woman managing her

Twenty years ago, Carla Cohen fell mysteriously ill. She couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong; it felt as though some conspiracy between her mind and her body were eroding her capacity to work. Cohen, who was an entertainment executive in Los Angeles, woke up every morning feeling weak and foggy-brained, with a low-grade fever. Her doctors couldn’t make a diagnosis, and suggested antidepressants. “I said, ‘I’m not depressed!’ They just told me to go home and rest.”

worried woman

Disillusioned by Western medicine, Cohen began exploring other options. She studied with multiple healers and shamans; she read books with titles like “The Body Toxic” and pursued a massage-therapy license. As part of her training, she took a class on a massage technique called “raindrop therapy,” which incorporates essential oils—aromatic compounds made from plant material.

At the time, essential oils were not well known, but Cohen was drawn to them right away. “From the very first moment with those oils, I noticed something was firing that hadn’t been firing,” she said. “I was deeply moved.”

Today, Cohen puts frankincense oil on her scalp every morning; when she feels a cold coming on, she downs an immune-system-boosting oil blend that includes clove, eucalyptus, and rosemary. On days when she has to negotiate a contract on behalf of an organization that she volunteers for, she uses nutmeg and spearmint to sharpen her focus. She earns the majority of her income working as a distributor for Young Living, a leading vender of essential oils.

Cohen is middle-aged, with a friendly, open face framed by graying curls. Though her house, in Long Beach, is full of New Age trappings—a statue of Ganesh, huge hunks of crystal—she speaks with the quick clip of someone who once gave a lot of corporate presentations. As we sat at her kitchen table, a glass globe puffed out clouds of tangerine-scented vapor. Cohen offered me a glass of water enhanced with a few drops of an essential-oil blend called Citrus Fresh. “It helps the body detox,” she said. “Not that you’re toxic.” The water was subtly tangy, like a La Croix without the fizz. Cohen went into her treatment room and came back with a small vial labelled “Clarity.”

She put a few drops in my left palm. “This is good for getting your mind clear,” she said. “Rub it clockwise three times. That activates the electrical properties in the oil, and aligns your DNA.” Following Cohen’s instructions, I cupped my hands around my nose and inhaled deeply. The smell was heavier than that of perfume, so minty that it was almost medicinal. Cohen looked at me expectantly. “I feel perkier,” I ventured. At first, Cohen sold oils to friends and family; she also drummed up business at local yoga studios, and taught classes at a vintage-clothing store. Most of the people she met were unfamiliar with the product. “Oils were not on the radar,” she said. But, around seven years ago, when she signed up for a booth at a holistic health fair, she arrived to find someone else selling oils, too.

She started seeing them mentioned in mainstream women’s magazines. Marie Claire advised rubbing a lavender-oil blend on your pulse points for sounder sleep; Elle suggested slathering your face with a frankincense-oil blend to keep your skin young. More people seemed open to hearing about the medicinal applications of oils as well. “My parents were very much believers in the idea that the doctors were God and the government protects you,” Cohen said. Now, it seemed, people were realizing that typical sources of care weren’t infallible. “We have amazing answers here,” Cohen told me. “Why not try it? What do you have to lose?”

Essential oils have long been used to scent products and to flavor foods; Coca-Cola and Pepsi are among their major consumers. But these days, when people talk about essential oils, they’re likely referring to the little vials of liquid essence of lemon or tea tree that you can buy at grocery stores or yoga studios, or from a distributor like Carla Cohen.

Oils are touted as something between a perfume and a potion, a substance that can keep you smelling nice while also providing physical and psychological benefits. They are often stocked on the same shelves as herbal remedies such as echinacea and St.-John’s-wort; big-box stores sell aromatherapy diffusers as an alternative to synthetic-smelling products like Febreze. The model Miranda Kerr used oils to help her get over her breakup with Orlando Bloom. The pop star Kesha tweeted that she starts off every day by sniffing essential oils: “They make me feel so peaceful.” Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan, unsurprisingly, but so are RuPaul, Alanis Morissette, and a trainer for the New York Knicks.

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