American households face their worst fear: “Ew, what’s that smell? “

Homebound Americans are buying more air fresheners, scented candles and pungent cleansers to overcome one of humanity’s deepest social fears: Visitors will think their homes stink of the sky.

Lauren Brinn, of Madison Heights, Mich., Stocked up after bending over for more than a week with a mild case of Covid-19. “Being at home a lot,” she said, “you start to notice things.

Aroma aid

In Salem, Oregon, Brenda Fleming realized that her pandemic kitchen was leaving behind smelly reminders, helping to start a hunt for aromatic remedies.

“Covid created a real sense of smell,” said Julia Merrill, director of consumer insight at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., a company supplier of consumer products. “Before the pandemic, the house was pretty much a family space. With Covid, it has become the center of life.

Pets adopted during the pandemic can smell bad, but so can their owners.

More time at home means more waste, especially food waste. Then there are all those exercise workouts in the living room. With fewer social opportunities and more home offices, people also shower less. Even couch potatoes spend their days in stretchy yoga pants and other clothing made with synthetic fabrics, which trap more odors than cotton and other natural fibers.

The IFF consumer study found that 67% of U.S. consumers experienced “more bad smells” during the pandemic, Ms. Merrill said. Among this group, 61% said they needed help with room fragrances.

Procter & Gamble Co.

, maker of Febreze odor eliminators and Tide laundry detergent, said 74% of Americans are concerned about the smell in their homes, according to a recent study based on surveys and interviews with consumers. Even with fewer restrictions from the pandemic, people were staying at home more in 2021 than in 2020, the company found.

Sales of air fresheners increased 10% in 2021 compared to 2019, while sales of candles increased by almost 30% during the same period, according to research firm IRI.

New candles at the Yankee Candle manufacturing plant in Whately, Massachusetts.


Kayana Szymczak for The Wall Street Journal

Ms Fleming, worried about her culinary disasters, buys Air Wick fragrance oils – pumpkin spice – in bulk. “I am a very bad cook and there are smells. A lot of times they’re not great, ”said Ms. Fleming, a 65-year-old administration specialist for the Oregon Economic Development Agency.

“In the real world, I wouldn’t spend that much time here,” she said. “The scent of my home is a higher priority right now. “

Ms Brinn was at home recovering from Covid when she said she noticed “maybe some food or musty smell?” She has since purchased cleaning products for all surfaces in her home, as well as scented wax heaters. She favors the Blue Grotto of Scentsy, a direct seller of scented products; her husband loves root beer.

In Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a friend confirmed Amy Ojibway’s suspicions that a mysterious smell lingered in her home. “We noticed this before we moved in,” she said. “We know he’s still here.”

Mrs. Ojibway, a stay-at-home mother of three, has heard of a smell that is not entirely unpleasant but difficult to identify for the past seven years. She and her husband repainted and had most of the rugs replaced.

Still, the smell stuck. “Our neighbor told us it reminded her of pancakes,” she said. Before visitors arrive, she now wipes the counters with a scented cleaner and uses an antibacterial fabric spray on the furniture.

Brenda Fleming favors Air Wick Pumpkin Spice scented air fresheners.


Brenda Fleming

There is a science behind “scent events,” in P&G parlance, said Lindsey Mithoefer, communications manager for P&G’s air care unit in North America. The kitchen, for example, releases millions, if not billions of scent molecules, which end up nesting in sofas and curtains. Molecules can easily recirculate around a home after rising humidity or if odor-laden fabrics are disturbed.

Linda Rendle, general manager of Clorox Co., which makes Fresh Step cat litter, said people are especially worried about their pets. Jokingly, she attributes some of the credit to the scent sensitivities to compete with P&G.

“Do you know those blind ads?” She said, referring to a 2014 campaign to promote Febreze. The premise: People think their home smells good, but others are overwhelmed by a smell that a homeowner has become immune to. “It’s terrifying for people,” Ms. Rendle said. “They say to me, ‘Can you smell the litter box? “,” Can’t I feel it? “”

Noseblind was named long before P&G created an ad campaign around the idea, linguists say. Ads featuring actress Jane Lynch faked public service announcements. Others showed people organizing interventions on family and friends who were nose blind.

IFF uses a more technical term to denote the phenomenon: the habituation of the nose. Ms. Merrill of the IFF compared it to a similar phenomenon involving sound. “If you go to a concert, when you arrive it’s super loud,” she said. “But about half an hour later, you can hear everyone.”

Marc Maret’s two kittens.


Marc Maret

Marc Maret, a bartender in Richmond, Virginia, would have preferred nose blindness to his experience with two kittens acquired during the pandemic. At first, he and his fiancee noticed the smell of kitty litter.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t going to go blind,” he said. The local pet store recommended an “outrageously expensive” litter box that promised to eliminate all litter-related odors, he said. It did not work.

“Within hours, it smelled like we had had 20 cats in the past five years,” Mr. Maret said. “It was terrible. We were worried about what our neighbors would think. Like, ‘What’s wrong with these people?'”

The couple changed brands and added an odor neutralizing spray.

Fortunately, he said, “You don’t get that smell of fresh litter. “

Write to Sharon Terlep at [email protected]

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Freeda S. Scott