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Why do Athletes Use Smelling Salts: History, Legality, and Use in Various Sports

Updated: Apr 10, 2023



In our previous post, we learned that smelling salts were historically made by combining vinegar and fumes with various ammonium salts, such as ammonium carbonate or ammonium chloride, and are used as a medical treatment for fainting or to resurrect people who have passed out. However, as time passed, ammonia inhalants became more common from ordinary people to athletes for several other purposes.


Ammonia Smelling Salts Crystal

Ammonia smelling salts


In this article, we will look at how ammonia salts began and evolved from the Roman Empire to today's common use of smelling salts in sports, their legality, and why they are so popular among athletes in many sports today.




Smelling Salts History


Smelling salts have a long and fascinating history that dates back to the Roman Empire. In his writings, they are referred to as Hammoniacus sal by a Roman author and naturalist named Pliny. In the 13th century, it became a treatment. Later on, in the 14th century, Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" statements declared to be using sal armonyak. After that, the formulation of these ammonia solutions from shavings of harts' horns and hooves in the 17th century gave rise to the alternative name for smelling salts, spirits, or salt of hartshorn.


Smelling salts in Rembrandt's painting

Source: Rembrandt, a Dutch Golden Age painter, painted a woman using smelling salts to revive a fainted man


As smelling salts spread throughout Europe, they became famous as a treatment for fainting spells and other forms of syncope, headaches, fatigue, and other symptoms.


Smelling salts Satirical print in 1787

Source: 1787 satirical print depicting tooth transplant showing a woman holding smelling salts bottle to her nose as she is about to have teeth transplantation


It reached the Victorian era when women started to use ammonia inhalants to revive themselves after fainting due to tight corsets and other restrictive clothing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


People used to dilute stimulants in vinegar or alcohol, add fragrances, and soak them in a sponge. The sponge was then placed in a decorative container called a vinaigrette. Later on, sal volatile was strongly utilized during WWII. The British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance advised all workforces to keep them in their first aid kits.




Today's Smelling Salts Uses


Ammonia inhalants are still widely utilized in a variety of settings today. They are used in medical emergencies to help revive people who have lost consciousness or are woozy.


Smelling salts use in sports and medicine

Source: Smelling salts packets are used not only in the medical field but also in sports


Sal volatile is utilized as a stimulant in the medical field for individuals who have fainted or are in shock. They can help enhance awareness and breathing and are sometimes used to aid in recovering a patient from anesthesia after surgery. Those suffering from medical issues such as low blood pressure or persistent exhaustion frequently use them to regain awareness and attention swiftly. This is until smelling salts in sports became prevalent and embraced in this field.


The question is, when and why do players use smelling salts? Let's dig deeper and read more.




Why do Athletes Use Smelling Salts?


Going back to the mid-1900s, the use of smelling salts for athletes began incorporating into many sports. These inhalants mainly include ammonia gas, which can stimulate respiration, increasing oxygen intake and breathing rate, making sports athletes feel more alert and concentrated. Smelling salts for sports can be beneficial when an a


thlete needs a quick boost during a game, as ammonia inhalants help instantly revitalize and boost their respiratory and neurological systems.


These inhalants are occasionally used to revive athletes feeling dizzy or disoriented due to physical exertion, dehydration, or being struck during a game or competition in sports such as football, hockey, and boxing. They are believed to assist athletes in recovering fast and returning to the game.


NFL football player sniffing salts

Source: Smelling salts are becoming widely used in famous sports events, such as the NFL and Super Bowl.


If we look at statistics, smelling salts are especially popular among football and hockey players who believe this will mitigate the effects of a concussion.


Ammonia inhalants are considered a safe and legal way to quickly revive an athlete who has fainted, but only trained professionals should use them. Side effects such as skin and lung irritation, burns, and other health problems may arise when used excessively or incorrectly.


You can read about smelling salts' safety to learn the proper use of smelling salts.




Why Smelling Salts are Popular Among Hockey Players


For those who have never played hockey, it is one of the world's most chaotic and fast-paced sports. The skaters quickly weave across the ice. The flying puck is small and constantly changes directions, making it difficult for your eyes to follow. Bodies collide with each other and sometimes into the sideboards, resulting in hard body blows. You may find yourself asking how it's even possible for them to keep up with all of these.


Not surprisingly, hockey players use smelling salts to give them the energy and focus they need to process everything that's going on in the field in a matter of seconds. Due to the physical nature of the sport, concussions and physical contact occur often. Thus smelling salts are also used in the NHL to regain consciousness, recover, and quickly get back into the game.


NHL hockey player sniffing salts

NHL team sniffing salts to stay alert and focused


When a hockey player sniffs the salts, the ammonia gas irritates the nose lining. It sets off an inhalation reflex, causing the body to take a deep breath. This deep breath can boost oxygen intake and respiration while also stimulating the nervous system, making the player feel more alert and focused.




What do Smelling Salts do for Football Players


Football is arguably the most physically and mentally demanding sport. Concussions frequently occur due to the nature of the game, which requires defending players to tackle the offensive player possessing the football. Playing the quarterback position can also be very mentally taxing. They are the core playmakers that the entire offense revolves around, and all eyes are on them if mistakes are made.


The NFL and NHL started frequent use of smelling salts dating back to the 1970s. Football players use smelling salts for the same reason as hockey players. They help the players focus and recover quickly from lightheadedness during a game caused by physical exertion or hard tackles, especially to the head. In football, smelling salts are often administered by a team's trainers or medical staff. During games and practices, they will keep a tiny vial of the salts on hand, and if necessary, they will give them to a player.


