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Are Smelling Salts the New Red Bull?

Inspired by their frequent use in sports — and college parties where the festivities need kick-starting — I attempted to see if they could bolster my productivity

I was slumping on the couch, listening to the final strains of some rap song I can’t recall, glancing toward the clock on the wall as it ticked toward 2 a.m., when an acquaintance of mine popped out of a bedroom. He burped up the remnants of a bong hit as he gave me a look, sizing up how badly I’d been crushed by seven whiskey sodas and a handful of edibles. 

“Dude, wanna perk up?” he intoned.

I shrugged, feeling just sober enough to wonder but a bit too drunk to refuse. 

He reached into the pocket of his black denim jacket. In one motion, he reached out toward my face. I heard a little crack, and as I breathed, I felt the sensation of two hot pokers being jammed up my sinuses. My eyes widened, and my neck went stiff. 

“Jesus Christ,” I replied, breathing quick. “Wheeeeeew.” 

“Smelling salts! You need another drink now?” my newfound savior cracked. 

That was eight years ago in college, and I thought of that auspicious introduction as I stared down at a package of smelling salts this past weekend. Unable to find it in drug stores, I’d ordered a batch off Amazon. They arrived in a slim box, each holding 10 vials. They kind of looked like pieces of wrapped taffy. 

After peering at the small instructional print on a vial, I placed my thumbs on its center and cracked it in half, watching red dye stain the outer covering. I raised it to my nostrils and breathed. I was sober this time, but the sting caught me off guard again, and I couldn’t help but let loose a Ric Flair yelp. It felt like someone had stuffed a threesome of Vicks VapoRub, wasabi and oven cleaner into my cerebral cortex. My eyes widened. My pulse rose. Maybe, somehow, NFL head coach Adam Gase had a point. 

Gase, already infamous for his workaholic aversion to sleep and his manic-looking eyes, went viral earlier this month when cameras caught him taking a fat hit of smelling salts before a preseason game for his team, the New York Jets. The low stakes of the game, coupled with Gase’s, er, enthusiastic reaction (his eyes roll back and he yells while shaking his head), made smelling salts an amusing punchline — dude, you really need that? 

But it also made me wonder: Given that smelling salts are popular with football players, powerlifters and nutters like Gase, could it help me, an average guy just trying to stay alert and productive through his week?

To answer that, I needed to understand how the human body reacts to this little chemical tool. The active ingredient in smelling salts is ammonia; the “salt” refers to ammonium carbonate, a crystalline form that creates ammonia gas when mixed with water. These days, though, it’s far more common to find smelling salt vials filled with liquid ammonia that’s been diluted with ethanol. The fumes travel up the nose and into the lungs, more or less irritating everything it can along the way. Your body, freaked out by this irritation, triggers its instinct to breathe sharply and take in more oxygen. This then helps speed up your blood flow, waking up the nervous system as a result. 

There’s some evidence that ammonium carbonate was used as far back as Roman times, with literature indicating that the great naturalist and philosopher Pliny had knowledge of it. By the 13th century, the properties of ammonium carbonate were well-studied by alchemists of the time, who tinkered with it in hopes of unlocking the “philosopher’s stone.” But it was really the British, in 19th-century Victorian times, that began using smelling salts to revive people, namely women who had fainted. (There’s a number of reasons why this was happening so frequently, including super-tight corsets and the accidental consumption of toxic chemicals.) 

You can find a number of Victorian cultural references to smelling salts, including from Charles Dickens, who wrote about their potency in his story Hard Times. In it, a man named Mr. Bounderby visits the chemist as a precaution before delivering word of his impending engagement to a jealous widow. He asks for the “strongest smelling-salts” in the shop, thinking: “By George! If she takes it in the fainting way, I’ll have the skin off her nose, at all events!”

