A whiff of welcome

A whiff of welcome (Violet Lemay/Illustration for The, Violet Lemay/Illustration for The / April 1, 2014)

Although she has a full house — two dogs, one cat and twin 2-year-old daughters — Erin Proctor's Roland Park home smells great, she promises, even in the dead of winter, when the heat is cranked up and fresh air drifting through open windows is a distant memory.

For about 15 years, Proctor has been a regular customer of Theresa Cangialosi, an aromatherapist who now owns SoBotanical aromatherapy bar in Federal Hill. Using diffusers and humidifiers, Proctor scents her home with the shop's essential oils, infusing the air with a variety of scents, from citrus to eucalyptus, and lifting her mood at the same time.

Just like the placement of a sofa or the intensity of lighting, scent has considerable influence over how people enjoy their space.

"When we design a room, typically what we're trying to do is put together something that's going to be visually appealing as well as functional for the client," says Liz Dickson, owner of Millbrook Circle Interior Design. Scent, she says, "is one more element to make the space appealing to whoever is coming or going or living there."

For Proctor, the scent of SoBotanical products "transforms the entire environment. My entire first floor smells good and feels homey to me," she says.

According to Mei Xu, who with her husband, David Wang, owns Pacific Trade International, the Rockville company behind the Chesapeake Bay Candle brand, people think of home fragrance as a final touch, dressing up an already lovely home.

"When people finish cleaning their homes, they like to burn a candle," she says. "It's the final touch, like lipstick."

Like a signature wardrobe, some Chesapeake Candle customers establish a signature fragrance, says Xu. "If they like something, they stick with it."

But more commonly, Xu finds that customers use scented candles as a way to show seasonality. "Particularly in families with children, how fun is it to have pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or, when you're decorating for Easter, have floral scents in your house?" she asks.

In her 25 years as an aromatherapist, Cangialosi has observed that smell preference varies from person to person. "Not everyone is going to like the same smells, just as not everyone likes the same foods," she says.

People's preferences often tie into their memories, she notes, saying that "Many people associate citrus scents, like lemon, orange and grapefruit, with happy and cheerful moods."

Associating scents with particular moods or memories — the notion of "olfactory memory" — begins at birth, with babies recognizing their mothers' scents. Proctor has observed this phenomenon firsthand. She says her twin daughters are often comforted by the scents of oils she burned when she was pregnant and when the girls were babies.

"Receptors are triggered and directly connect to our limbic system [the oldest part of the brain], the area responsible for emotions and memories," says Cangialosi." These receptors send messages to the olfactory bulb and travel through the brain creating different emotions and associations to the particular smell."

At McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley, sensory scientists like Silvia King study the way smell affects how people feel.

"Smells are connected to memories associated with occasions when we ate, for example, Mom's meatloaf or Grandma's apple pie," she says.

Cinnamon, King says, is associated with positive attributes like happiness and being good-natured.

"When people describe their experience with foods that contain cinnamon," she says, "they use words like comforted, relaxed and calm. These are words we associate with home and family, and may be the reason spices such as cinnamon bring back such good feelings and memories."

In her own home, designer Dickson triggers memories and creates mood with a favorite mango-scented candle she received as a gift. "In the middle of winter," she says, "I can light something that will remind me of warmth and the beach. It's like a vacation."

Certain scents may provide functional benefits, too. When Proctor's daughters have stuffy noses, she diffuses chamomile, tea tree and eucalyptus oils in the humidifier in their room. Cangialosi also recommends a blend of lemon, vanilla and mint for people who are feeling under the weather, and citrus scents for those who experience depression.

Home fragrance products are a relatively inexpensive way to create a mood — Chesapeake Bay Candles can cost about $5 and room spray from SoBotanical is $22. But home fragrance, including everything from room sprays to diffusers, is a big business.