Player George Kittle smelling salts

Source: 49ers tight end George Kittle smelling salts during the game to improve focus and energy


According to ESPN The Magazine, it is estimated that 80% of NFL players are smelling salt users. In the National Football League, smelling salts are particularly popular among defensive linemen and similar positions that experience a lot of physical contact during the game.


When an NFL player smells salts, the vital ammonia gas stimulates their respiratory system, increasing their oxygen intake and breathing rate and making them more alert and focused.




What is Smelling Salt in Boxing


Starting in the early 20th century, boxers began using smelling salts during boxing matches to keep themselves going after a particularly tough blow to the head and regain focus for the next round. Often, in theory, the ammonia inhalants "revived" the fighter enough that he would stay conscious long enough to finish the match. In fact, was not the proper usage of smelling salts nor the goal.




Why are Smelling Salts Banned in Boxing


In the 1970s, smelling salts were eventually banned in boxing because they can hide concussion symptoms. This isn't due to the inherent dangers of ammonia gas. Ammonia gas is not inherently dangerous as our bodies even produce it, but its use in boxing may mask more severe injuries.


For example, if smelling salts for boxers are used to revive a fighter who has been knocked out, they might not be able to recognize that they have a concussion.


Reviving a boxer using smelling salts

Trainer using smelling salt to help boxer regain consciousness from the heavy blow


When someone is injured or passed out during boxing, there's a logical reason they were knocked out. Their body is telling them to go to sleep or stay unconscious. Suppose someone requires smelling salts to be revived. In that case, it is assumed that there is a more significant medical issue, such as head trauma or concussion, and they should not return to the ring.


Boxing officials now recognize that the use of smelling salts must end to protect the safety of boxers, although it was once overlooked. Ammonia inhalants should only be used when someone is conscious or needs to increase alertness and focus. They should not be used to deal with the effects of boxing blows.




Are Smelling Salts Legal


Yes, smelling salts are legal and commonly used in various sports and medical settings. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies them as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. They are available for purchase at many drug stores and online.


While smelling salts have been banned in boxing for years, they are still legal and used in many sports. There has been a rise in their use in the past ten years, especially in football and hockey, where jarring hits can make one woozy. Almost every major sports team uses and relies on sniffing salts for peak performance & awareness. If you look on any sideline from football, baseball, and hockey, there are capsules and smelling salt packets for athletes.




Athletes Using Smelling Salts


Smelling salts have become popular among many famous football, hockey, and boxing athletes. Some key players who have openly admitted or known to use them include Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky, and even Muhammed Ali. These athletes are among the best in their respective sports and have helped bring attention to their benefits.


Tom Brady was found sniffing salts

Patriots QB Tom Brady was found sniffing salts on the bench


  • Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, is known for his use of smelling salts before and during games. He has been using them for many years and has often been seen smelling them on the sidelines.


  • Wayne Gretzky, a pro Hockey player and Hall of Famer in the NHL, is known to have used them before every game for a jolt of energy. He has also been seen using them on the bench during his coaching years for the Coyotes.


  • Muhammed Ali, an American boxing legend in the 20th century, was said to have used smelling salts during an iconic match against British star Henry Cooper. After a near knockout blow dealt by the latter in the 4th round, Ali's trainer Dundee used them to help him regain consciousness quickly. Ali quickly turned the tables in round 5 and eventually won the fight.


In conclusion, smelling salts have become popular among many famous sports athletes. These athletes have brought attention to the many benefits of smelling salts. Using smelling salts is considered a testament to athletes' commitment to being at their best on the field.


But, ammonia inhalants are not exclusive to athletes alone. They are also common in the gym.




What are Smelling Salts Used for in the Gym?


Weightlifters and other athletes use smelling salts for gym to prepare for a strong lift or intense exercise mentally. The potent ammonia gas can stimulate the respiratory system and increase alertness, attention, and energy, benefiting athletes who need an extra energy boost and motivation for a complex lift.


Using smelling salts in weightlifting

Powerlifter uses a lot of energy and concentration for heavy lift


Athletes often use smelling salts when weightlifting or working out at the gym because it helps them recover quickly from collapsing or feeling unsteady. These sensations can occur during or after a workout due to physical exertion or rigorous training.


It's worth mentioning that the use of smelling salts for lifting is debatable, with some experts raising concerns about the potential hazards. Overuse or misapplication of ammonia inhalants can pose some health risks.


Furthermore, some may become overly dependent on them to perform effectively, which can be dangerous. That is why it is advisable to learn its proper use.




Best Smelling Salts for Athletes


Many people are becoming increasingly conscious of the potentially harmful effects of artificial chemicals in the most readily available products, causing a shift toward healthier and more natural alternatives.


As a result, healthier options for smelling salts, such as Native Salts became popular among athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and anyone wanting a quick energy and focus boost.


Natural smelling salts for athletes

Native Salts is an all-natural healthy, smelling salt that is best for athletes.


Unlike traditional chemical-based products, Native Salts are produced using all-natural ingredients and formulated with health safety at their core. Furthermore, they create a perfect aroma that you will undoubtedly enjoy for daily use. These organic and aromatic smelling salts have been distributed nationwide from ordinary people to professional athletes since 2018. For those who want to stay refreshed and healthy while getting the alertness and energy they need for their sport, Native Salts is one of the best quality options for smelling salts.


Native Salts are handcrafted, made, packed, and shipped with care in Chicago, Illinois. If you want to try all-natural smelling salts on your next play, you can get them here by clicking the "Get Native Salts" button below.











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