Why You Can’t Smell Your Own Home

If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t smell your own home or why you stop smelling your own perfume, the explanation given by Pamela Dalton, a cognitive psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center, will shed some light. “At home, say you have a new cinnamon-scented air freshener. When you first start to use it, the odorant molecules waft through your nose and hit your odor receptors, which then send signals to your olfactory bulb in the brain’s limbic system, which is associated with emotion and behavior. There, your brain identifies the odor and decides what to do about it.”

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“But very quickly — after just about two breaths — ‘the receptors in your nose sort of switch off,’ Dalton says, and the intensity of the smell starts to fade. That’s because your brain has perceived the scent to be nonthreatening, which means there’s little need to pay close attention to it.” Read the rest of the article in NY Mag.

How do you counter this sensory adaptation? Switch scents from time to time, take breaks from using the same fragrance and also simply pay attention to smells. The more you focus on smelling, the more sensitive your nose becomes.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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68 Comments

  • Sandra: I wish my nose receptors would turn off to cat poo! Haha
    I love the cats- but sometimes that’s all I smell when I come home.
    I have also noticed since I have been pregnant my nose is like a Fox- I smell everything.
    I love to switch up my perfumes- I do after awhile stop smelling the one I have been wearing often- then sometimes I wonder if I start over spraying because of that. I have been wearing No 19 Poudre lately, so today I am using no 5 eau premiere to switch it up a bit. I have been gravitating towards my Chanel perfumes lately. Maybe the change of seasons or something.
    Have a good day ahead! September 24, 2014 at 7:20am Reply

    • Michaela: Wonderful news! 🙂 September 24, 2014 at 7:36am Reply

    • solanace: And some of your improved sense of smell will remain! 🙂 My biologist friend said it´s because moms have to check if their babies´ food is safe, which is in line with the article. September 24, 2014 at 7:50am Reply

      • Sandra: Interesting!
        I have been trying to be mindful of my nose-my poor husband-I have been telling him that I can smell his armpits and feet and he needs to shower and also wash his hair. To him he smells normal! HA!

        I can see how checking your babies food and being able to protect yourself from eating something spoiled that could make the mom sick would explain why our sense of smell improves with pregnancy and after. September 24, 2014 at 10:47am Reply

        • solanace: And the babies smell so good! September 24, 2014 at 12:39pm Reply

    • Nora Szekely: hi Sandra,
      Both are wonderful scents, these Chanels I also reach for them often now autumn has arrived.
      I can totally relate to the cat poo comment too, being the owner of two beautiful female cats. 🙂 They even became my scent critics, as they have strong opinions about my perfumes. My theory is that they are attracted to natural scents (aka they start licking my arms like the leathery Iris prima) and shun artificial ones. September 24, 2014 at 11:17am Reply

      • Sandra: Aww..thanks for sharing!
        I should try that with my cats and see what happens September 24, 2014 at 12:51pm Reply

      • Jennifer C: My cats do that too, and each of them has their preferences. My male cat seems to like green chypres and will start licking my arm if I’m wearing one. I can’t imagine it tastes very good, but it doesn’t seem to stop him.

        My female cat didn’t seem to be interested in my perfumes, but I’ve discovered that she likes vanilla/gourmand scents. She liked Atelier Cologne Vanille Incensee. September 24, 2014 at 1:52pm Reply

        • Michaela: My dogs like no perfume at all 🙁 They turn their noses away from my perfumes. In the street they sneeze if we follow some too strongly perfumed trail. They didn’t ‘sneeze me’ yet 🙂 September 25, 2014 at 6:16am Reply

        • Victoria: My mom’s male cat likes to sleep on her clothes if they have been perfumed. Cats are strange creatures. September 25, 2014 at 1:02pm Reply

      • Aisha: Oh my gosh! My cats do this too! 🙂 September 27, 2014 at 5:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: It must be exciting to see and feel all of the changes your body is going through. Best wishes to you! 🙂 September 25, 2014 at 10:57am Reply

