis. “The cart is before the horse,” says the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation’s Dr. Alan Hirsch, who is currently conducting studies of aromatherapy products. Among his findings thus far: Lavender and pumpkin pie scents increase penile blood flow and may serve as a possible cure for impotence.

But Dr. William Jarvis of the National Council Against Health Fraud takes a harder line, calling aromatherapy “quackery by definition.” He says it’s like the myth that dancing around roses would prevent the black death. “Eventually, they all died anyway.”

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