The Psychology Behind Scenting Your Home

That $80 candle is more powerful than you think.

by Erika Stalder
Originally Published: 
TZR/ Stocksy

Within every boss b*tch, autumn girl, and coastal grandmother starter pack, there’s a candle scented to deliver the air of an empowered sex (Nomad Noe Lover in Jerusalem), the comfort of coffee and brioche (Bath & Body Works Paris Café Candle), and a beachy microclimate (Kai Skylight Candle), respectively. But are such targeted scents anything more than excellent marketing aimed at gassing up our deepest aspirations? Just what do we expect to get from burning a goop x Heretic This Smells Like My Vagina Candle anyway? Anyone who has walked through the custom-scented lobby of a luxury hotel, lingered over denim in an Abercrombie & Fitch, or tele-worked in Soho House knows there’s more to scenting a space (a practice dubbed as ‘scentscaping’) than capturing the latest microtrend or even appealing to our best selves. Like with fragrances worn on the body, there’s a psychology to home scents in that they can stimulate all kinds of emotions and behavior.

That’s because the part of the brain where emotion and emotional memory are processed, the amygdala, is activated as soon as we smell something. This immediate activation helps explain why scent can trigger the recall of specific memories (like the backyard blooms from your childhood home) and conjure general emotions (a sense of freedom), and why some candles are calibrated to capture specific moods.

“All of our experiences with scent are inherently emotional because our conscious perception of scent is processed in the same area of the brain that processes emotion,” says Rachel Herz, PhD, a Brown University adjunct professor, author, and cognitive neuroscientist with 30 years expertise in the psychological science of smell, emotion, and cognition.

Scent’s connection to emotion is so strong, that fragrance in a space has the power to capture a mood even when we don’t have specific experiences or scent memories to draw from. Take lavender, a scent shown in studies to reduce anxiety in new mothers and babies during bathtime, preoperative patients, and nursing students preparing for tests, among other groups. It’s likely that some study participants may not have had a personal history to which an emotional connection or specific association to lavender could be tied. But a collective sense of relaxation could be reported, due in part to fragrance’s power to affect our moods. “Even if we don't have a past experience with a particular scent with us, we will get some sort of emotional arousal or tone of emotionality because of where scent is processed in the brain,” Herz explains.

What we learn through cultural assimilation can further tether a collective association of scent with mood. “The common experience has all to do with marketing,” Herz says. “We get the meaning [of the scent] on the basis of how it is delivered to us through media and marketing information.” Enter candles, diffusers, and other home fragrance products scented — and packaged — to capture a mood, like Anecdote Adulting Candle, labeled with the phrase, “smells like early nights and steady paychecks.” In a single candle, the brand sells security via attractive packaging and olfactory notes of fig and cashmere. Less specific are the countless number of the aforementioned lavender-fragranced products that are branded as “calming” — well, in American culture anyway.

As Olivia Jezler, founder of scent consultancy firm Future of Smell points out, the marketing of a scent from culture to culture can make the difference between something that’s associated with purity and the drudgery of housework. Jezler recalls a popular lingerie retailer who just couldn’t come up with a citrus fragrance that would sell: “For its less-affluent demographic, citrus could remind them of their work and cleaning,” she says.

Whether our brain’s response to scent is due to our own experiences, cultural associations, or a deluge of messaging on product labels or TikTok, there’s no denying a fragrance’s power to conjure emotion or inspire certain behaviors: Studies have shown shoppers are more likely to spend time in a scented environment than one that is not; smokers’ cravings to be reduced by olfactory cues; and a reduction in accidents and increase in productivity among factory workers with the introduction of lemon scent in the air.

Creating Your Home’s Customized Scents

With research like this in your back pocket, it may be compelling to plant lemon or other scented items around our living spaces in order to stoke certain moods or behaviors. If the Nette Spring 1998 Candle is made to take us back to life before social media for example, (via notes of neroli, magnolia, and creamy musk), then who are we to get in the way of conjuring a simpler time? But no matter how cleverly a home fragrance item is marketed, our own scent memories tend to override those of the collective, says Sally Augustin, PhD, an environmental psychologist who uses sensory experiences to help people accomplish their goals. For example, this means even if the scent of lemon tends to invigorate a workforce in studies, it can have the opposite effect for those who have had personal experiences that cause the brain to negatively associate with lemon.

“It's very hard, if not impossible, to overcome our associations to specific scents, because we store this information in a really primordial part of the brain,” she says. “You can't deny the associations that you have to a particular scent, so you always have to logic check whatever the science tells you because although something might be true for a population at large, you, as the individual, could have some sort of extenuating circumstance.”

This is why the scent experts TZR spoke to stress the importance of emitting scents within your home that truly speak to you, personally.