    • Aisha: Congratulations! 🙂 September 27, 2014 at 5:07pm Reply

  • Michaela: Interesting article! The first thing I remembered when I read it is the lovely smell ‘of home’ when I return from a long trip. When I come home daily I don’t feel the same.
    I had no idea that exercise can help detecting common scents. Very interesting!
    I may be wrong, but I think smelling different things with closed eyes and covered ears can also help 🙂 September 24, 2014 at 7:36am Reply

    • Victoria: I sometimes test new perfumes during workouts. I wouldn’t wear something for the first time in that context, since it is hard to focus on perfume and exercise for me, but it’s a good way to check the sillage and how well the perfume stays on skin. September 25, 2014 at 10:59am Reply

      • Michaela: You can concentrate much better than untrained persons. I would smell such a mess 🙂 September 26, 2014 at 3:23am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s surprising how quickly you learn to concentrate, though. I know some people I work with who can’t concentrate on a book or a movie, but who can easily concentrate on smelling. September 26, 2014 at 4:13am Reply

    • Michaela: I meant physical exercise to increase blood flow as a help for smelling was a big surprise for me: ‘Dalton says that some perfumers run up and down stairs to perk their weary noses up’. September 26, 2014 at 3:25am Reply

      • Victoria: I was just was thinking on the tangent. Because the increased blood flow perks the nose up, that’s why I try perfumes also when I work out. You really can see the difference. September 26, 2014 at 4:11am Reply

        • Michaela: Very interesting! September 26, 2014 at 10:46am Reply

  • solanace: Thank you for the link, Victoria. I liked how she compared the way we can refocus on some background noise, but can´t do the same with smell. Fascinating.
    I would wear Shalimar more often, but I restrain myself because I realize that, if I wear it too much, I stop noticing it. Which is fine, more reason for testing and discovering new perfumes! September 24, 2014 at 7:55am Reply

    • Victoria: I also try not to wear some of my favorites too often for this reason, because it is true that after a while you simply stop noticing them. It’s good to switch things up! September 25, 2014 at 11:00am Reply

  • Matt Armendariz: Thanks for this! I travel quite a bit so I do my best to return home with an objective nose (which can be difficult with 3 dogs haha) so that I can assess and re-experience what my home smells like. It’s usually only then that I catch remnants of my perfumes or what I wore/sprayed last or what someone else is wearing which is kind of an awesome way to resmell it 🙂 September 24, 2014 at 9:05am Reply

    • Victoria: I often try to ask someone else if they can smell my perfume. There were times when I wore a fragrance and couldn’t notice it, while another person complimented me. And I know that the nose adapts easily, because after work I can sometimes end up with a whole lot of perfume on skin, but the effect for me is less overwhelming than it is for others around me. September 25, 2014 at 11:02am Reply

  • Steve L.: Thanks for the link Victoria. I just hope when people walk in my house they don’t immediately smell cat. As much as we keep the house neat and tidy I’m sure there is residual odors…maybe my massive plume of perfume following me covers some of that up! September 24, 2014 at 9:25am Reply

    • Laurels: My sister has a cat, and the only times I’ve noticed a “cat” smell in her house were when she was pregnant, and thus not emptying the litter box herself. (Apparently her boyfriend was much less diligent.) September 24, 2014 at 1:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: My mom has 2 cats right now, but even when she had 3, we couldn’t smell them. I guess, if you change the litterbox on regular basis, the smell doesn’t linger. September 25, 2014 at 11:01am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: I smell my house every day when I come home. I have a super sensitive nose and I’m specifically trying to smell it when I come home. I have no animals any longer so that helped a lot. A new heating and AC system got rid of the damp smell I used to get every now and then. I do have to consciously think “what does the house smell like” though, or it will just not make an impression. I’ve been dong some of your smelling exercises, Victoria! September 24, 2014 at 9:36am Reply

    • Victoria: Our current apartment is better for keeping it aired out, because we don’t have carpets. The old place had these thick carpets that seem to have retained all scents. But the smells from the common areas (one neighbor smokes) can sometimes bother me, so my husband fashioned a special silicone seal to cover the gaps. September 25, 2014 at 11:04am Reply

  • Aurora: Quite fascinating. Thank you for this illuminating summary and the link.

    Our nose follows the familiarity breeds contempt line I suppose.

