Winter means cozying up by the fire or lighting a candle, with the comforting smells of cinnamon or pine enveloping your house and your senses. Although scented products like candles or perfume are popular and beloved, some may be harmful. Here, we’re breaking down the power of scents so you can choose what’s right for you—this winter and all year long.
Synthetic fragrances, decoded
Research tells us that the synthetic fragrances used in personal care and home products can have a negative impact on our health.
According to a 2023 study published in the Journal of Xenobiotics, synthetic fragrances are often derived from petroleum (a fossil fuel) and can contain dozens, or even hundreds, of chemical components. Product labels do not need to list these ingredients or components, and can instead list “fragrance,” making things trickier for the consumer. Many of these components are potentially harmful, volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Further complicating things is the issue of secondary pollutants, which are formed when the fragrance chemicals react with ozone in the air.
On their own or in combination with others, these fragrance chemicals have the potential to negatively impact our health, contributing to headaches, asthma attacks, allergies, skin irritation, trouble breathing, and even cardiovascular problems. Although some people are more sensitive to scents than others, synthetic scents are thought to be a main contributor to poor indoor air quality.
Can a scent be chemical free? Well, no. Nothing is chemical free. Everything (including synthetic and natural fragrances) is made up of chemicals. Sometimes people use the term “chemical free” to mean that something is naturally derived, or that it doesn’t contain certain ingredients. If you have questions about the language on product packaging or terms used by a company, reach out to ask for more information.
Natural versus synthetic
It is also important to remember that natural does not inherently mean safe, nor does it mean more environmentally friendly. Natural substances can be harmful to our health (think: arsenic) or the environment (think: invasive plants).
What’s most important is to choose products made by reputable companies that engage in sustainability initiatives and use research-backed ingredients and formulas.
Essential oils are potent, fragranced plant extracts that are made by pressing or steaming the leaves, fruits, bark, or flowers of a plant, and are often used in aromatherapy. Historically, aromatherapy can be traced back thousands of years, to ancient Egypt and China. Today, researchers are investigating the power of essential oils in a modern-day context.
It’s important to note that natural fragrances are not without risk. Like their synthetic counterparts, some natural fragrances are volatile and reactive, and research tells us that they too can negatively affect indoor air quality.
At the same time, research on aromatherapy tells us that certain essential oils have the potential to improve our health in various ways. Researchers are actively studying the power of essential oils in a modern-day context. Here are a few examples.
- Tea tree oil is commonly used topically to treat acne, dandruff, athlete’s foot, nail fungus, and lice. It is thought to have antibacterial properties.
- Many people find the scent of lavender oil to be relaxing. Research shows that it may help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression—and may also help with sleep.
- Like lavender, the scent of chamomile has been shown to help relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. One study found that it also helped reduce c-section pain in women.
- Rose essential oil is thought to exert antimicrobial and antioxidant activity. Inhaling the scent of rose water may help reduce anxiety. One small study found that rose aromatherapy helped to reduce anxiety and increase the sleep quality of operating room personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The scent of peppermint essential oil is often used to combat headaches. In a 2019 study involving 120 adults with migraine, nasal application of peppermint oil helped to reduce the intensity and frequency of headaches.
DIY scent solutions
If fragranced products aren’t your thing, try these DIY ways to make your house smell amazing.
- Simmer a stovetop potpourri recipe. (Look online to find one with ingredients you love, like cranberries, ginger, or apple slices.)
- Put on a pot of coffee or bake cookies.
- Hang dried herbs, like bay leaves.
- Decorate for the holidays with evergreen boughs or a sage wreath.
The role of essential oils
A 2021 study published in Molecules explored the idea of essential oils as natural fragrance sources. The researchers acknowledged that essential oils can play several key roles in cosmetics, including acting as preservatives, offering pleasant scents, and providing skin benefits.
Some favorite essential oils used in perfumes include:
Remember, essential oils are very potent. They can cause allergic reactions and are not suitable for everyone. Check with your health care practitioner before using them to make sure they are right for you, and then always read the label and dilute them correctly.
Products labelled “unscented” can contain fragrance ingredients—sometimes just enough to mask the smell of other ingredients in the product.
Fragrance ingredients aren’t the only considerations when it comes to choosing a candle. Consider a candle that uses sustainable beeswax or plant-based wax rather than fossil fuel-derived wax, as well as a natural wick (such as one made from cotton or hemp).
To help keep essential oils fresh and effective, store them in firmly sealed brown bottles in a cool, dark location.
Scent isn’t the only thing that can make our homes feel cozy and comforting come winter. Lean into the Nordic tradition of hygge by creating a warm, loving atmosphere in the chilly days of winter with the following tips.
- Spend time relaxing with family and close friends.
- Enjoy good wholesome food, such as a hearty meal or even a mug of hot chocolate.
- Cuddle up with a cozy blanket or thick socks.
- Light candles (even if unscented) or sit by the fireplace.