What are Smelling Salts?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Smelling salts are a combination of ammonium carbonate and perfume. They were traditionally used to revive people from faints, and are often associated with frail 19th century women. Some athletes use them before competition as a pick-me-up, or coaches may use them to revive an athlete who has been injured. Medically, smelling salts certainly will make someone more alert, but they may not be as beneficial as was once claimed. Indeed, some of the ingredients in them are actually potentially quite dangerous.

Smelling salts, or salt of hartshorn, were originally made from the ammonia of male deer horns.
Smelling salts, or salt of hartshorn, were originally made from the ammonia of male deer horns.

Older names for smelling salts include sal volatile and salt of hartshorn. The horns of male deer, or harts, were a common source for ammonia before chemical synthesis allowed scientists to make salts in a laboratory. The name presumably came about because fumes from the mixture were intended for inhalation. Novels set in a certain period seem to involve an alarming amount of sal volatile being wafted under the nostrils of ladies of delicate sensibilities.

Today, smelling salts are made from ammonium carbonate and perfume.
Today, smelling salts are made from ammonium carbonate and perfume.

The base of this substance is ammonium carbonate, a salt with a white crystalline structure. When ammonium carbonate is mixed with water, in the case of “aromatic spirits of ammonia,” or perfume, the reaction creates fumes which rise from the salts. When placed under someone's nose, the fumes irritate the mucus membranes of the nose, throat, and lungs, stimulating the body to breathe more quickly. The mixture of perfume with ammonium carbonate could have resulted in a rather interesting odor, which is why smelling salts were kept tightly bottled when they were not needed.

Smelling salts should be kept tightly bottled when not in use due to the noxious odor.
Smelling salts should be kept tightly bottled when not in use due to the noxious odor.

The acceleration of respiration brought about by using these salts will make someone more alert, and could potentially revive someone from a faint. It may even improve headaches, which can sometimes benefit from an increase of oxygen to the brain. Headaches and fainting were the two treatments for which smelling salts were routinely recommended. However, ammonia fumes are not very good for the body, and prolonged exposure should be avoided.

Smelling salts may be used to treat headaches.
Smelling salts may be used to treat headaches.

Fumes from ammonia can be toxic if they are allowed to build up. Therefore, smelling salts should only be used in small quantities, and ideally in a well ventilated or outdoor area. When not in use, the salts should be sealed so that the vapors cannot leak out. Discard old salts with care, because ammonia is extremely toxic to fish.

Smelling salts are sometimes used to revive someone who has fainted.
Smelling salts are sometimes used to revive someone who has fainted.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon314191

Can you build an immunity or tolerance from overuse of smelling salts?

anon46909

Smelling salts are useless for waking a drunk person. However, smelling socks will quite often work famously.

peachy34

can the spirits of ammonia be used to revive the consciousness of an unconscious drunk person?

smartguy

hi, i'm 16 and my boyfriend always used ammonia before sex. my friends told me this was bad but after fainting five times i want to know if this is a risk to my baby?

anon3453

Our football coach is using ammonia and water to cool down the athletes. Is this harmful?

zygouk

In 1861 in UK was a factory producing alinate ammonia. Was this a base for smelling salts?

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