    And that’s why your scent diary feature is such a good idea: the more scents you experience the cleverer your nose becomes. September 24, 2014 at 10:03am Reply

    • Victoria: I think that it is time to bring Scent Diary back! 🙂 September 25, 2014 at 11:04am Reply

  • limegreen: Another dog lover here! Funny how the words “house” and “smell” elicit reactions from those of us with dogs and cats. 🙂 When we first adopted our dog, I was worried that I could not smell our house anymore and would ask close friends when they visited, “Does our house smell of dog?” Great article explaining this kind of OCD behavior, or paranoia!
    (My mother-in-law said she used to bake little quick bread rolls right before dinner just to make the house smell nice and make people hungry!) September 24, 2014 at 10:33am Reply

    • Michaela: I was so happy when a complete stranger, the plumber, complimented my house, ‘it doesn’t smell of dogs!’, and he was amazed. I have 2 large dogs, fortunately low-key-smelling :).
      I like your mother-in-law idea! 🙂 September 24, 2014 at 10:58am Reply

    • OperaFan: What a wonderful idea for drawing the family to the dinner table! Which also reminds me to stock up on packages of refrigerated biscuit and cinnamon roll dough.
      Not much of a baker, I’m afraid (except the occasional no-brainer corn bread) but even these instant breads can cause smiles to appear on the faces in our household. September 24, 2014 at 12:45pm Reply

      • limegreen: My mother-in-law was a baker but her recipe for these quick breads was easy even for me — the trick was yogurt and baking soda and pop them in the oven. There is something indescribable about the smell of baking bread.
        Whose review was it that wondered if En Passant was conjuring up lilacs and a French bakery in the early morning? (That odd wheat note.) September 24, 2014 at 10:28pm Reply

    • maja: 🙂 I’ve found out that by simply toasting your bread you can create a wonderful, inviting smell. September 24, 2014 at 2:19pm Reply

    • Courant: I have two dogs, a small papillon and a standard poodle. Does anybody else have dog-walking perfume? I often wear Apres L’Ondee, or soft woody fragrances at this time, switching to something higher octane after showering. The Papillon absorbs whatever scent I’m wearing and the poodle only gets whiffy just before he needs a clip, the poodle wool smells like a sheep! September 24, 2014 at 4:41pm Reply

      • limegreen: Me, too! I don’t wear something as nice as what you wear for dogwalking but I usually wear a light fragrance, and then something more carefully chosen after showering. And then another light cologne for the afternoon/evening walk. It started out as a practical necessity– citrus type colognes to keep bugs away and then became fun to choose something for the walks, even if it weren’t buggy. And for some of those mistake purchases (sheepish admission), as long as they aren’t floral, I spray them on my ankles before a walk — it’s fairly effective in keeping mosquitoes from nibbling my ankles! September 24, 2014 at 10:50pm Reply

      • Michaela: Apres L’Ondee?! May I help you walk your dogs, please? 🙂 September 25, 2014 at 4:21am Reply

        • Courant: Apres L’Ondee, yes, I have two bottles of the EDT and I am determined that I will use them, so I do. Apparently there are about 900-1000 sprays in a 3.3 oz bottle. It looks as if there could be a marketing opportunity in this. Watch this space-Demeter Dog walking perfume. September 25, 2014 at 4:47am Reply

          • Michaela: I see. Just lovely 🙂 September 25, 2014 at 7:43am Reply

        • Victoria: Me too! I would help out just to enjoy my beloved Apres L’Ondee on someone else. 🙂 September 25, 2014 at 1:01pm Reply

          • Courant: You say in your own review of how Apres L’Ondee reminded you of your ballet houses, it reminds me of the beautiful old houses I lived in of the Arts and Crafts period. In this it is more successful than say, L’Air de Rien’ September 25, 2014 at 4:14pm Reply

            • Victoria: There is something wistful about it. That’s it, I will wear it today. 🙂 Thank you for an inspiration! September 26, 2014 at 4:18am Reply

    • Victoria: When I learned baking, bread quickly became one of my favorite things to make because of the aroma. It is really one of the most amazing scents, and if I walk down the street and catch the scent of bakery, I instantly feel uplifted. So, imagine this aroma filling your home. I can completely understand your mother-in-law’s reasoning. 🙂

