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Mei Tong of Aromatherapy Associates in Hong Kong smells a candle fragrance. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Essential oil diffusers, scented candles, bath oils, tailored aromas: how smell has become so important to us after coronavirus

  • Companies dealing in scents report a surge in interest as people try to get away from Covid-19 odours such as stuffy homes, mouldy shops and sanitised hands
  • Scents can trigger emotions, says one insider who used a peppermint fragrance in hand sanitiser to increase its use in a school
Sian Powell

Musty. Dank. Sharply antiseptic. Covid-19 has left not just a trail of misery and illness, but lasting memories of its smells: of sanitisers and antibacterials, of mouldy shops left locked up for too long, of stuffy homes filled with too many people working, learning, surviving.

So people everywhere have turned to fragrances to banish such memories – from warm, woody scents that evoke comfort to the crisp clean aromas of citrus and herbs to set a new direction.

The sense of smell is powerful and often underrated, able to change mood, evoke emotion and bring memories to life with an unexpected whiff of a long-forgotten fragrance: the frangipani of childhood holidays, or the lavender once used in grandmothers’ potpourri.

Covid-19 can kill or damage the human sense of smell, mostly on a temporary basis. A meta-analysis published in February in the British Dental Journal in Practice found an overall alteration in the sense of smell was found in nearly half of all virus patients. A deterioration in the sense of smell has been linked to Covid-19 from the early days.


Fragrance expert helps recovered Covid-19 patients regain sense of smell

Fragrance expert helps recovered Covid-19 patients regain sense of smell

Many people have been profoundly upset to realise their sense of smell has died or been damaged, leaving their understanding of scents skewed: instead of a banana, say, they smelled toast. Some resort to smell training, as recommended by researchers, in an effort to rejuvenate this important sense that is so vitally connected to taste – people who can’t detect aromas usually can’t taste much either.

For all these reasons – pandemic and otherwise – the sense of smell is finally coming into its own, says John Paulo Hui, founder of bespoke Hong Kong perfumery Artisenses.

“People are definitely more interested in scents and the sense of smell these days,” says Hui, who has a background in scent companies. “We have seen a booming trend in Hong Kong particularly for candles, but we are seeing a lot more diffusers being sold.”

John Paulo Hui of Artisenses. Photo: Artisenses

Artisenses sells scented candles, scent diffusers and perfumes from a studio in Lai Chi Kok, currently under renovation, and runs popular mix-and-match scent events for customers, as well as professional workshops for fragrance companies such as L’Oreal, LVMH and Shisheido.

The company also provides tailored aromas for commercial premises. “It’s important to understand their current branding and the kind of message they want to achieve with their clients,” Hui says.

“The selection of scents is affected by the brand messages. For example, if you go into the W hotel, they have deep, sensual greyish colour tones, and at the St Regis, it’s a relatively luxe, gold, clean, British look – the scents will be completely different.”

A “Scent Bar” event in Hong Kong by Artisenses. Photo: Artisenses

Scents can trigger emotions, Hui says. Research agrees: vanilla scents, for example, have been found to help soothe tense and anxious people, so doctors and nurses in a number of US hospital surgical suites have begun to explore the use of vanilla to calm patients. A peppermint fragrance, meanwhile, boosts emotions, Hui says, and he has been using it to similar effect.

“For a school in Hong Kong we added a peppermint scent to the hand sanitiser we produce for them. Immediately there was a big increase in students putting their hands into the hand sanitiser machine, demonstrating how scents can improve habits in terms of using hand sanitiser.”

The nose is connected to emotionally important parts of the brain, explains Mei Tong, head of sales at Aromatherapy Associates in Hong Kong, which sells beauty products connected with essential oils.

“The sense of smell is the only sense we have that’s directly linked to our amygdala, [a collection of cells] in our brains that help us process emotion and connects with our memories,” she says. “Our sense of smell is definitely our most primal, rooted for survival. When we smell something, we immediately have a reaction to it.”

Aromatherapy Associates’ products at the IFC Mall. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

One of Tong’s colleagues in Britain discovered she had Covid-19 when she could no longer smell one of the company’s bath and shower oils.

“She used to use it every morning to get her going,” Tong says. “Revive Morning: it’s a citrusy, uplifting aroma, with juniper berries, citrus grapefruit and rosemary.”

Work from home arrangements, quarantine, and isolation measures enforced during the pandemic have boosted demand for these natural fresh aromas, Tong adds, with consumers increasingly interested in products such as diffusers and scented candles to provide a perfumed atmosphere for different parts of the day.

“The market for luxury candles has grown tremendously,” she says. “People are trying to find ways to incorporate well-being into their homes.”

A bath oil by Aromatherapy Associates. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Hong Kong-based Chloe Hui is Asia-Pacific vice-president of scent marketing company ScentAir, which provides diffusers and tailored scents for commercial customers including Westin hotels, fashion brand Kookai, fitness chain Anytime Fitness, American Airlines and Air New Zealand.

She notes there was more demand for fresh, clean smells as shops, offices and many other commercial premises opened after being forced to shut during the pandemic, often for weeks or months.

“It’s important to smell clean,” she says. “When [premises forced to shut] opened up, there was really a [bad] smell.” People often notice the smell of a place before almost anything else, she adds, even if they only notice it subconsciously, and they react to it quickly.

ScentAir’s Chloe Hui. Photo: ScentAir

Early in 2020 ScentAir introduced a new fragrance called “Clear”, whose strong odour-neutralisation properties were designed to eliminate dank and musty smells from commercial premises, and wipe out other lingering odours of the pandemic.

The company has more than 2,000 scents, both natural oils and synthetics, in its library, for clients who want a fragrance that will enhance and sustain their overall image.

“They want their customers to remember them, remember the brand, the experience they create for their customers and the guests,” Hui says. “They want to create a memorable experience for their tenants.”

The ScentAir Essence is a device for scent diffusion. Photo: ScentAir

Hotels, she says, like warm spicy scents, creamy vanillas, and soft, powdery notes that create warm and inviting experiences. “Journey”, one of ScentAir’s fragrances, has been found to be its best for creating a warm and inviting experience, Hui says, and its popularity is on the upswing.

By contrast, retail customers tend to prefer refreshing flower bouquets, or luxurious tones of valuable woods, warm amber and earthy patchouli.

“In our library, a bestselling item is called ‘White Tea and Fig’ that’s more floral,” she says. “‘A Walk in the Woods’ is also a top-selling item that will create a luxe and sophisticated experience.”

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Scent marketing is a developing industry, Hui says, with plenty of room to experiment and expand and a shortage of large global interests in the field.

“So we are investing a lot in knowledge-sharing and product education,” she says, “and we have very high aspirations for the growth opportunities.”