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Clean air, year round.

Bad odors and poor air quality often go hand in hand. Aside from being unpleasant, stinky scents can sometimes be a sign of unhealthy pollution in your indoor air. In previous posts, we’ve broken down what causes bad smells, how to know when they’re a sign of something harmful, and how to remove them from your home. Here, we get into the positive side of scents with five new ways to make your whole house smell good (without toxic chemicals or synthetic scents ruining your indoor air quality).

Why are good smells so important?

Humans start developing scent preferences in the womb, and from an early age, our sense of smell plays a huge role in how we perceive the world around us. Scents are a unique form of sensory stimuli. They’re processed by a part of the brain called the olfactory bulb, which sends scent information directly to the amygdala and hippocampus—regions closely associated with emotion and memory. That’s why certain smells can trigger such strong emotional reactions—from nostalgia and excitement to fear and disgust.

Though there’s not much scientific evidence that aromatherapy has any concrete health benefits, there’s no doubt that certain smells have the ability to induce feelings of calm and happiness. For example, amid the growing popularity of therapeutic sensory gardens designed to stimulate all five senses, researchers have found that aromatic plants may have the strongest positive impact. Fragrant plants can improve therapeutic gardens' healing environment from both an aesthetic and medicinal perspective.

Harnessing the power of pleasant smells can help make your home a more comforting, welcoming environment—especially when you do so without relying on synthetic scents or candles that contribute to indoor air pollution. These five tips are a great place to start.

A stack of three chocolate chip cookies

1. Bake less than a batch of cookies.

Freshly baked cookies are a surefire way to make your whole house smell amazing, but they’re probably not practical as an everyday solution. If you aren’t in love with the idea of baking all the time but you’d still like your home to smell like delicious treats, you can get the same effect by cooking just one or two cookies in the toaster oven. Simply make a batch of dough, portion it into cookie-sized balls, put it in an airtight container, and stick it in the freezer. Then, when the craving hits (or you want to make your house smell good naturally), pop a couple out and bake them in the toaster oven.

Any cookie recipe should make your house smell amazing, but some ingredients have more powerful fragrances than others. For an extra smell boost, look for cookie recipes with bourbon, espresso, or lemon. These classic good smells can add depth to the fresh cookie scent and leave your home smelling like an all-star sweets shop. 

If you prefer not to keep a stock of sugary treats in the house, there are still plenty of ways to fill your home with the smell of cookies (minus all the added sugar). You can use a mini slow cooker to heat the following ingredients at a low temperature for a couple hours. 

Snickerdoodle cookie scent:

2 tbsp ground cinnamon

1½ tsp vanilla

2 cups water

Gingerbread cookie scent:

2 tbsp ground cinnamon 

1 tsp cloves

1 tsp ground ginger

2 cups water

Maple cookie scent:

1 ½ tsp maple extract

2 tbsp ground cinnamon 

2 cups water

For an even easier way to make your home smell like sugar cookie heaven, just put two tablespoons of vanilla extract in an oven-safe dish and cook at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 1 hour.

Fresh sage in an open plastic container

2. Dry some herbs.

Dried herbs are another great way to make your house smell good naturally. (Plus, you’ll be able to cook with them for years.) Drying herbs is all about giving them plenty of fresh, dry air, so try to place them in a well-ventilated room out of direct sunlight.

To dry your own herbs: 

  1. Pick them from the plant before their flowers start to bloom. 
  2. Throw away any dead leaves and tie the stems together in small bunches. 
  3. Hang the bunches upside-down to dry, wrapping them loosely in muslin or thin paper bags to protect them from dust. They should dry in 7 to 10 days.

If you don’t have space to hang the herbs in your kitchen, you can also dry them in your oven to quickly fill your home with savory aromas. Turn your oven to the lowest temperature and space out the herbs on a muslin-lined baking sheet. Cook them for 1 hour with the oven door ajar (to let moisture escape), turning them over after 30 minutes. Leave the dried herbs in the oven until they’re cool.

No matter how you dry your herbs, you can store them by crumbling the leaves with your fingers and placing them in an airtight container.

Great-smelling herbs to dry at home include:

  • Rosemary
  • Mint
  • Thyme
  • Sage
  • Lavender
  • Basil 
  • Oregano

These herbs also smell great while growing, so keeping a small pot or two in the kitchen can help keep your home smelling fresh year-round.