Into the 20th century, smelling salts remained an indispensable part of a doctor’s kit, but the growth of sports provided new usefulness, too. It gained wide popularity, for example, as a way to wake boxers who had gotten their “bell rung.” Turns out, a fighter blacking out is the sign of a concussion, which is why smelling salts are banned from boxing today and not used (at least visibly) in modern mixed martial arts. Football players, too, were “woken up” after big hits using smelling salts through the mid to late 20th century. “When I played for the Steelers and I got my bell rung, I’d take smelling salts and go right back out there. All of us did that,” Terry Bradshaw, Hall of Fame quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, wrote in a 2011 op-ed about the dangers of brain damage. 

But while modern medical practices have nixed smelling salts from treatment of potential head injuries, their use remains rampant on sidelines of NFL games, soccer matches, NBA bouts, weightlifting competitions and beyond. Retired legend Michael Strahan once estimated that “70 to 80 percent” of football players were using smelling salts; current Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys prefers a sniff of ammonia to coffee, which he worries might upset his stomach before a game. 

In an attempt to cut through the myths and realities myself, I’ve cracked through 20 vials in the last five days, giving myself the burn before workouts, while writing on deadline, before date night with my partner and pretty much any time I felt I needed a boost. At first, the shock of the ammonia really did seem to shoot energy through my body. Smelling salts worked their magic before sessions in my rock-climbing gym, as I felt physically amped and mentally motivated to throw myself into projects that required focus and a lot of fingertip power on delicate moves. They worked equally well to crisp up my attention before a big phone call, and gave me a second wind at 3:30 p.m. in the office. 

Amid this experimentation, I reached out to some medical sources to hash out whether hitting smelling salts all the time could lead to any long-term problems. (By all published accounts, there aren’t.) John Jiao, an emergency medicine resident at Johns Hopkins and an old friend of mine, mostly points out how gross he finds ammonia gas. “Having smelled that, I’d literally do anything else for the boost,” he cracks. 

“If inhaled excessively, it can burn the mucosa in your nose and mouth. Still, the amount in smelling salts is pretty small, so that’s unlikely to happen,” he continues. “I can see why athletes would want it for a boost since the odor is so pungent that the body’s sympathetic nervous system, basically the ‘fight-or-flight’ reflex, is activated. But it’s super gross. More power to you if you can stand it, but yikes.” 

Maybe I’m a weirdo, but I never found the smell so horrible. Similarly, I didn’t experience any of the negative side effects I read about on Reddit and exercise forums, like nausea, headaches and energy burnout.

The real problem was that by day four, the novelty of huffing ammonia was starting to wear off. It almost felt like I was needing bigger and bigger hits, which made no sense — there’s no chemical mechanism that should allow a tolerance to build, unlike with other stimulants like caffeine or amphetamine. Still, the initial rush just faded so fast, and overall, it just wasn’t working as intensely as I wanted it to.

There’s probably a joke here about this stuff being “diet cocaine,” but the comparison would be generous at best. As Donald Buckland, an MD in Arizona, wrote for U.S. HealthWorks: “Smelling salts are the chemical equivalent of a good hard slap across the face — an answer more Hemingway than medical.”

Despite that, I still enjoy the routine of pulling out a vial, placing my thumbs on it, and snapping it like a Christmas cracker. This is pitch-perfect placebo behavior, and even as I acknowledge the “high” of smelling salts as being too short to be all that useful, I’ve caught myself looking around for a vial when I feel tired. 

Now, is this any better or worse than the average office worker’s addiction to caffeine? Probably not, and most likely cheaper, if you’re buying your coffee a cup at a time (smelling salts are as cheap as 25 cents a vial, if bought in bulk). 

But given the so-so effect, I’ll keep my remaining vials tucked away in my first-aid kit, for an emergency or some instance in which a drunk friend needs a helpful jolt. The belief that smelling salts can aid your performance seems to derive from an athletic culture that’s looking for a competitive edge at all times, regardless of whether that edge is there for the taking. If you subscribe to this view, there’s nothing to discourage you from cracking a vial here and there. 

As for me? I’m taking a break so that my dry, mildly irritated nasal passages can get back to normal.