Smelling Salts: Are Ammonia Inhalants Safe and Effective for Resistance Training?

If you’ve ever spectated any sort of strength contest you may have noticed three prevailing smells:

-Sweat and general BO (we’ll call this hard work)

-Icyhot/biofreeze/tiger balm along with any other topical pain relief creams

-And the immediately noticeable eye watering scent of ammonia in the air…

Smelling salt use has been popularized in strength sports and regular athletics alike as a way for an athlete to hype themselves up with a quick burst of energy. In medicine ammonia inhalants are used as a way to wake semi-unconscious or fully unconscious individuals.

But are these inhalants safe? Are they actually doing anything beyond smelling bad and making your eyes water? Here’s what we currently know about the use of smelling salts for athletics.

1. What are Ammonia Inhalants?:

Smelling salts are most typically referring to a combination of ammonium carbonate (a solid form of ammonia that when mixed with water creates ammonia gas) as well as perfume to try and mask some of the…to say the least…strong smell of ammonia gas. However, some cheaper “smelling salts” sold online can just be ammonia diluted in water and ethanol and while not considered to be “true” smelling salts will still be marketed as such.

You can find ammonia inhalants in capsules, bottles, and even specifically perfumed to your liking (nothing quite like the smell of strawberries and ammonia).

2. How do Smelling Salts Work?:

Smelling salts work through the inhalation of ammonia gas. Ammonia gas is a respiratory irritant to humans and in irritating the membranes of the nose and lungs causes an inhalation reflex. This “inhalation reflex” is often what gets accredited for smelling salts “hype” effect as it alters our pattern of breathing, resulting in an improved respiratory rate, and generally speaking improved “alertness”.

Most individual’s will describe this feeling as a “fight or flight” response.

3. Is Ammonia Effective for Lifting?:

Answering this question depends on what exactly your definition of “effective” is.

While gym bros everywhere would swear up and down about the almost “magical” effects smelling salts have in increasing energy and improving performance, the actual research we have is usually surprising to hear the first time.

To date, research with ammonia shows that there is no actual physical improvement in terms of muscle performance through the use of smelling salts. In fact, ammonia has done rather poorly to show improvement across a variety of performance tasks. Looking strictly at research, there’s no evidence that would suggest using ammonia would work as a performance enhancer.

So why the insane popularity of smelling salts then? 

Due to having no current indication that smelling salts are physically improving performance, it’s posited that they are instead psychologically improving performance. Whether this is through the improved alertness/focus due to the “inhalation reflex” caused by ammonia gas, or through an athletes own individual belief that smelling salts will make them stronger, it’s hard to say. Smelling salts could very well be one of the best placebo effect products in the athletics industry currently.

This is an area which definitely requires further research. Just understand while anecdotally people will swear by smelling salts (I even like them myself), the hard evidence for their efficacy is lacking.

4. Is this Safe?:

Perhaps you’ve looked down at your ammonia capsule labeled “for medical use only” and wondered…“should I actually be inhaling this stuff?”.

This is usually everyone’s first question when it comes to smelling salts, and not without reason.

For starters, yes. Ammonia gas is dangerous to humans. It is an irritant that can cause burning of the nose and throat as well as skin and eye irritation. It can even go so far as to cause damage to our respiratory system resulting in respiratory distress or failure in large enough doses. It’s corrosive, and in some cases…explosive. Put simply, large concentrations of ammonia gas and humans don’t mix.

This general understanding that ammonia is bad is where the fear of smelling salts comes from. However, it’s good to note that smelling salts are not just a jar of highly concentrated ammonia gas. The dose of ammonia gas you are receiving from the use of smelling salts is extremely low (only enough to cause the intended effects of minor nose and lung irritation). When used as directed (in low doses as a restorative aid) there is currently no research indicating long term negative effects of smelling salts, and even better, no one has died from the use of smelling salts.

Professionals tend to be more concerned with the use of smelling salts in sports like football to ignore concussion symptoms, in training to push past “safe limits”, and when being used to outright ignore injuries, than they are about the actual ammonia gas causing physical damage.

That being said, research into ammonia is not super fleshed out, and when it comes straight down to it, ammonia is admittedly toxic to humans. While the concentration of ammonia gas being inhaled in smelling salts is low enough to be considered reasonably safe, only ever use those substances which you yourself are comfortable with.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.