BY JOANNE SASVARI
There was that time, a few years back, when I came home from a trip, flung open the door and — dear God, what was that smell? I wish I could tell you it was the welcoming aroma of just-picked garden roses, but sadly, it was a noxious blend of wet dog, stinky running shoes and well-aged kitchen scraps. Welcome home!
Since then, I’ve been a little obsessed with home fragrance, especially since we’ve all been forced to spend so much more time within our own four walls. I mean, who doesn’t want their house to smell nice, or at least clean?
But creating a fragrant oasis isn’t as simple as just spraying some Febreze around the place. So we checked in with some local perfumers for their advice.
“Scent is a signalling system for our body,” says Karen Van Dyck, the creator of K Van Dyck Parfum and partner with fellow perfumer Stacey Moore in The Still Room Natural Perfumery in Oak Bay. Unpleasant aromas, she says, alert us to dangers. Pleasant ones, like the smell of baking bread, make us feel nurtured and safe. “For me it is very profound. Connecting through scent is a very powerful way to bring us back into harmony with ourselves, with others and with nature.”
“Scent is emotive,” adds Britt Buntain, founder of the lifestyle brand Picot Collective. “It is important for people to come home and have that scent that transfers them into a more relaxed state of being at ease.”
More than that, says Palma Cafolla, the perfumer and founder of Zingaro Floral Perfumery on Johnson Street, “Scent brings you to a memory. It either brings you to a memory, or it creates a memory. That’s the importance of what scent can do in your home. We create memories and moments.”
‘Spirit of the Plant’
We’ve been adding fragrance to our homes since long before anyone thought to plug in a Glade air freshener.
In ancient Egypt and Greece, scents were used to connect with the gods, and for millennia, fragrant oils and resins were some of the most valuable commodities traded along the ancient Spice Road between Europe and China. By the Elizabethan era, every good wife had what was called a still room, where she (or her servants) used the science of distillation to craft household agents like soaps, simples and furniture polishes.
That tradition inspired the name of Van Dyck and Moore’s store. Moore, who also creates fragrances for her own brand, Flore Botanical Alchemy, uses her still to extract what she calls “spirit water” from local botanicals, many of which she wild crafts. “When you’re distilling a botanical, it’s the spirit of the plant because you use the condensation,” she says.
Pleasant fragrances hide unappealing ones, but more than that, they can trigger emotional responses. Van Dyck points out that it is the oldest part of the brain that reacts to smell, the limbic system, which is also the part of the brain that deals with emotion and memory. “We can pick out our babies and our mates blindfolded,” she adds.
So it was only a matter of time before someone put that power toward making us spend more money.
In the late 1970s, a company called AromaSys introduced the first commercial scent diffuser, which was used to cover the stench of cigarette smoke in Las Vegas casinos. By the 1990s, retailers were wafting fragrances around department stores, and hotel chains were sending them through their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Signature fragrances — like the Westin’s White Tea or W Hotels’ Signature Citron No. 5 — soon followed.
Beauty and Purpose
Choosing a signature fragrance for your own place, though, is a little different. It should be an aroma you like, of course. But scent can also do much more than just smell nice.
“A lot of it is preferential, but I’d definitely introduce lemon, cinnamon, clove, rosemary, thyme and lavender, and the evergreens, because they are antibacterial,” says Van Dyck. Adds Moore, “And the resins, like frankincense and myrrh.”
During the bubonic plagues of the Middle Ages, people fumigated their homes with incense, juniper, laurel and rosemary in an attempt to stave off disease; something to consider as we emerge from a global pandemic caused by an airborne virus. Indeed, Cafolla notes, the word “perfume” evolved from the Latin per fumare, which means something akin to “transported through air.”
“There are a lot of oils and resins that are medicinal,” she adds. “They don’t just have the beauty of scent. They have purposes as well.”
Eucalyptus, for instance, has anti-inflammatory properties that are good for the respiratory system. And the honeyed aroma of beeswax not only elevates mood, but when it burns, produces negative ions that clean the air of dust, mould, bacteria, viruses and pollutants.
Buntain uses honey in a scent called Honey Tobacco, one of three she uses in candles, mists, bath soaks and other products; the others are all-natural plant-derived blends called Wildwood and Refresh. Each has its place in the home.