      And the thing with homemade bread is that you can’t mess it up. Even the most misshaped, odd looking loaves taste great. September 25, 2014 at 12:45pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Dans la Nuit de Worth had the smell of an old fashioned bakery. September 25, 2014 at 4:24pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, I need to check it out. September 26, 2014 at 4:13am Reply

  • Maxine: Also just going for a walk, opening up the windows in the house, breathing in fresh air seems to “reset” the sense of smell and you can perceive it again – maybe not at the same strength but you definitely keep noticing it. September 24, 2014 at 11:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s true! I noticed that this makes some difference. September 25, 2014 at 12:46pm Reply

  • Tania: Very interesting article – thanks for sharing it!
    I can’t smell my flat any more, unless the weather is hot (my carpets REALLY need to be replaced and warmth brings out the stale smell) or I’ve cooked something smelly one night, which I will notice when I come home the next day. But visitors comment on the smell of perfumes.
    I was interested in the part about ‘fear’ having an effect on getting desensitised to smells. I wonder if that explains the anti-perfume people who stiffen up and declare they have a headache when they catch a whiff of sillage? Maybe they never get used to perfume because they think it will harm them. September 24, 2014 at 11:57am Reply

    • Victoria: I was thinking about that too, and I agree with you. I believe that those people think of smells as the pollution of sorts. September 25, 2014 at 12:49pm Reply

    • Michaela: I think you are right about the anti-perfume persons. They are simply afraid. Thay don’t know what they’re missing 🙂 September 26, 2014 at 3:29am Reply

  • maja: I am aware of how my house smells only after a holiday, too. Unless I’ve been cooking broccoli or something. 🙂

    Last time I rented an apartment in Milan I chose it also because I loved the smell of it. The lady who owned it used Eau de Cologne Imperiale (I found half used bottle in the bathroom) and the whole flat smelled of wooden floors and cologne creating some sort of a noble, austere atmosphere. I loved it. My friends said it smelled “catholic” 😀 September 24, 2014 at 2:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can just imagine the aroma of cologne in the old Italian apartment, and it makes me want either a perfume with that ambiance or to douse myself in Eau Imperiale. 🙂 September 25, 2014 at 12:50pm Reply

  • Joy: My brother, sister-in-law, and sister always say that the homes we have had and now have all smell the same. The similarities are a lot of wood; oak floors, Douglas fir finish trim, and Golden Retriever. I always brush and bathe my GR with lavender shampoo. I use lavender oil on cotton in my linen and lingerie drawers. The slight fragrance seeps out. I love leaving the house early with the GR for a walk, but pushing the coffee brew button before I leave. I then come home to the smell of strong, freshly brewed coffee. This summer I made several batches of rhubarb, Walla Walla Sweet onion chutney with fresh ground spices from a lovely fresh spice shop here in my town in the northwest of Oregon. The house smelled divine. I kept going out and coming in just to take it in. the smell lasted in my house for three days. I also just made spiced apple butter that had the same affect.
    But as the writer above stated, being gone from one’s home and returning after an extended stay is the best. My home smells like home! September 24, 2014 at 4:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your house must smell amazing. Your mention of lavender reminded me of a conversation with a friend who said that her mother used to dilute lavender oil in water (a couple of drops only) and wash the floors and tiles with this mixture. The family lived in the South of France and had their own lavender distillery. September 25, 2014 at 12:51pm Reply

  • Andy: Neat! I’ve wondered about this home scent phenomenon before, now it makes more sense. September 24, 2014 at 5:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Pretty neat, isn’t it! September 25, 2014 at 12:52pm Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria, thanks for your post and the link to the article.

    I learned about this issue the hard way many years ago. I chose my first French perfume, Y (Yves Saint Laurent 1964), when I was 21, and wore it exclusively for four years. I barely smelled it for the last couple of years – such a waste, although hopefully those around me enjoyed it. When I was 25 I realized that having a “signature scent” was way too restrictive for me, and I branched out and developed a “perfume wardrobe”. It was an enormous relief to give myself permission to wear other fragrances, and I have never looked back.

