Powers of Scent

headaches healing indoor air lungs nose Jan 23, 2019

by Sophia Ruan Gushée


The scent of coffee invigorates me, and gets me excited for a sip.

The scent of essential oils relaxes me.

The scent of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg are ones I associate with Thanksgiving and the ensuing holiday season.

The scent of baby powder conjures images of darling, delicate baby clothes and even an image of a baby. Sometimes, I can even almost hear a baby coo.

And the lingering "baby smell" of my six-year-old daughter leads me to smell harder and wish that I could cling to her fading early childhood stage.

How do scents and odors influence you?


Scents Influence Our Mood, Desires, and Behavior

Smells—of scents and odors—influence our taste, memories, desires (for food, people, and flowers), appetite, productivity, creativity, purchasing behavior, and generosity. 

Some companies use scents to reinforce a brand. For example, a spa may use a unique fragrance to distinguish its spa experience. (1)

Some retailers use artificial scents to get us to buy or give more. (1) For example, some companies stimulate our desires with the following artificial scents:

  • Baked cookies
  • Fresh brewed coffee
  • Citrus-scented Windex (it can make some people more generous)

Scents can also be used by companies and professionals to promote creative problem solving, productivity, performance, and the tendency to help others. In an article by Rachel S. Herz, an assistant professor of psychology at Brown University (2), she writes:

For example, people exposed to the smells of baking cookies or roasting coffee were more inclined to help a stranger than people not exposed to an odor manipulation. People who worked in the presence of a pleasant smelling air freshener also reported higher self-efficacy, set higher goals and were more likely to employ efficient work strategies than participants who worked in a no-odor condition. Pleasant ambient odors have also been found to enhance vigilance during a tedious task and improve performance on anagram and word completion tests. Conversely, the presence of a malodor reduced participants subjective judgments and lowered their tolerance for frustration.


Scents Warn Us

Certain odors can protect us. For example, a foul odor warns us from eating and drinking something that may make us sick.

When I was pregnant, the odor of gasoline made me so nauseous that I had to bolt from the gasoline fumes. Years later, I learned that the benzene in gasoline fumes threaten the DNA of an exposed child, even from in utero.

"Wow," I thought. "Thank you, body, for triggering such strong symptoms that they prompted me to take precautionary measures for my child!"

Below are some odors that warn you of toxic fumes:

  1. Cooking: Make sure to ventilate!
  2. Burning: Avoid inhaling burning fumes, and think about fresh air flow so toxic fumes are not trapped in your breathing space
  3. Expired food or beverages (like milk): Don't eat food that smells bad!

And loss of smell may be an early sign of Alzheimer's since smell is related to parts of the brain that are affected early on in Alzheimer’s disease (4).


Scents Affect Memory

The hardwiring between smells and memories have a unique connection in our brains. Often, smells trigger memories from before ten years of age. But, often, these memories are not of facts but of emotions and sensations. The video below explains further.


Scents Influence our Purchasing Behavior

As I began going fragrance-free, I noticed emotional attachments to certain products. Certain bath and shower products reminded me fondly of self-care rituals during my high school years. And those memories were layered with additional fond feelings around that time in my life.

But fragrance is a source of unhealthy exposures, like to endocrine disrupting chemicals. Breaking up with certain products was helped by acknowledging that my attachment to certain products were not necessarily to the product but to the relationship it allowed me to maintain with fond feelings for the past.

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Below is a TEDx Talk that discusses further how scents in products are intentionally designed to influence consumer behavior: attachments. Please watch it as it can help you detox your products.


Can Scents Promote Healing?

The science has not found strong evidence that aromatherapy affects healing. However, a few studies suggest essential oils via aromatherapy may help:

The placebo effect may help too: You may experience benefits from simply believing that there are benefits from aromatherapy. 

It is also possible that aromatherapy may indeed help some people biochemically, even though science has not yet proved it. Talk to your trusted healthcare providers if you're interested in exploring this further.


In Summary

Scents are active participants in our experiences. Most of the time, we are unaware of how our choices and moods are affected by scents. However, as we take this month to love the nose and its service to us, let's start noticing scents too. 

  • Notice if you want to buy something (like food) because you noticed the smell of freshly baked cookies. 
  • Notice if you recognize a distinct smell in certain restaurants, stores, spas, or products. Does it seem to influence your behavior?
  • Notice if you are attached to a product or habit because the smell evokes sentimental memories or feelings from childhood.
  • When you notice the smell of cooking, burning, or foul odors, then take precautionary measures.
  • As you start to notice odors, also notice if they seem associated with any symptoms, like headaches, nausea, dizziness, or skin reactions.

Please follow this exploration by subscribing to my monthly email newsletter (click below), and follow me on Instagram or Facebook. Please share any comments, insights, or questions on Instagram, Facebook, or email.


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Related Content You May Like



(1) "Smell Manipulation: The subliminal power of scent" by Rachel Herz Ph.D. in Psychology Today; Posted Jan 06, 2011

(2) "Do scents affect people's moods or work performance?" by Rachel S. Herz, an assistant professor of psychology at Brown University in Scientific American; posted Nov 11, 2002

(3) "You Asked: Does Aromatherapy Really Work?" by MARKHAM HEID in TIME; July 20, 2016

(4) "Smell and Eye Tests Offer Potential for Predicting Alzheimer’s: Detecting signs of decline could help people pursue possible therapies earlier" by Rita Rubin, July 27, 2016/Updated Aug. 24, 2017 in AARP

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About Ruan Living

Ruan Living simplifies a nontoxic lifestyle through its Practical Nontoxic Living podcast, free detox workshops, online D-Tox Academy, and transformative 40-Day Home Detox. It aims to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from what you buy, own, and do— without compromising your joy and convenience. Ruan was founded by Sophia Ruan Gushée, author of the bestselling critically acclaimed book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Your Toxic Exposures and several detox workbooks. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, Sophia has served on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and Well+Good Council. A popular nontoxic living speaker, consultant, and teacher, Sophia lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her passion for empowering others to enjoy nontoxic living began with the birth of her first daughter in 2007. Everything she creates is a love letter to her children and for the healthiest, brightest future possible. You can learn more here: Sophia’s Impact.


This article is for informational purposes only. This information is provided “as is” without warranty.

It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. We do not offer medical advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or any other opinion on your conditions or treatment options. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Ruan Living.

In no event will Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living be liable for any damages or loss of any kind resulting from the use of this website. Anyone relying upon or making use of the information on this website does so at his or her own risk.

Some of the services and products recommended on this website provide compensation to Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living. All recommendations are based foremost upon an honest belief that the product, service, or site will benefit our site visitors in some way.  

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