“You can definitely have more than one fragrance for your home,” she says. “The Honey Tobacco is warm and sweet and a little bit grounded. It’s calming and alluring. I associate that with a bedroom. I want the bathroom to feel fresh and energizing, so I lean to Refresh or Wildwood. And I want a Refresh candle in my kitchen.”
You can — and should — also change up your home’s scent over time. “It’s always day to day and seasonally,” Moore says. “You don’t have to have one scent all the time.”
Cafolla, for instance, has created a signature winter scent called Solstice that is spicy with cloves, cinnamon and mandarin oranges. But summer demands something lighter and fresher. “[Scent] has to create an ambience, depending on the mood you want to create,” she says. “You’re in control of the ambience in your home.”
Candles and More
Perhaps the easiest — and prettiest — way to introduce aromas into your home is by lighting some scented candles. “I will light a candle when I sit down to work. I think having a candle going at your desk creates a space for you,” says Buntain. “I also have a candle lit when I’m taking a bath or shower. It’s a place to decompress and lighting is a big part of that. And it smells lovely.”
She adds: “You’re setting an intention: I’m going to be here for a bit.”
But not just any candle will do. She advises using only candles made from natural ingredients such as soy, coconut and beeswax, and avoiding those made with paraffin, parabens, phthalates and nitro musks.
There are plenty of other all-natural ways to perfume your home:
• Use essential oils in a plug-in diffuser or, for a gentler introduction of aroma, a reed diffuser like the ones Moore has created for Flore.
• Spray spirit water around your room. “They’re safe for everyone, from children to older people,” Moore says. “I wish you could use them in hospitals.” Also, spray your sheets with lavender water and hang sachets in your closet to repel moths.
• Try a “hand cologne” like the ones Van Dyck makes with all-natural, anti-bacterial hyrdosols distilled from flowers and herbs. “They’re used in Morocco a lot, in Egypt and North Africa,” she says.
• Soak lava or ceramic beads with essential oils and arrange them in a bowl by your bedside. Or, Van Dyck suggests, put a few drops of essential oil on felt dryer balls and put them in your vacuum cleaner or dryer. She also advises adapting the antique tradition of “strewing herbs”: Mix dried rosemary and lavender with baking soda and a few drops of essential oil, then sprinkle them on your carpet before vacuuming.
• Use real plants. Hang dried herbs in your kitchen and a branch of eucalyptus in your shower. Fill vases with fresh flowers. “In the kitchen, add a little herb garden, or aromatic plants around the house. Try to add something that has an aromatic scent,” Van Dyck says.
• Keep a pot of water simmering with lemon peel, cloves, a cinnamon stick, rosemary or lavender. “That will clean the air in your house,” Van Dyck says.
The Power of Scent
Scent, Cafolla says, “is just fantastic. It takes away stress. And for years it’s been no scent, no scent, no scent. Well, I hate to break it to you, but we live in a scented world.”
Indeed, so powerful is the sense of smell that when Van Dyck’s children were younger, she would infuse their pencils with rosemary while they were studying — and later, when they were writing their tests, the aroma would remind them of what they had learned.
“It’s one of our strongest senses,” Cafolla says. “It’s important to invest in good scents because that way you’re creating a ritual for yourself. You want to create a moment for yourself. It’s really about getting in touch with your senses again.”
7 Tips for Filling Your Home with Fragrance
Set the mood: Follow the principles of aromatherapy with relaxing lavender, energizing citrus or the warm, cozy ambience of wood notes.
Pick a theme: Choose multiple fragrances with a similar note. For instance, if you like wood scents, place sandalwood candles in different rooms.
Match your scent to your décor: If your home is rustic in style, consider a fresh, natural scent like bergamot. Modern? Try a bright floral. Bohemian? Try something spicy or earthy.
Go with the seasons: In summer, choose light, fresh fragrances. In fall and winter, introduce warming spice and pine notes.
Create layers of aroma: Mix candles, incense, spirit waters, etc., and vary them from room to room. But remember: Too much fragrance can overwhelm a small space.
Take your cue from nature: Use natural ingredients (like beeswax), nature-inspired scents (like pine or lavender) and actual living things, such as potted herbs.
Scent each room: In the kitchen, citrus or green herbals signify cleanliness. Woody notes make a living room feel warm and welcoming. Lavender is relaxing for the bedroom, while the seductive aroma of frankincense suggests something else entirely.