There’s nothing like scent to create a mood or uplift downcast spirits, says Elsa Krüger, and in winter you can easily enhance your home’s cosiness with fragrances from diffusers, candles or essential oils.
From the gentle fragrance of potpourri in a grand mansion to the heady tang of incense wafting through majestic cathedrals, people have been scenting their surroundings for centuries. And since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a marked increase in the use of home fragrance items, as shown by the metres of retail space dedicated to scented candles, reed diffusers, sonic aroma diffusers and essential oils and by the rapid expansion of the online market for these products.
As a feel-good trend, the hidden power of scent to lift one’s mood and sense of well-being, to induce relaxation and even to contribute to better sleep is now being harnessed to turn our homes into fragrant cocoons and create specific auras or moods.
Real estate agents swear by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee or an onion in the oven to create a welcoming aura for prospective buyers. Kate Middleton famously had Jo Malone Orange Blossom Candles lit in Westminster Abbey for her wedding ceremony because, says an expert from fragrance brand Jo Malone London, in aromatherapy a sparkling citrus scent has uplifting powers and brings energy and sparkle.
The power of scent
According to John McGann, an associate professor in the psychology department of Rutgers University in New Jersey, “A scent is a chemical particle that floats in through the nose and into the brain’s olfactory bulbs, where the sensation is first processed into a form that’s readable by the brain. Brain cells then carry that information to a tiny area of the brain called the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and then to the adjoining hippocampus, where learning and memory formation take place.
“Scents are the only sensations that travel such a direct path to the emotional and memory centres of the brain. All other senses first travel to a brain region called the thalamus, which acts like a ‘switchboard’, relaying information about the things we see, hear or feel to the rest of the brain, but scents bypass the thalamus and reach the amygdala and the hippocampus in a synapse or two.”
This results in an intimate connection between a person’s sense of smell and their emotions and memories, which is why memories triggered by smells rather than other cues – such as sight or sound – are “experienced as more emotional and more evocative”, says Rachel Herz, an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University in Rhode Island and the author of The Scent of Desire (Harper Perennial, 2018). A familiar but long-forgotten scent can even bring people to tears, she adds.
In the burgeoning wellness industry, aromatherapy has always been an important element. According to research by the Sense of Smell Institute, which falls under The Fragrance Foundation in the USA, you can improve your mental and physical health by being mindful of the way certain scents affect you.
A scent gains personal meaning only once you associate it with something important. The olfactory centre of the brain also has direct interaction with the hippocampus, where new memories are created and shaped.
The loss of sense of smell, known as anosmia, can lead to depression. It can also be an early indicator of neurological problems like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases, and scientists are currently researching how the sense of smell may be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
Certain fragrances are also used to cope with pain, while savvy students study with a certain scent in the room and carry the same scent with them during exams to enhance their memory. Marie Kondo, the queen of tidiness, does her morning meditation with incense – it determines how her day goes, she says – and chooses botanical scents to clear the air. At night she uses a diffuser with essential oils.
Whether you prefer incense, oil burners, diffusers, room sprays or fragrant candles, one thing is clear: the well-dressed modern home is also a well-scented space.
Scent your home to suit your style
Your home reflects your personality not simply by how it looks, but also by how it smells. This became clear during the pandemic lockdowns, when most of us were confined to our homes for long periods of time and we realised the need to create a home that is a safe and fragrant, feel-good haven and one that says: “This is me”.
There are many different fragrances to choose from and you’re sure to find one you can identify with. Here are a few guidelines to point the way.
Millennial minimalism: If you like your space clutter-free, try using a diffuser and reeds that give off clean, green scents of peppermint, eucalyptus, lemongrass and freshly cut grass. Note, though, eucalyptus and tea tree oil need to be treated with caution; they can cause seizures in pets.
Contemporary: You like trendy metal and glass, with neutral colours. Try the tangy, zesty scents of citrus fruits.
Industrial, raw, rustic: New York City loft is your style, with raw bricks and open pipework. Scent it with fragrances of sandalwood, cedarwood and oud wood.
Zen: Simple does it, with bamboo, a white and beige colour scheme and lots of house plants. Incense and citrus smells mixed with warm spices such as cloves and cinnamon will define this style.
Urban modern: Your furniture is big and bold, with heritage pieces that create a comfortable, elegant harmony between old and new. Try jasmine, nutmeg and cinnamon combined with the scents of moss and grass.
Scandinavian or farmhouse/lodge: A simple timber interior that is organic, cosy and unpretentious is complemented by woody and smoky incense fragrances.
Beach house: You revel in that relaxed, by-the-seaside feeling? Any aquatic scent – a sea breeze, the earth after a thunderstorm – is what you need.
French or ‘shabby chic’: Your home is ultra feminine with elegant, timeless antiques. Soft flower fragrances and the aromas of dry wood and a crackling fire will add the finishing touches.
Mediterranean: Pillars, arches and stone walls, highlighted by shades of terracotta and ochre, are enhanced by scents of fresh basil, rosemary, lavender and vanilla.
Eclectic: With a bit of this, a bit of that, you artfully pull together different styles into a single interesting style of your own. Finish it off with oriental, woody green scents such as sandalwood and patchouli.
Bohemian: You’re a free spirit who likes to be surrounded by nature inside as well as outside your home. Aromas of moss and wood, sage and jasmine, potpourri and incense add to your comfort.
Where to find home scenting products
Most homeware and interior shops offer a wide range of home scenting products. International designer brands such as Jo Malone can be found on the internet and there is a wealth of online outlets selling fragrances to make your home smell exactly how you would like it to. Prices vary from affordable to a tiny fortune. Try to buy natural, organic, pure essential oils and botanical products, as synthetic oils and fragrances tend to lose their scent very quickly.
- SOiL (most pharmacies and online)
- Faithful to Nature (online)
- Skins Cosmetics
- Aromatic Apothecary
- Acqua di Parma
- Healing Earth
- Lampe Berger Parfum de Maison
Scents of winter
Each season has its own scents. We associate winter with fireplaces and pine cones, wholesome soups on the stove and the aromas of fresh bread, oranges and lemons, and hearty stews. They bring a feeling of nostalgia, but also a sense of well-being. You can enhance that sense with essential oils that will calm, energise or soothe, as you wish.
- Cinnamon: soothes an overwhelmed psyche and combats fatigue.
- Myrrh: smoky and a tad bitter, it anchors the emotions.
- Tonka bean: smells of biscuits in the oven; it’s also a known aphrodisiac.
- Lavender: enhances sound sleep and soothes anxiety, depression and a sense of helplessness.
- Ginger: soothes anxiety, relieves indigestion and promotes mental and emotional well-being.
- Pine (cones or needles): reminiscent of Christmas, it lifts feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
- Lime: lights up a dark mood and creates a sense of buoyancy.
- Lemon: enhances alertness and promotes mindfulness.
- Mandarin/naartjie: relieves stress, creating a sense of joy, especially when you’re overworked and feeling burnt out.
- Cloves: promote self-confidence and spiritual as well as physical healing and strength.
- Frankincense: reminiscent of Christmas and old cathedrals, its earthy, woody scent is anchoring and protective when times are tough.
- Vanilla: calms and lifts the spirits while creating a welcoming atmosphere; also good as an aphrodisiac.