Earlier this week, before a 15 minute Tabata session on the peloton with Leanne Haisnby (translation: a brutal HIIT cycling workout), I snapped a fragrant salt capsule and held it about a half a foot away. from my nose. My airways immediately filled up Looney Tunes; the mucous membranes of my nose were burning and I felt like steam was swelling my ears. I glanced in the mirror – my eyes seemed to have taken a liter of shampoo – before putting my shoes on the bike and starting my lesson.
Fragrant salts occupy an unusually odd cross section of the Internet. To the younger generation, they seem like a fun and mysterious new invention – an opportunity to ‘do’ a ‘drug’ and film the hilarious results, seemingly without real consequences. YouTube features six-minute compilations of high school and college kids tearing up smelly salts in cars and libraries; invariably the inhaler screams or makes a funny noise while the person holding the device laughs. Viral content machines like Barstool Sports have also taken advantage of this trend, tasking a young employee to “cultivate” the entire office on what it feels like to take a salt that smells good.
But this culture goes back path further than in recent years. The fragrant salts are a relic of antiquity. They were referenced in the writings of Pliny two millennia ago and Chaucer 600 years ago. They were commonly carried by medics in Victorian times, while during WWII every standard first aid kit contained volatile sal, which is a solution of ammonium carbonate, often mixed with alcohol. Over the centuries, the use case for scent salts has been pretty clear – it’s meant to revive someone who has passed out, is unconscious, or is generally dizzy. More recently they have been used for this purpose in the National Football League.
In 2005, New York Giants legend Michael Strahan estimated that 80% of professional football players regularly used scent salts during games. Back then – the height of the PED era in football, baseball, cycling and boxing – the sports media clutched their pearls to the odd cartridges strewn along the sidelines. After a four-month investigation, The Florida Times Union published a story with the headline: “A puff of TROUBLE?” In the article, Strahan and others described a pervasive ritual in which players “used [smelling salts] as a performance enhancer, providing a powerful punch to propel them through tough practices and brutal games. Once the rush wears off, players open a new cartridge and take another puff.
This approach represented an evolution from the original goal of smelling salts. Instead of just making a player alert enough to get rid of “ringing their bell”, scent salts could be used to go ringing. someone else Bell. Or, in the case of Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, to accurately throw the ball down the field. This is how the NHL uses scent salts to increase alertness and make the most of a given period on the ice. Many hockey players can’t imagine starting a shift without taking a hit. Illustrated sports the habit called “an aromatic awakening.” One dedicated player testified: “It wakes you up. It’s almost like a cerebral way of saying, ‘Hey, it’s game time now. It’s time to go.
But is all of this a good idea? A 2006 essay published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine defined odorous salts as “preparations of ammonium carbonate and perfume, sniffed as regenerating or stimulating”. Gaseous ammonia is clearly the active ingredient. When it irritates the nose (infiltrating the lungs soon after), the body experiences an inhalation reflex. You couldn’t legitimately stop it if you tried. It sends a surge of oxygen directly to your brain, which immediately induces rapid, focused breathing. There is absolutely no doubt that it “works”. The best question is: do we want it? Should this practice continue? And could it have its place in other sports, especially the endurance favorites – running, cycling, swimming – of middle-aged laypersons?
It is telling that boxing banned the smell of salts more than five decades ago, while being somewhat confused that similar high-contact sports like football or hockey have yet to do the same. (That’s right – since Strahan opened the practice 16 years ago, none of the Big Four professional sports leagues or the NCAA has bothered to regulate scent salts.) Boxing has banned the practice for fear that the smell of salts masks a more serious injury. . The logic is pretty simple: if you’re dizzy enough that you need scent salts to be revived, you probably shouldn’t be revived for the express purpose of continuing. getting punched in the head.
The NFL has a few dozen other pressing issues on its plate right now, but it is courting a bit risk by allowing teams to use odorous salts. The league already has a checkered concussion protocol; given this context, the optic of turning a blind eye to a “shake it off” stimulant is not great. Not to mention that this instinctive inhalation reflex can be quite violent for some players. What if they’re on the ground with a cervical spine injury? As for perfectly healthy players who use it as a booster, they might (for a few minutes, at least) consider themselves invincible and ignore injuries or overwork their bodies. The smell of salts does not confer superhuman strength, but studies have shown that athletes derive psychological confidence from this initial burst of alertness.
Top tip for aerobic athletes interested in the smell of salts? Don’t overdo it. Don’t hold the tab too close to your nose (anything within four inches could actually burn your nasal passages); do not do them if you have a breathing problem such as asthma; certainly don’t take multiple hits in a short period of time.
To be fair, I understand the appeal of something like this. I am an endurance athlete. The margin for error in a sport like running is very slim. That’s why performance technology is at the right time. This is why runners are obsessed with massage guns, beet juice, and foam toe separators. The idea of adding an easy game changer to a pre-race routine – especially something legal – is almost intoxicating in itself.
Here is what I can say: I went with Smalts. The brand seemed pretty reliable and was an improvement over one of Amazon’s best options, a product called Bottled Insanity, which one reviewer likened to “a ride to the depths of Hell.” Smalts is still a little questionable (the brand’s bio reads “Three students who fell in love with the smell of salts”… oh boy), but my 15 pills arrived in a nice box within days of ordering them. I felt that promised vigilance during my training and had a good session, beating the top 1,000 runners (out of over 65,000), but I didn’t break any personal performance records. Part of that is because the feeling wears off after a few minutes, and Peloton doesn’t have intense classes of less than 10 minutes.
This is why the scent salts are probably much more useful, from an athletic standpoint, for weightlifters looking to lift weights or press on a bench, and sprinters or middle distance runners looking to ‘a little extra adrenaline. It’s hard to imagine a single trainer (let alone a medical professional) who would recommend anyone smelling salt to work their way through a full marathon or triathlon. Inhaling a cartridge could may be be beneficial for waking up at the start line (pre-race sleeps can be notorious) or as a pick-me-up halfway through, but concerns about dependency and misplaced trust begin to emerge; after all, there are more “natural” ways to prepare for a run, such as rest, hydration, meditation, high carbohydrate energy gels, sugary bars or waffles, and even coffee.
There are a few warnings on online message boards linking odorous salts to pulmonary edema (a very frightening condition where fluid builds up in the lungs). To date, no scientific studies have confirmed the negative long-term side effects of recreational use of odorous salts. That said, no research has exactly proven their innocence either. That leaves us, for now, in common sense, which suggests that sniffing a chemical reaction to play, run, ride a bike or swim with a little more inspiration for a few minutes is probably not the best idea. In the future, the smell of salts should continue to do the job they have done admirably for thousands of years – resuscitating people who are in desperate need of resuscitation.
If you are an anaerobic-focused athlete with no history of asthma who has tested odor salts before, then of course go ahead and open a capsule in a performance-critical situation. But don’t be fooled: you are whoever raises that bar, pumps your knees, or attacks an opponent. Don’t let ammonia steal your glory. Oh, and for god’s sake, try not to snort these things on TikTok. We don’t need a peer-reviewed study to know that they don’t mix well with a plate of Tide Pods.
This article was featured in the Internal hook newsletter. Register now.