The term self-care first flashed across my feeds, as it did for a lot of people, after the 2016 election. The concept wasn’t new, but it dovetailed perfectly with the moment. As stress levels surged for over half of all American citizens—this according to the American Psychological Association, but undoubtedly true anecdotally as well—many turned to pampering themselves, especially their skin, as though they'd been neglected for years. (See: the myriad of think pieces on “skincare” that followed.) The unspoken belief being, of course, that if you nourish your outer self, your inner self will heal.
This version of self-care has driven our growing fascination with aesthetic treatments (and sales, of course), but at least one product is banking on a coming turn to mental self-care: The Ghost, a luxury vaporizer whose latest design, the MV1, already has a waiting list ahead of its launch and has slickly packaged the notion of ingesting herbs as homeopathic remedies. As with skincare or juicing, another health and wellness trend the Ghost's makers liken their product to, the goal is to curate an organic self-care routine.
“We’re at this time when there are so many people looking to try out different things related to health and wellness,” Tara Kelly, the company’s president, told me over the phone. “If you’re leading a healthy and active lifestyle, it’s an alternative to things like drinking coffee or what you’ve used to relax… The herbal vaping community has been around for years, but [this] is the product to take herbal vaping mainstream.”
It goes something like this: Instead of waking up to a green tea—an antioxidant that can do everything from improve your blood flow and lower your cholesterol to improve memory—just vape it. Rather than getting an afternoon energy boost from a cup of coffee, stick some mint in your vaporizer. For a restful night of sleep, try vaping lavender or Blue Lotus, a sacred flower used by the Egyptians to relax. I did all of these things over the course of two weeks.
Initially, the prospect of starting my day by vaping green tea with mint felt exciting. I wouldn't have to wait until my usual morning cup cooled down or, if I was taking it in my car, I wouldn't be in constant danger of splashing it on myself. Here's the spoiler, though: I discerned no benefits from it. Vaping lavender and Blue Lotus, on the other hand, had an undeniable calming effect on me, the strongest testimonial being that I used my Ghost (full disclosure: provided to me by the company) to get through the middle of my workday as the racket of a neighbor’s construction project rattled my house. Another day, I vaped both mint and peppermint before a massage and, instead of fixating on my endless to-do list, I actually dozed off.
The part of me that would have worried over my tasks, though, wondered if the momentary zen I achieved had something to do with the deep breathing that is part of using the Ghost; after the shiny device vibrates, you inhale each puff for about five seconds. But, then again, does the science even matter if it works?
The more I reached for my Ghost and the tiny jars of herbs littering my dining room table in a makeshift apothecary, the more I questioned why the idea of vaporizing herbs in the name of self-care left a weird taste in my mouth. As humans in a tech-powered world—and, especially, as someone who relies on a cold, metal machine for a living—we’re constantly searching for a connection with nature, or at least a semblance of it. The industry behind the natural beauty movement, which grew by 7 percent (compared with a beauty overall growth rate of 2 percent) in 2015, according to Fast Company, is selling that principle at its core.
And that's where vaping herbs feels at best like a slight dissonance and at worst a fallacy: Can we truly become more aligned with the natural world while using technology to get there?
For the herbalist Nikki Smorodin, who works as a consultant for Ghost, the answer is yes. “What you’re getting is pure oils from the plants, and those are similar things you’d be ingesting through herbal teas or essential oils,” she explained on the phone with Kelly. “There’s no smoke or carbon by-products; it’s just components of the plants.” The effect is immediate: “When you use a herbal tea for mood, mental health, stress, sleep, cold and flu, energy, herbs are passing through the digestive system first, so the nice thing about vaporizing is you’re getting herbs directly into the bloodstream safely so you can have higher and quicker impact,” Smorodin said. “I would say that’s especially noticeable with mood for things like stress and sleep.”
The biggest health hazard associated with vaping herbs is choosing the wrong ones. “Make sure you use herbs that have time-tested safety records and don’t go too off-the-book,” she said. “The one herb class I would stay away from are herbs like cedar and large doses of sage. You can vaporize sage, and the FDA has listed sage tea as safe substance—it’s just something that I say to be aware of.” Another determinant for whether or not an herb is a vaping candidate is how it was grown, as LiveStrong notes. “It’s really important to get organic herbs,” Smorodin said. “I would urge people to eat organic, and it’s the same thing for vaporizing.”
