In her 10 years of running one of Singapore’s most popular aromatherapy companies, Chery Gan has accumulated more than a few interesting stories. The 40-year-old founded Mt Sapola in 2007, and has since turned it into a lifestyle force to be reckoned with, with 14 boutiques in Singapore and six in Malaysia, selling aromatherapy oils and diffusers, bath and body products, and face products, among others. Recently, to facilitate the brand’s expansion into the UK next year, Cheryl rebranded Mt Sapola into Hysses (say “high-sers”) — it is a combination of the English letters which looks like the Chinese word for chun or “village” (H and Y) and the word “senses.” The idea is to leverage on the Singapore company’s exotic Asian roots. The genial and youthful-looking boss lady is also, incredibly, mum to four offspring, three boys aged 15, 14 and 8, and a three-year-old girl. When we ask her how she does it all and whether there is an essential oil or blend that helps her live a well-balanced life, she laughs and tells us, “I would love to invent that oil, man!”
Here are a few things we learned about aromatherapy from Cheryl.
#1 Lavender isn’t relaxing for everyone.
How’s this for hilariously ironic: Cheryl Gan, founder of an aromatherapy company, says that lavender gives her migraines. She laughs, “It took me a while to realise it was lavender that was giving me a headache! But Jasmine essential oil has similar [relaxing] properties, so that’s my ‘lavender’. It depends on how your body reacts to the properties of the essential oils — different people react differently. This is also why we tell people not to go into a shop and ask, ‘What is the most popular oil?’ You should go in and smell the oils. If you feel positive about a particular scent, you should get it. Also, listen to your body. We’ve done tests with people with sinuses: We let them smell oils that were not labeled, and those will sinus problems will usually pick eucalyptus, rosemary or tea tree oil. It’s their bodies telling them what they need, and what will make them feel better.”
#2 Singaporeans love lemongrass.
“Lemongrass is one of our best-sellers. It’s what we diffuse in our shops. No, we don’t use lavender in our shops, and it’s not because it gives me migraines! Lemongrass has been our signature scent since Day 1. It contains citroneloll, which can help to ward off mosquitoes. Citronella oil contains more citronellol but lemongrass smells nicer and more lemony. Singaporeans like stronger scents, and love lemongrass ’cos it’s beneficial and smells good. When we had shops in Taiwan, they didn’t want such strong scents. In winter, you can smell the scents two streets away. When the weather is dry, smells can diffuse further."
#3 Lemongrass can maybe, just maybe, help you lose weight.
“There was a staff member who worked in one of our shops who lost one to two inches [off her body] in a month. It’s because we diffuse lemongrass in the shops and it’s a detoxing oil. For this lady, the oil affected her strongly and her body would detox and pass out oils — when she peed, she could see oil floating in the toilet! It’s like a slimming centre! But so far, we knew of only that one case. (Laughs) For the rest of us, when we are at the shop the whole day, we will feel very thirsty, ’cos lemongrass tells your body to release toxins.
#4 Essential oil makers are at the mercy of nature.
When we went to the Hysses store at Junction 8, there was a few gaps in their oil display library. It turns out that thanks to a cyclone in Madagascar (which is the world’s top producer of vanilla beans) which affected vanilla crops, the world is currently facing sky-high prices for vanilla and a severe vanilla shortage. Says Cheryl, “Customers think an aromatherapy scent should always be the same but the truth is that a scent will never be consistent. Plants and herbs are subject to climatic changes. If a brand has a scent that is always consistent, it means they are adding in artificial flavours.”
#5 The benefits of aromatherapy are real, at least according to anecdotal evidence.
Regulations prohibit aromatherapy companies and practitioners from making certain claims about the benefits of essential oils, not that this stops folks from buying into the hype. Cheryl tells us, “In Taiwan, we couldn’t use medical terms when it came to marketing our products. Like saying that eucalyptus can help with sinus problems or that certain oils can ease headaches or migraines — these were things we couldn’t say. But at the same time, it was a very mature market, and people there knew what they were looking for. In Singapore, [the guidelines] are more flexible. Some of the consumers here still need to be educated — we need to tell them the oils are not just for smelling, that there are beneficial properties and therapeutic effects. There was a man who bought frankincense for him mum. He read that it can help with cancer. She had last stage cancer, and the frankincense didn’t exactly help with the treatment of cancer, but he said it made his mum happier.”
#6 Don’t eat your essentials oils.
“A misconception about essential oils is that people think that since they are pure, you have to drink it to show its pureness. But it’s precisely because it’s so pure that you shouldn’t drink it. Some oils will melt the paint off a table ’cos they are so concentrated. But still, there are people who put recipes online and recommend drinking oils with water. Essential oils are not food — you should not be consuming it. It’s possible to get essential oil poisoning. It takes decades, but if you continuously consume essential oils, one day your liver will fail, as it can no longer cleanse the oil from your body. If you burn or diffuse the oils, it is safe. There are very few oils you can apply directly on your skin, and two of these are tea tree oil and lavender. The other oils have to be diluted or diffused.”
#7 Essential oils are not magic.
“Yes, having four kids and juggling a business that is expanding is tough. Much as I try to manage my time, I only have 24 hours. I try to give time to my kids on weekends, but sometimes, I still have to work. The good thing is that my hubby helps. He makes sure he goes home on time from Mondays to Fridays to check on their homework, while I work late. He’s the owner of Home-Fix — he founded it with his brother about 30 years ago. Is there an oil which helps me to balance everything and do it all? Like, the moment I smell it, I can do everything? I would love to invent that oil, man! (Laughs) This reminds me of a man who came into our shop once and asked, ‘Do you have an oil that I smell already can help me make a lot of money?’ (Laughs) I also want this oil! Some people find that rosemary and peppermint oils can help them focus and be more productive. Unfortunately, those don’t really help me. (Laughs)”
Main photo: Aik Chen