Pot simmering with lemons, cranberries, and rosemary

3. Cook up a simmer pot.

A simmer pot is an easy-to-make natural air freshener that can make your home feel cozy and inviting. Most simmer pot recipes involve boiling some combination of fragrant herbs, fruits, and spices in water. To make a simmer pot on the stove:

  1. Add water to a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. Add your ingredients, let boil for a few minutes, then reduce the heat to a low simmer.
  3. Add more water about every 30 minutes to keep the pan from drying out.

To make a simmer pot in a slow cooker: 

  1. Fill the pot about three-quarters of the way with water, add your ingredients, and cover with a lid.
  2. Turn the heat to high and wait until you see steam coming from the lid. 
  3. Take the lid off, turn the heat to low, and leave it on for as long as you desire. 
  4. Check every now and then to make sure the pot is at least halfway full, adding water as needed.

There’s plenty of room to be creative with simmer pot ingredients and create recipes based on your scent preferences and what you already have in your pantry. Here are a few ideas to get you started!

Springtime fresh scent:

3 limes, sliced

1 handful fresh mint

5 sprigs thyme

1 tsp vanilla extract

Summery lemon and rosemary scent:

1 lemon, sliced

3 sprigs rosemary

2 tbsp vanilla extract

Autumn harvest scent:

4 tbsp apple cider

1 tbsp pumpkin pie spice seasoning

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tsp ground nutmeg

1 drop vanilla extract

1 tbsp whole cloves

Festive winter scent:

1 lemon, sliced

1 orange, sliced

1 1/2 cups cranberries

1/2 cup pine or spruce needles, chopped

1 cinnamon stick

1 tsp whole cloves

1 tsp vanilla extract

Bottles of essential oil, lemons, flowers, and cinnamon sticks scattered on a white background

4. Make homemade gel air fresheners. 

Unlike simmer pots or freshly baked cookies, gel air fresheners offer a constant source of subtle fragrance for your home. The gel is made of a combination of a solvent, a liquid base, a gelling agent, and essential oils for scent. As it evaporates, it gradually releases the fragrance into the air.

To make your own gel air freshener, you’ll need four small mason jars or one large mason jar with wire lid inserts (also called “frog lids”) and the following ingredients:

  • 2 tsp agar-agar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 tsp potassium sorbate
  • 30–60 drops essential oils, depending on your preference 

Stir the agar-agar into a small saucepan with 1 cup of warm water and let sit for 5 minutes. Then, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally, until the agar-agar is fully dissolved. Carefully pour the liquid into a large, heat-safe measuring cup with a spout. Stir in the potassium sorbate, remaining water, and vodka, fully incorporating each before adding the next ingredient. Pour the mixture into the mason jar(s), add essential oil drops, and whisk gently to combine. Let the gel set in the fridge for at least three hours.

To use your gel air freshener, place the mason jar on a flat surface with a wire lid or no lid. Then, let the mixture dissolve over time to make your home smell like essential oils. Popular gel air freshener scents include lavender, lemon, grapefruit, eucalyptus, rosemary, and bergamot.

A small scent diffuser

5. Buy an air freshener in a bottle.

Of course, you don’t have to go completely homemade to avoid air fresheners with harsh chemicals. It’s true that the scent market is largely unregulated, and many air fresheners contain potentially harmful ingredients, including phthalates, propellants, solvents, aldehydes, and some fragrances. However, the Environmental Working Group maintains a long list of air fresheners that meet their standards for asthma and respiratory health concerns, skin irritation and allergy risks, environmental harm, and more.

The scent products that score well on the Environmental Working Group’s list contain minimal ingredients—typically only water and essential oils. Brands that rate at the top of their air fresheners list include:

  • Aura Cacia Aromatherapy Mist, various scents
  • Aussan Natural Room Odor Eliminator
  • Good Natured Brand Room & Linen Spray, various scents

For a better smelling home…

These ideas can help any home smell wonderful, no matter which scents you prefer (or how much time you have to concoct homemade air fresheners). However, great scents can only do so much to cover up stinky odors. To learn more about keeping your home smelling fresh, check out our blog post on getting rid of bad smells and lingering odors.

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