Sophomore Nicholas No started using a product called “Mental Focus,” produced by Now Foods, in September after a friend living in New Jersey bought some from a Chinese man selling it on the side of the road.
Since then, however, No has kept himself supplied via Amazon.com, for about $10 an ounce.
Mental Focus is an oil blend (lemon oil, peppermint oil and wintergreen oil are some of the ingredients) marketed to combat fatigue and mental fog and improve concentration.
It’s intended as an aromatherapy blend, usable through an oil diffuser to spread a minty scent throughout a room.
However, that’s not how Country Day sophomores, like No, have been using it.
Instead, they’ve been putting a few drops of liquid on the back of their hands and inhaling it.
Surprisingly, several of the students who have taken it this way admitted they had no idea what the ingredients were.
“It’s probably not the smartest idea to snort something when you have no idea what’s in it,” sophomore Miles Edwards said. “(But) we saw it on Amazon, so we figured it couldn’t be that bad.”
Kaufman took Mental Focus on the night of Homecoming, along with several of his friends, including Edwards, before playing in the soccer game, but said that it only made his face cold, providing none of the promised boost in focus.
Everyone else interviewed seemed to agree – the stuff does nothing to boost mental acuity.
So why use it?
And how did anyone come up with the idea of snorting it, anyway?
No said that he uses Mental Focus to prepare for fencing matches.
“It doesn’t actually affect me,” he said, “but you sniff it up and it smells all minty. I use it as a habit. So when I take it I know I’m ready to fence.
“I focus on that instead of other things, like being nervous.”
Kaufman said he does not experience the increased focus that No reported.
“It (feels like) chewing minty gum and drinking cold water, but on your entire face,” Kaufman said.
“Does (No) actually get anything out of it?” Edwards asked.
Sophomore Yasmin Gupta has taken Mental Focus only a couple of times; she said that, while it doesn’t really help her focus (“It’s just oils and things”), it helps clear her sinuses when she feels under the weather.
“When I don’t feel too well, it helps a little bit to get through the day,” she said.
Even teacher Patricia Jacobsen was offered Mental Focus, but she declined after smelling it.
“Oh, it was horrible,” she said. “It was a little strong for me.”
Everyone else who has snorted it said they got it from No, but No said that he couldn’t remember who had originally told him to inhale – just that it was one of his friends through fencing who lives in New Jersey.
When asked if he was aware that Mental Focus was not intended to be inhaled, No sent a text with four emoji “laughing and crying” faces.
Aromatherapy is a fairly common practice, though it is less common for people to expect it to work. However, most people say that the scent of lavender is calming and the scent of mint is refreshing, for instance.
While aromatherapy has been gaining attention as an alternative treatment, there is insufficient evidence of its efficacy as a practice, according to the University of Maryland Medical School website.
The website also states that essential oils should never be taken by mouth without the advice of a specially trained professional.
It says nothing about the dangers of inhaling oils into the lungs, however.
Essential oils can cause irritation when applied directly to the skin, according to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy’s (NAHA) website. Several oils – including peppermint oil, one of the ingredients of Mental Focus – can also irritate the mucous membranes, leading to drying or heating of the mouth, eyes and nose.
According to aromatherapist Carole Berg, who is listed on the NAHA website, the main concern is that the students are putting undiluted oils directly on their skin.
“These oils are all [used for specific purposes] and there are no base oils, so that can cause several things to happen,” she said.
“Lemon oil can cause photosensitivity, so if they put it on their hand and they’re outside eating lunch in the sun, it could cause burning, blistering even from that.”
She also mentioned that Now Foods’ products, since they’re not organic, could contain extremely concentrated amounts of pesticides – especially in the citrus oils.
“It can take as many as a thousand flowers to make a drop of rose essential oil, for instance,” she said. “So when you have pesticides on that, it comes right through the oil and could cause a reaction.”
Berg recommended diluting the oils before applying them to skin, perhaps with almond oil or olive oil.
The only other concern, she said, was the possibility of an allergic reaction – either a pre-existing one or one that could develop from overusing Mental Focus.
Other than that, though, Berg said that the scent would probably be “uplifting and clarifying.”