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Discover the top 10 rules to master the art of home fragrance

Everything you need to know to master the art of home fragrance and delight the senses every step of the way

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By House & Garden South Africa | April 17, 2024 | Living Room

As music is to film, so is fragrance to interiors. Indeed, it may not take centre stage, but it certainly weaves the very fabric of the atmosphere in any given space. As a Decor Editor, I’ve come across my fair share of home fragrances, and I’ve learned a few tips and tricks over the years. Here, I share my top 10 rules to master the art of home fragrances.

Rule # 1: Don’t mask or cover

The very last thing you should ever do is use a home fragrance to cover up existing odours in your home. Smelly carpets? Have them cleaned. Lingering tobacco in the air? Smoke outside. Think of it this way: any scent profile is made up of many complex layers, and simply adding a home fragrance on top of bad smells doesn’t fix the problem, rather it embellishes it. Besides, home fragrances only last so long, and before long the underlying odours will return full force like some unwanted guest knocking during dinnertime. It’s simple: sort out the existing odour first, and introduce home fragrance later.

Image: by Carmen Duran

Rule # 2: Dig a little deeper

Don’t reach for the most common fragrance, nor the cheapest. These often comprise compositions like fresh linen, citrus, lavender, or so-called oceanic notes. While fresh they may be, these compositions are also reminiscent of bathroom sprays, toilet bowl cleaners, and dare I even say it, urinal blocks. A hint of ablution is no solution when it comes to home fragrance. So while it may be tempting to reach for the first available home fragrance at the supermarket, I would encourage you to look further.

Rule # 3: Candles need care

Candles are some of the most effective - and quite honestly - more satisfying of home fragrances. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the ceremony of lighting scented candles. The sensory experience is a small joy of life. But as with anything good in life, there are some drawbacks. When it comes to extinguishing the flame, be sure to do so in a well-ventilated spot. Smoke from the wick, like smoke from any source, has a tendency to linger, and settle on fabric. The solution, of course, is to invest in a metal candle extinguisher, better known as a snuffer. Handy, quick (and not too bad-looking on a table), they make short work of both flame and smoke. While we’re on the subject of candles, remember to do regular maintenance. A sooty, dirty candle with a wilting or crooked wick looks unkempt and sad. In short, keep them clean and neat. Another pro tip is to keep your candle away from windows or doors where there might be a draft. Even the slightest breeze can cause your candle to burn unevenly.

Image: by Hanna Balan

Rule # 4: Doing a diffuser

To be honest, I don’t find diffusers to be the go-to for all homemakers. The reeds can quickly become dusty (and they’re so difficult to clean!), and sometimes the bottle isn’t much to look at. As such, I usually use them in a high-traffic areas, but not anywhere where they serve as a focal point. So atop bookshelves, mantles, or consoles: yes! Atop coffee tables or side tables: no! Remember to turn the sticks every three to four days for consistent fragrance release; and whatever you do, don’t place them anywhere near a window. A breeze will eat away at the fragrance, while sunlight might disrupt the precious composition of molecules that make up the fragrance.

Rule # 5: Be mindful of where you spray

In lists such as this one, you’ll often find tips that encourage you to spray your curtains, pillows, and whatever textile you can get your hands on. I would disagree. Yes, there are advantages to spraying textiles - for one, the fragrance tends to last longer - but I wouldn't spray it everywhere. Certain sprays can stain fabrics, or even leave a sticky residue, so be careful. I would rather stick to spritzing scatter cushions and throws as these are easy to wash, and if staining occurs they are less expensive to replace than say a sofa or a set of curtains.

Image: by Johanne Pold Jacobsen

Rule # 6: Don’t double up

We’ve already touched on the subject of bathrooms, but let's dig a little deeper. A home fragrance and a toilet spray should never come out of the same bottle. That is, don’t double up one scent to refresh your living spaces and your bathroom. Very few scents are designed to be subtle enough to invigorate a living space while being potent enough to mask unsavoury odours. Besides, after a while, you’ll associate the smell with the loo, and understandably you’ll feel less and less inclined to spritz it in the rest of your home or before guests arrive.

Rule # 7: Lighting up incense

Incense is a powerful, beautifully crafted source of scent. But it can also be heavy and deeply aromatic. As such, it should be used in well-ventilated spaces, where the smoke and fragrance won’t overpower you, or agitate your pets or guests. And of course, never leave the burning stick unattended. Incense isn't for everyone, so play around and find what works best for you. For instance, I found I prefer incense in summer when the air is dry and light. In winter, with added moisture, I personally find the room might smell a bit “close” and dusty the following day. But of course, this experience will vary from person to person.

Image: by Ray Albrow

Rule # 8: Explore all options

We’ve spoken about sprays, candles, diffusers, and incense, but only because these are what you’re most likely to find in home stores and online. But dig a little deeper, you’ll find there are many wonderful fragrance solutions available. One of my personal favourites recently is scented rocks or resin blocks. They’re lovely to look at and offer an unassuming and interesting source of scent.

Rule # 9: Less is often more

The cruel reality of any scent is that when expose yourself to it for long enough, you become used to it and stop smelling it altogether. That’s when we usually simply start using more and more of it. Avoid this, as it can be overpowering to guests and even cause headaches. In any case, a subtle scent in a room is far more effective at exuding luxury than an eye-watering dose of fragrance.

Image: by Simon Tackaert

Rule # 10: Determining your home’s scent

Like a fragrance you’d choose for your body, a home fragrance should speak to your personality. But if you need a little more guidance, dear homemaker, I will share one of my personal favourite tips. A good place to start is by taking stock of your existing furniture, joinery and finishes. Look at the colours, textiles, and shapes - together they already tell a story. Is it dark and moody, or light and minimalist? Is it playful and eclectic, or romantic and adorned? Once you’ve determined the overall mood, look out for scents that speak to that particular mood. And I’d suggest a scent that is more unusual and complex to do just that. For example:

Dark and moody: look for scents containing notes like amber, leather, incense, saffron, musk, oud or pepper.

Light and minimalist: look for scents containing notes like basil, white tea, green moss, ginger, pear or cucumber.

Romantic and adorned: look for scents containing notes like blackcurrant, tuberose, fig, peony, honey, or honeysuckle.