How to make your house smell amazing

Spoiler: potpourri is not the answer

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By Sally Newall on

Growing up, there was an ever-present bowl of potpourri on the windowsill in our hallway. It smelt vaguely of peaches, or that kind of synthetic scent that I knew was supposed to be peach, but was nothing like the aroma of the actual fruit.

This was in the early 90s, before scented candles went mainstream. I think the alternative would have been one of those plug-in numbers that smelt of loo cleaner, so I suppose the sad bowl of sticks, petals and mini-pinecones was the lesser of two evils.

As a teenager, incense sticks were the cool choice – your mum probably called them joss sticks – and were always a bit too pungent, which was admittedly convenient if you wanted to hide the smell of cigarette smoke. Impulse body spray was also a fail-safe; our school changing rooms reeked of everyone’s favourite: O2. I also remember wishing my room smelled of a 90s The Body Shop – a heady combo of White Musk and mango body butter that scented half of the local shopping centre.


Luckily, home fragrance, as it’s now called, has come a long way since then. Potpourri has been replaced with chic scented candles, room sprays and pretty diffusers (both the reed variety and an increasing number of electric ones), with the best subtly making our houses more fragrant and calming places to be, rather than giving us a headache.


The UK spends over £90m on scented candles a year, so, of all the takes on home fragrance, that market is a crowded one. More fool me to suggest what you might like – scent is so subjective that it is a case of finding what works for you in a particular space. A very unscientific survey of The Pool offices and mates with various levels of disposable income showed that a posh scented candle is a go-to me-treat for many readers. Diptyque’s candles and room sprays came up time and again – in case you’re interested, the French brand’s smoky, woody Feu de Bois is one of Victoria Beckham’s faves. Unsurprisingly, they’re spendy (£26 for the travel-size candle and £46 for a room spray), so they are ideal ones for a Christmas list.

The White Company , Jo Malone, Neom, Zara HomeArket True Grace  and Skandinavisk were common favourites. Muji and Aldi’s offerings also got the Pool readers’ seal of approval.

The fashion desk have Anya Hindmarch’s fun Anya Smells collection on their Christmas lists. With scents like “chewing gum” and “pencil shavings”, all in jazzy glass jars, they are definitely conversation starters. I’m a fan of east London-based Earl of East – several of my male friends have been happy recipients of its Smoke and Musk candle and my favourite recent discovery is Boy Smells – its pink holders and innovative scent combinations are fab.

If you read the small print, the candle world can be confusing to navigate. There are different types of waxes, for one. Paraffin blends are still the most common (it's often termed a more paletable “mineral wax”). The high melting point means you get a good scent “throw” – that’s candle-speak for how far away you can smell it – and they hold their scent well. Big players like Jo Malone and Diptique use paraffin wax, but if you do want to go for something from a renewable source, try a soy-wax candle, which is also biodegradable. British brands Tussie Mussie, Willow & Honey and Evermore, which uses a soy-coconut blend, are three of my favourites.


As I covered in my cosy-home piece, candles will last longer if you make sure the surface wax is entirely melted on the first burn. This will help it burn evenly and stop it tunnelling to the bottom and wasting two-thirds of your pricey candle. You should snip the wick each time to reduce soot; advice varies between brands, but just under a centimetre should do it. Burn time will also differ depending on candle size and wax-type (brands will give guidance on this). One tip: don’t just keep your posh candles for a “special” occasion, as the scent can fade.


We know that candles are not always practical, particularly if you have young children, boisterous pets or both. Reed diffusers are a practical alternative and many brands we’ve already mentioned will make these and room spray in the same scents. Reed sticks sit in essential oils, absorb them over time and defuse the scent around a room. They can be quite strong-smelling so if you're finding the scent over-powering, try using fewer sticks at a time. Again, it’s a case of trial and error to find levels you’re happy with. If you find the smell is fading, flip the reeds – each brand will come with its own recommendations. I like reed diffusers in a bathroom, where a fresh-smelling diffuser will help banish any less-than-pleasant odours. The White Company’s Seychelles is my fragrance of choice (I also use a spritz of the room spray to zhuszh up towels and linen). Like scented candles, diffusers aren’t cheap, but many brands sell refills, which will save you a few pounds. Just remember to change the reeds with the new oil, as they can get clogged up and become less effective.


While we’re on bathrooms, you could also try Aesop’s clever "post-poo" treatment. A few of the citrussy drops post-business will help (the brand also recommends putting a couple of drops in the sink to de-smell the whole room). Margate-based brand Haeckels makes Courtesy Flushits idea is to avoid the water-wasting double flush with a few drops of the fennell-y scented oil. If that’s too pricy, room spray can also help. 


If you want to be ahead of the home-fragrance curve, there are also an increasing number of electronic diffusers on the market. These aren't like the potent ones they have in the work loos that inexplicably make smells worse, but versions that use essential oils combined with water that release scent around a room.  Some of the more jazzy ones also come with soothing lights and sounds. Neom Organics’ version has been recommended to me numerous times, though they are selling fast, so you need to be quick. Madebyzen’s  has a range of good-value models that are designed to be used with different essential oils, rather than being tied to a particular brand. Some electronic diffusers also can help humidify a room, ideal when we’re all ramping up the central heating.


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