Subtlety makes most scents for that aura of cleanliness

Jes Alexander, Special to the Chronicle
Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Home fragrances probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but I fear the industry has run amok. This is my soapbox.

I always thought that the idea was for your home to smell fresh and clean. My idea of a good-smelling house is one that smells mostly of nothing, but with hints of floral scents and Clorox. If your house is clean, it will smell clean. So if you do the cleaning, you’re already halfway there.

Floral scents are easy to achieve in your house – with flowers. I prefer to have living flowering plants and not cut flowers because cut flowers die, and when they do, that’s it – dead is dead.

Besides, dead flowers smell bad. Small rosebushes, gardenia, even potted bulbs keep coming back, so you can have a pretty, floral-scented home, provided you take care of your plants. Another good way to add both greenery and subtle aroma to your home is by planting potted herbs. Rosemary, for example, is wonderfully fragrant. In any case, the intent with home fragrances should be subtlety.

Have you ever heard of subtlety in a spray can? Or in a gelatin-filled mason jar? The idea with home fragrances is to enhance the cleanliness of your home, not to cover up the odor of the cat box (why not just change the litter?), last night’s garlic saute or your nasty bathroom.

Another natural way to freshen your home is to open your windows. Yes, they open. Try it, especially in a rainstorm. No, I am not suggesting that you get the inside of your home wet, but rain produces negative ions, and negative ions are a natural air purifier. Do you know those high-priced air purifiers everyone is selling? HEPA schmepa, they are actually little negative ion machines that produce a more balanced ecosystem in your home. And a healthier home equals less skank. Did your grandmother ever put her rugs out on the porch in the dewy morning air to “freshen” them? Same principle.

So let’s review: Clean your home, use flowering plants and herbs that bloom regularly, and open your windows in the rain. So far I am not spending too much of your money, am I?

Here is my biggest problem with home fragrances: They can be bad for your home. Before I get nasty letters from the industry, let me explain. How many of you have a lamp oil ring (or 12) in your house? Do you know what makes a greasy-spoon diner greasy? Grease (see: oil). Grease gets into the air and sticks to everything. Haven’t you wondered why the lamps in your house are fuzzy with sticky lint? It’s because your lamp oil ring is burning oils that get into the air and then stick to your lamps, your lampshades, your tables, the walls – everything.

Why do you want to make it harder for yourself to clean your house? So, despite the alluring names on the scented-oil bottles, remove thy lamp oil ring from around thy lightbulb and dispose of it in thy trash receptacle. Chances are, if you really clean your house, you won’t need to cover up the odors with lamp oil anyway.

Do you have a cat? A dog? A ferret? A boyfriend? Use Febreze on your sofa, your chairs, your curtains, as all these things trap odors. After a heated debate on the subject of what makes Febreze work, my friend Tinka (no, not her real name, but that’s what we call her) asked a chemist friend about Febreze and was told it is made of some kind of sugar molecules that are cylindrical. Bad smells get trapped inside the molecules, which is why it stops smelling bad where you spray it. The sugar molecules with the trapped odor stay put on your curtains, furniture or carpet till you wash them or vacuum them up.

Now, if you have wall-to-wall carpeting or rugs or anything covering your floors, get a steam cleaner immediately. You have no idea how disgusting the floors in your house are.

Sure, rugs are soft and they absorb sound, but they also absorb odors. And you walk on them in the same filthy shoes you walked in the street with, and you drop food in the carpets and … just steam-clean your house, please. I have been on the steam-clean soapbox before, and if you haven’t seen black water come out of your family-room carpet for yourself, it’s about time you did. You can even put Febreze laundry freshener in your steam cleaner’s rinse water and infuse your carpets with super-fresh goodness.

So what should our homes smell like? Clean and subtly fragrant like nature (and OK, if you are weird like me, a little Cloroxish). This means your home scents should not be in the apple pie, cinnamon-vanilla, pastry, Ben & Jerry’s family. If it sounds like a holiday dessert, it has no business being a home fragrance.

Haven’t you ever walked into someone’s house and said, “That smells great – what flavor is that?” Of course you are always hungry; your lamp oil ring is making your stomach think that there is pie coming. Am I making the claim that dessert-y home fragrances clinically contribute to weight gain? Not precisely, though there are some articles on the Internet that allude to certain fragrant stimuli being a precursor to hunger.

So, you cleaned your house, you have some nice plants growing, maybe you have some nice soaps in your bathroom that you can actually smell because you cleaned last week, maybe you have little scented drawer liners or the occasional sachet, and just maybe you have some dried-flower potpourri somewhere (if it looks like dried flower petals, OK; if it looks like wood chips, send it back to the lumber mill), and when it rains you let the ion-y goodness in.

Your house smells better already.

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