    It has been almost 30 years since my “fragrance liberation”, and during that time my perfume collection has grown exponentially to number in the hundreds. These days I couldn’t imagine restricting myself to a single fragrance, or even to a few, unless my perfume collection was destroyed and financial circumstances necessitated such constraints.

    I first read about the issue in 1993, eight years after I had begun broadening my scent horizons, when my wonderful brother, knowing about my fascination with fragrance, bought me “Perfumery: the Psychology and Biology of Fragrance” (a 1988 book of articles edited by Van Toller and Dodd).

    The fact that we generally only smell fragrances briefly is the reason why aromatherapy actually has limited benefit for many people, despite the best intentions of its proponents. September 24, 2014 at 7:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: So cool! It’s always so good to hear how others developed their interest in perfume and what they discovered along the way.

      I know that for some people the idea of a signature perfume is very appealing (and some can really find a single perfume that expresses them perfectly), so there is technically nothing wrong with it. But for my part, I like the process of smelling and discovering. It’s much more exciting than simply buying a bottle of something. So, yes, like you I enjoy the freedom of not restricting myself to a single perfume. September 25, 2014 at 12:55pm Reply

  • Illdone: I might be kicking an allready open door open but I love my perfumes.
    I have 3 senses that are over-developed ; smell,feel and hearing. I miss a lot of details when I’m looking at someting because I’m allready so overwhelmed by everything I hear and smell.
    There are anecdotes like smelling a rotting orange in a plastic bag in a backpack on a train. I just cannot get over it but don’t dare to mention it to someone just in case they might think I’m crazy. I know if there’s a pregnant woman in a room just because she threw up an hour ago…
    Now about the smell of houses ; there are flats and places I can’t visit because the smell is intolerable to me.
    I once stoped visiting a therapist because I realized I didn’t hate her but the smell of the appartment she worked in.
    So perhaps your noise adapts to a certain smell but to me I can be a decision making factor like should I stay or should I go.
    Perhaps the Flemish expression for I can’t stand her (or him) is not so crazy.
    “I can’t stand the smell of him” September 24, 2014 at 11:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: I didn’t know this expression. What does it sound like in Dutch?

      You’re really sensitive to scents, and it’s really fascinating to read how much you can detect! September 25, 2014 at 12:58pm Reply

      • Illdone: Ohlala Victoria, its a bit of a rude expression to use so don’t adapt it..

        “Ik kan hem niet rieken !” (should be “ruiken” but in Flemish dialect pronounced as “rieken”)

        Illdone September 27, 2014 at 10:43am Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: The Dutch phrase: ”ik kan hem niet luchten of zien.” Luchten is oldfashioned Dutch for ruiken.

          In Dutch, it is not so rude! September 27, 2014 at 12:07pm Reply

        • Victoria: 🙂 Ok, I won’t try it out on anyone. I was just curious about the expression itself. September 27, 2014 at 1:54pm Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: My old house (1908) has 3 long staircases of cheap wood, I notice that smell every day. The smell of the apartment only when I was away the whole day. A mixture of old newspapers, books, old shelfs (on the floor), talcum powder (Etos for babies), and perfume.
    I switch perfumes very often, because I have a big collection!
    Sometimes the mixture in a cotton shirt is so good that I wish I had it in a bottle.
    There is no smell of Oscar the cat, only the wonderful smell of his fur. I clean the litterbox every day! September 25, 2014 at 4:21pm Reply

    • Courant: The cotton shirt thing, I get it, it happened to me a couple of days ago. We are going into spring here and I was able to wear a long line cotton chemise all day without covering it with a jacket or woollen cardigan. I hated putting it in the laundry. September 25, 2014 at 5:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: Books give the best scent (and ambiance) to a place! I can imagine how good yours smells. My grandmother’s old apartment was filled with books from floor to ceiling, and to this day when I think of a perfect place, that is it. It’s been at least 25 years since I’ve been there–they moved to Kyiv when my grandfather got ill and sold the place, but I remember the smell of the apartment and its layout perfectly. September 26, 2014 at 4:17am Reply

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