When the pandemic struck, I was housebound like everyone else — but because I’m a journalist who writes about culture and trends, the public relations machine knew where to find me. In March 2020, my apartment on New York’s Upper East Side was suddenly bombarded with samples of lavender-infused products: sprays for my pillows, candles for my living room, salts for my bath, and moisturizers for my chapped hands, all presented as soothing pandemic essentials.
That spring, lavender farms from New Jersey, the U.K., and Australia reported surging sales. And it wasn’t just lavender having a moment; from the start of the pandemic, scented products overall experienced a boom. The market research firm NPD Group reported that in March 2020 alone, sales of prestige room fresheners increased 37% in the U.K. compared to the previous year. As the months went by, more and more companies were pitching exotic smells as a way to escape those same four walls. “I wanted to go on a vacation and couldn’t, and so I gravitated toward smells I’d never been attracted to before,” says Linda Levy, president of the nonprofit Fragrance Foundation, who told me she was drawn to scents like “Lemon Island,” “Wild Mint and Eucalyptus,” and “Green Tomato Leaf.”
The scent explosion came at an ironic time. One of COVID-19’s cruel symptoms is often the loss of smell. But in our pandemic-era search for comfort and normalcy, scents were pitched as a straightforward path to inner peace. I was never much of a scent aficionado, but in the stress of isolation, the idea intrigued me. Could lavender hand lotion make me a calmer person? What if I used every lavender gift at once — could I induce some kind of stress-relieving relaxation coma?
That answer is no. No, I could not. It’s hard to OD on lavender. The scent just sat there, filling the air, as I waited for something to happen. Nothing did, and that agitated me. But maybe I was in the minority.
The use of scents for healing, psychological or otherwise, dates back to ancient Egypt, Japan, and Rome, and it’s still going strong. Today, aromatherapy is a $4.4 billion industry in the U.S., projected to grow to $6.8 billion by 2027. Practitioners say scents can serve a range of needs: rosemary for immunity boosting, eucalyptus for clearing the mind, ginger for inspiration. And research suggests that, in some cases, essential oils can have a physical effect. A 2006 study in the journal Planta Medica found that inhaling East Indian sandalwood led to elevated pulse rates, blood pressure, and skin conductivity.
But much of the scent industry is built around not medicine, but emotion — which is where neuroscience meets retail. Tara Swart, a U.K.-based neuroscientist and brand ambassador for the “wellbeing” company Aromatherapy Associates, told me that smell is closely connected to the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for creating, filing, activating, and recalling memories and emotions.
What’s the smell of a lockdown? Early in the pandemic, people were drawn to scents like lavender because they’re inherently comforting.
And Dawn Goldworm, the founder of 12.29, a branding agency that helps companies differentiate themselves through scents, told me that our sense of smell is so powerful that strong associations develop in early childhood. “Your ability to smell is fully formed before you are fully formed,” Goldworm says, which could explain some scents’ appeal: Vanilla is a derivative of vanillin, a chemical found in breast milk.
Those positive associations, some believe, can not only boost moods, but change behavior. Studies have found that different scents, deployed in stores, can make people more or less likely to make a purchase. Goldworm — who has synesthesia, which means she experiences senses blended together — has created special scents that brands have diffused into rooms and work spaces, from a gallery of antiquities in Christie’s auction house (smoked woods, autumnal spices, ripe jasmine) to Nike Labs (dirt, dew, and a brand-new pair of Air Force 1 sneakers) to the interior of the Bentley EXP 100 GT (sandalwood, fresh moss).
So what’s the smell of a lockdown? In the early stages of the pandemic, people were drawn to scents like lavender because they’re inherently comforting, says Pamela Dalton, a cognitive psychologist at the nonprofit Monell Chemical Senses Center, which researches taste and smell. “People were looking for these experiences at home, except people were home all the time now,” Dalton says. “They were looking for scents to brighten their mood.”
By December 2020, it seemed, the collective mood had changed: I was flooded with holiday gifts containing sage, sandalwood, and palo santo, a tree native to Central and South America. Those scents, the product descriptions said, were associated with cleansing and healing powers — for use in pushing out bad juju while inviting good energy into one’s dwelling. After 10 months of sedentary isolation, who wouldn’t desire that? So I found myself in a cloud of smoke, shouting out positive intentions while leaving windows and doors open to push out the negativity. I don’t know if it worked — especially because whatever scent I used was paired with foods I was cooking in deep rotation on a non-stick pan and in a toaster oven: salmon, chicken, pesto pasta, grilled broccoli, and asparagus.
Now, as the world prepares to open up again, scent industry leaders are recommending another change. They say the scents that loomed large for us in the pandemic era could keep us mired in a crisis mindset afterward. If scents can be markers, the thinking goes, then the way our homes smell — even how we ourselves smell — can retrigger us or make it hard to readjust.
“Psychologically, these smells have become set in our neurological architecture or pathways,” says Dalton. She suggests that introducing a different scent to your household can change not just your mood, but your outlook. “After you’ve been cooped up in your home for a year, you want to form new associations with a new scent,” she told me. “Rebooting smell is resetting a boundary.”
Goldworm recommended something even more extreme: a clean sweep of any and all olfactory triggers. She told me to toss all my fragrances, body lotions, soaps, detergents, shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, home cleaners, scented candles, and sanitizers — anything that brought me back to the experiences and emotions of pandemic isolation — and replace them with different scents from different companies or brands. “This gets you out of the past,” she said. “Smell is the easiest way to linger in a memory. People don’t realize how much power they have over this part of their brain.”
I liked this “replace your scent” advice because it’s easy to do. It makes you feel as though you’ve accomplished something big while resetting your nose. And truth be told, as much as I love asparagus, I’ve been ready for new smells. The sandalwood smudging sticks took a smoky New Year’s lap or two around my apartment before I tried to pawn them off on my neighbor. (I don’t want their bad pandemic juju permeating the walls.)
So I lit new candles I hadn’t tried before, some of which I’d set aside as gifts for other people. (Gifting myself seemed fair, considering I’d made it through the pandemic thus far.) The smells were new, but they didn’t erase the last year the way I’d hoped. I took a trip to the local bodega and brought back fresh flowers, instead — hitting two senses at once, to increase my odds.
Soon, bright orange roses filled my bedroom. White lilies decorated the dining room table and office. The bathrooms received flamingo pink freesia; even the name sounded tropical. And for the moment, life felt peaceful. It smelled like success.