Jezler suggests asking yourself questions like: What values do you want to instill while in a space? What do you want to feel while in a space? “It’s really about developing an understanding of what you want to feel and finding everyday smells that elicit these associations and emotional states,” she says. “Once you find these everyday smells, then it becomes easier to find ready-made objects that emit these scents.” In the end, you may notice your best scent to optimize work-from-home productivity may have more to do with, say, coffee beans, than the lemony zip attached to general research studies or home fragrance products marketed as “energizing.”

For her part, Herz suggests paying attention to what you experience from certain scents and “realizing the enriching, expanding, and powerful nature of certain scents, along with how to manipulate [them] to create a specific mood.”

Developing a sharper sense of which fragrances stimulate, mellow, or otherwise contribute to mood also serves as a daft skill set for entertaining at home. When designing a scentscape for others, falling back on cultural cues can help create an ambience that feels right for the occasion. For example, while the aroma of baked goods might deliver a sense of comfort to you personally, a group of intimates might find the fragrance too cloying and sweet; instead, try to convey a relaxed energy with a scent that’s more conventionally cozy (vanilla anchored by musk or woody-but-fresh scents like bergamot, vetiver, and ylang ylang) — and remember, less is more. “Scenting will be most effective, particularly for people who might visit your space, if it’s subtle,” Augustin notes.

Calibrate Proper Dosing

Because the nose-to-brain-to-mood journey is so complicated, managing one’s own scent worlds, as Dr. Agustin calls it, becomes more than just creating an olfactory mood board of happy smells. After we’ve identified which scents works for us, we have to then consider the dosing of those scents to optimize their magic.

Reaching for strongly scented products may feel intuitive when looking to fragrance a space. As Spate Co-Founder Yarden Horwitz points out, "during lockdown, consumers treated home-care as self-care, [and] we noted rising searches for 'strong scented candles' — a solution to the collective loss of smell caused by COVID." But research shows that constant exposure to an ambient scent (no matter how well tailored to our happy place) means we’ll eventually fail to detect it. “When you’re actively in the process of smelling something, a physiological phenomena takes place that allows you to lose the ability to detect that scent within minutes,” Dr. Herz says.

Using pricey products to release a scent for hours on end can literally burn money. And if you live with exposure to scent non-stop? “It can take about two weeks for you to be released from your desensitization to it and then be able to smell it again when you are exposed to it,” Dr. Herz says.

To get the most from your home fragrance products, use them intentionally and as needed. That means burning a candle you find uplifting right before and while you sit down to bang out a work project or using an app-powered smart air freshener, like Pura, to release a home version of, say, your feel-good Ellis Brooklyn perfume when getting ready to go out. To this end, Jezler likes using a diffuser to mellow the potency of essential oils (which, she points out, are excreted by a plant to ward off predators and, therefore, are very strong). She also favors diffusers to scent a room on an auto-timed session. Vitruvi Stone Diffuser not only looks chic, it fragrances rooms in four and eight-hour run times.

The space-scenting expert also suggests an often-forgotten mode of scenting the home that’s seeing a resurgence. “Incense has been very trendy over the last two years and it’s a great way to control scent,” she says. “After a specific amount of time, the stick or cone will stop burning and from there, slowly dissipate.” According to data research firm Spate, search for agarwood incense is driving significant growth year-over-year within the home fragrance and aromatherapy category, up 78.8%. Those triggered by sticks that reek of patchouli will be pleasantly surprised by more sophisticated offerings from Aesop.

As Dr. Herz notes, we just need but a moment with a fragrance to benefit from its mood and behavior-altering effects. That’s why she advocates for the use of aromatic sprays, a quick sniff from a bottle or a strategic dab scent to deliver a hit of the good stuff precisely when needed. “If you’re constantly smelling a scent, within a number of minutes you’ll stop being able to detect it as well,” she says.

Studio Sandovol makes a suite of non-aerosol interior sprays meant to spruce a room, but can also be used to scent sheets, towels, furniture, clothing and even your skin (thanks to essential oils inside that are free from synthetics, additives, or synthetic binders). With bergamot, sandalwood, vetiver, geranium, and lavender, the Alchemy blend has become a favorite. Homecourt Room Deodorant is a spray meant to mask lingering odors in the kitchen, using sophisticated scents often reserved for candles. Even a spritz not designed to fragrance serious square footage can create a quick mood boost: Osea Vagus Nerve Pillow Spray delivers a moment of zen before lights out without permeating the whole room.

No matter how you scent your space — whether burning a candle targeted to your TikTok search or spritzing a botanically-driven room spray that connects to your unique lived experience — it turns out that scenting the home is anything but basic. Do it intentionally, and you may just tap unique brainwaves to manifest your goals, whatever they may be.

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