Just as you wouldn’t drink organic tea from a thermos that contained BPA, how you’re ingesting herbs matters. “It’s night and day,” said Kelly, referring to the difference between using the Ghost—the "Tesla of vaporizers," according to her—and using a lower-end vaporizer, which she likened to “chugging fine wine.” The biggest selling point of the Ghost, though, may not actually be its utility as a health and wellness accessory to vaporize herbs; it’s the device itself. On the one hand, it’s a bulky, ergonomic contraption nearly the width and height of an iPhone and looks ridiculous on the street. I got more than a few weird looks while using mine outside of my house. But it’s portable, and the cumbersome design also has a battery that’s stronger than any other vaporizers on the market. It’s nearly odorless, too, although the higher the temperature you vape at—which can be be controlled with the flick of your finger on the Ghost app—the more smoke you’ll get, as I discovered. To that point, the learning curve is relatively quick, especially because almost every function has its own button, unlike, say, the PAX, a comparable product that requires a Morse code–like series of clicks to change its settings.
In fact, that was one of its biggest selling points for me, a former user of PAX and hmbdlt’s Dose pen, because the mouthpiece didn’t overheat and, after repeated use, my lungs didn't feel as though I had just taken a torch to them.
The biggest difference, though, between the Ghost and other vaporizers is that the Ghost doesn’t contain any chemical by-products, unlike vape pens. When I asked my acupuncturist and herbalist, who specializes in Chinese medicine, about the idea of vaporizing herbs, his knee-jerk response was concern, because he couldn’t imagine that vaporizing herbs would be completely clean. (According to a 2007 study by the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics on the desktop vaporizer the Volcano, which is used specifically for marijuana, vaporizing one herb—cannabis—is completely safe.) But not long after, he acquiesced and said, “We digest herbs, so why can’t we smoke them?”
“There’s been such a stigma around vaporizing,” Smorodin said, “but I think that’s slowly going away as people realize the benefits and distinguish between e-cigarettes.” (The stigma is so real that Ghost Vapes, a company that is advertising the MV1 for use with legal herbs, not marijuana, declines to name its co-founder, who come from tech and e-commerce, or its celebrity fans.) The de-stigmatization of vaporizers is perhaps unsurprisingly starting with marijuana in states like California, where recreational smoking is legal. According to a spokesperson for MedMen, one of Los Angeles’s first weed dispensaries to be approved to sell recreationally, vaporizers are becoming more of a household item. “The vape market is the most saturated to emerge in recent memory,” said the spokesperson. “This is due to the new customers in the market who are seeking healthier alternatives to smoking and/or something more discrete in terms of smell. I have not heard of people using vaporizers to smoke dry herbs, although there is a market for vape products which utilize essential oils mixed in with cannabis distillate.”
As I found while experimenting with the Ghost, vaping herbs is nice but vaping them with marijuana is even nicer. After some rookie mistakes—grinding my tea instead of packing it loose leaf, overloading the chamber (the ideal amount is three-quarters so airflow isn’t restricted), setting the temperature too low—I began filling the tiny crucible with the finesse and painstaking confidence of a craft bartender. I mixed lavender with indica, the kind of weed that puts you to sleep, before turning in for the night. I added mint to a hybrid of indica and sativa for an afternoon pick-me-up.
The more I experimented with the Ghost MV1, though, the less I found it to be like juicing, a health and wellness trend that’s seemingly already ridden its course in a market like L.A's. There are certainly similarities: questionable benefits, the inherent privilege of partaking (the Ghost MV1 is priced at $295), a near-bloated marketplace. But, juicing is about depriving your body of something in order to improve it, and vaporizing herbs is about nourishment and sourcing directly from the earth. As health and wellness figurehead Taryn Toomey recently explained to me about trends of the moment like crystals and juicing, “You can strip out the idea of crystals, science, whatever. If it’s making you feel better, it’s working.”