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The Beauty Industry Goes to the Witch Store

Aromatherapy might be nothing more than a placebo, but that doesn't mean it's not worth it.
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(Photo: Vera Petruk/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Vera Petruk/Shutterstock)

If I had to pick a favorite category of “thing about which I am frequently and egregiously lied to,” it would be beauty products. I’ve been a consumer of powders and lotions and creams and perfumes and colored pencils since I was, what, 15? I’ve been reading about the properties of their newest iterations in magazines, and watching their ads on TV, for even longer. “The latest in lash technology,” growls a British woman. “Revolutionary” she whispers, as if nearby there were people who want to keep her from sharing her mascara secrets with you, but she needs you to have them. Meanwhile, a thin and beautiful woman with eyelashes up to her eyebrows stomps around a vaguely European strip of cafés, and you think, “Wow, she has such long eyelashes that it seems almost unbelievable.”

They’re fake, of course. I don’t know how many years it took me to realize that models in mascara ads are wearing false eyelashes, and that, rather than the revolutionary mascara, is why they look so great. But it was a lot. Many years.

I’m a sometime-fan and consumer of the beauty industry while also being aware of its insidious sexism and infuriating condescension, and maybe it’s in order to deal with that paradox that I find beauty marketing more amusing than aggravating. For example: Last year it was decided that everyone needed this brand-new thing called “BB cream,” which was really a tinted moisturizer with SPF, which is something stores have carried for years. The difference, we were told, is that BB cream will literally fix your entire face. It became so popular that stores started selling “CC cream” and “DD cream,” too. CC cream and DD cream are also tinted moisturizer with SPF. “Alphabet creams are all the rage,” says a fashion blog slideshow. Alphabet creams! I laugh to keep from setting fire to every Sephora I see, because that is where I buy my mascara.

"Aerial diffusion" might "work" in the sense that smelling nice things is a nice, if brief, feeling, but little to no evidence has supported any effect beyond the extremely short-term.

In recent years, though, a pseudo-holistic beauty product to end all pseudo-holistic beauty products has arisen with gusto, and that is the mighty Essential Oil. It does everything. Suggested use for this blend, by MAC, includes: “Dab a dot on your temples to unwind” (?) or “apply to bare skin to add a healthy glow.” (I mean, it is oil.) Some uses for lemon oil: “Add a few drops to your shampoo to clarify hair and make it appear shinier. To help alleviate flu symptoms, add a few drops of lemon essential oil and honey to a mug of warm water. Place a few drops into unrefined coconut oil to help reduce the appearance of cellulite.” Do you then put the lemon-coconut oil ... on, or can it just sit there? Be honest with me, Internet: Does it really even make a difference?

THE USE OF ESSENTIAL oils in medicine—specifically in “aromatherapy,” using the aromatic compounds therapeutically—has been practiced for centuries. The Roman physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote about essential oils and their purported healing properties in De Materia Medica in thefirst century; “aromatherapy” first appeared in print in a French book on the topic published in 1937. Many people believed essential oils had antiseptic properties, reduced pain, improved skin and brain function, and induced relaxation, among other things.

But many, if not all, of these benefits have been suggested as more likely resulting from the manner of delivery (massage) than the oils themselves. Massages are relaxing and pain-reducing, and relaxing is good for our skin and brain function, and so on. “Aerial diffusion,” another form of aromatherapy (smelling the oils) might “work” in the sense that smelling nice things is a nice, if brief, feeling, but little to no evidence has supported any effect beyond the extremely short-term: A 2000 study published in the British Journal of General Practice surveyed the aromatherapy literature and found 11 experiments that had previously asserted positive health benefits in the use of essential oils. What they found was erratic methodology, insufficient sample size, and side effects that were both negligible and fleeting. The authors, in minimal concession, write that “Aromatherapy is pleasant and relatively safe compared with many other ways of spending an hour or so and £20 to £45,” and that was all the scientific support I needed to go buy some oil from a witch store in the East Village.

IF IT’S A STRETCH to say that essential oils can help you with things like headaches and drowsiness, it takes an even greater leap to conceive of them as inciting good fortune, or sexual prowess, or the break-up of a couple you can’t stand (or want to separate for your own gain). But at Enchantments there are oils for all of these things, and many more, and I guess I figured that my first foray into essential oils might as well be lofty. I have Advil for headaches. I wanted (I mean, in theory) omnipotence, invincibility, obscene wealth, nearly unmanageable appeal. I wanted, at first, when looking through the catalog of blended oils available, the one called “BAD ASS.”

I visit the shop on a Saturday afternoon with my friend Melanie. Behind the counter at the back are two women carving designs into candles. A third woman stands in front of the counter, describing her preoccupations to the others, so they can help her pick out the right products. “Oh, I LOVE your nail polish,” says one of the women behind the counter, a blonde with gauged ears and full-sleeve tattoos. “Oooh, me too,” says the other, a brunette—and then they transition seamlessly into talking about Sephora.

Soon it’s our turn, and when we express interest in BAD ASS oil, the brunette woman offers us a bottle of it to smell. She says that the way we react to the oils should inform the ones we choose, and the thing is that while BAD ASS has great goals, it smells terrible. We smell a few others (suggested based on our respective issues), and Melanie ends up with a courage oil, while I end up with one for “uncrossing.” This is supposed to free up whatever mental blocks I might have, as well as reverse any hexes done on me recently. It smells sweet, like carnations.

They recommend wearing the oil as a perfume, and/or burn a few drops of it in a candle. I’m told a white one would be best, as white candles are also good for uncrossing, letting go of negativity. The process of this stuff—how or why it’s supposed to work—is as vague and elusive as it ever is with essential oils, no more or less so because we happen to be buying it from a witchcraft supply store. And though I don’t believe in the oil itself, I do believe in placebos, and symbolic gestures, and the camaraderie of the young woman selling it to me. “It’s just good if you’re feeling, like, you know,” she says, somehow shrugging in the kindest way I’ve ever seen. And I do.