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What Are Smelling Salts Made Of

by Kristin Beck
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What Are Smelling Salts Made Of

What Are Smelling Salts Made Of

“In 1819, an Englishman named John Mears was working as an assistant surgeon for the British army in India. He’d just returned home after serving three years in the war between Britain and France against Napoleon’s empire. While he was in India, Mears read about a new drug being developed by a German physician called Samuel Hahnemann. It was based on a theory Hahneman had developed while studying medicine at the University of Berlin.
Hahneman believed that many medical treatments were ineffective because they didn’t address a patient’s underlying health problems. For example, if a person came into the hospital with fever, he would be given a lot of drugs to lower his temperature. But all this treatment might do is make him drowsy or nauseated. Instead, Hahneman thought, doctors should first treat the symptoms themselves, which he called “”the disease.”” Once the febrile illness was relieved, then patients could receive other medications to help their bodies recover.
The idea behind treating the underlying condition instead of just the symptoms became known as “”homeopathy,”” and it eventually led to modern forms of alternative medicine like acupuncture and chiropractic care. Homeopathy also inspired Hahneman to develop a new kind of medication — one that uses smells rather than chemicals to relieve pain. In his book, “”On Sensations and Respiratory Movements Observed During Sleep”” published in 1832, Hahneman described how he felt certain smells could affect people’s moods.
One of these smells seemed to have a calming effect on animals. A few nights earlier, Hahneman said, he had experimented with burning a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal. As the smoke entered his room, his dog would become restless and start pacing back and forth. Then, suddenly, the animal stopped dead in its tracks. Afterward, the dog lay down without moving for hours.
Hahneman theorized that inhaling the smoky air from sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal could calm humans too. So he began experimenting with different mixtures of ingredients. Eventually, he settled on using ammonia and chloroform to produce what we now call smelling salts.
John Mears went to work for Hahneman right away. Over the next four decades, Mears worked with Hahneman to refine the manufacture of smelling salts so that it produced more pure ammonia gas. Today, there are several companies making the same exact product, but they use slightly different recipes. Some companies add extra ingredients like menthol, camphor or eucalyptus oil. Others use natural earthy scents like lavender or rosemary. And some even add essential oils like peppermint or spearmint.
How do you know what type of smelling salts to get? Read on.
Ammonia-based Smelling Salts
When you buy commercial smelling salts, it will probably say something like “”ammonium chloride”” or “”ammonium bromide”” on the packaging. This means that it contains ammonia. Ammonia is naturally occurring hydrogen chloride bonded together with nitrogen molecules. Commercial smelling salts contain enough chlorine or bromine atoms to react with the hydrogen atoms in ammonia and separate out the hydrogen chloride. The result is a compound called hydrochloric acid and water.
Hydrochloric acid is extremely poisonous. If ingested, it can cause death through vomiting, internal bleeding and kidney damage. That’s why most manufacturers don’t sell it commercially. Fortunately, since it reacts with ammonia, hydrochloric acid doesn’t need to be mixed directly into the ammonia itself. It can be added later during production.
Commercial smelling salts often include organic compounds like ethyl alcohol, methyl acetate or diethylether. These substances aren’t necessary for producing the effects of smelling salts. They’re added to mask the odor of the ammonia fumes. Ethanol is used as a solvent to dissolve the other components. Diethyl ether and methyl acetate are both solvents that evaporate quickly once the solution is poured into containers. Methyl acetate is less toxic than diethyl ether, so it’s sometimes used instead. However, neither of these substances provide any medicinal value.
If you’ve ever smelled rubbing alcohol, you may have noticed that it’s not pleasant. You wouldn’t want to drink it, and you certainly wouldn’t want to breathe it in. Even though it’s harmless, it does have some interesting properties. Alcohol is actually a great solvent. Since it evaporates fast, it doesn’t leave behind a residue in your skin or hair. It’s also cheap and easy to find.
Now that you understand how tasting salts are made, let’s talk about how you use them.
Using Smelling Salts

There are two ways to use smelling salts: topically and nasally. Topical application involves spraying a liquid onto your face or body. Nasal application involves placing a small amount of powder or gel inside of your nostrils. Both methods rely on the fact that ammonia is highly irritating to the mucous membranes of your eyes and nose.
To apply topical smelling salts, spray a fine mist of smelling salt onto the closed eyelids, over the bridge of your nose or above your upper lip. You’ll feel mild irritation. Breathe deeply until the feeling passes. Repeat every minute or so. Spray the area lightly with warm water to wash off the salts.
Nasal application is similar to applying topical salts except that you place a small amount of powder or gel inside of your nostrils. To prepare nasal smelling salts, mix equal parts white vinegar and ammonia. Add a pinch of salt or sodium citrate per cup of vinegar. Fill a syringe with the solution and insert it halfway down each nostril. Squeeze gently to expel the contents. Rinse your mouth and throat with warm water.”


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