What smells good that doesn't cause cancer?
August 31, 2009 4:50 AM   Subscribe

Candles, incense, and even deodorant are linked with cancer. What can I use to make my house smell nice that hasn't already been proven to make me sick?

Candles: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/12/991223010346.htm


We have two young kids under three, and we just want the house to smell extra nice. What's an easy safe way?

Only caveat: I tend to dislike the scent, and question the effectiveness, of traditional potpourri.
posted by lexfri to Home & Garden (42 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Essential oils. Mix several drops in water in a mister; use as a room spray.

While you're at it, have you considered switching to homemade cleaning products? You can also add a drop or two of lemon or orange or tea tree essential oil to homemade cleaning products to give floors, counters, etc. a wonderfully clean scent.
posted by pecanpies at 4:56 AM on August 31, 2009

Best answer: Potpourri can smell like anything you care to throw in a pot. You may be reacting against the "flowery" smells, and I can't blame you for that.

If I have a cooking accident (like an oil fire) and need to fix the stinky house, I just throw some cinnamon sticks in a pot and simmer them for a few hours. Then the whole place smells like apple pie. Fresh and nice. Cardamon also works great, if you want a bit of a spicy scent.

Experiment. It's fun.
posted by rokusan at 4:58 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Put a hoop trellis over a door or window that faces the prevailing wind, and plant a jasmine vine to climb on it. Plant daphne near another door or window. Lavender near another. Rosemary near another, and replace some of your lawn with chamomile.
posted by flabdablet at 5:01 AM on August 31, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Two drops of fresh vanilla extract smeared onto a cold light bulb before turning it on. Smells very nice.
posted by 5ean at 5:01 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get a reed infuser at Target. Job done!
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:05 AM on August 31, 2009

Check out Lampe Berger. There are beautiful containers available, the fuels come in nice smells, and there's a scientific basis behind how it operates. I could probably explain the scientific basis to you if I were that kind of scientist, but I'm not. However, they do a very nice job of removing noxious smells from the house and leave a much more pleasant fragrance behind.
posted by DrGail at 5:22 AM on August 31, 2009

re deodorant, no, they're not.

Best way of dealing with smells is at the source, rather than providing a masking smell to hide everything. Better ventilation helps a lot.
posted by scruss at 5:24 AM on August 31, 2009 [3 favorites]

Clean with white vinegar.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:32 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

The realtor trick to the nice-smelling house is to bake things.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 5:33 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Citrus fruits! You can get essential oils for delicious citrus fruits that are organic and local and all sorts of good things at most organic grocery stores or health food shops. But really, you can easily make your own just by infusing the peels of any given citrus in oil and straining. Repeat, with gentle heat (sunlight, or very low setting on the stove) until you get the smell you want. Bonus: delicious fruit! The lazy man's version of making your own citrus oil is taking an orange peel and squeezing it onto anything you like. Do limes and grapefruits cause cancer? I hope not.
posted by Mizu at 5:35 AM on August 31, 2009

re: citrus fruits, you could make a pomander!
posted by jquinby at 5:43 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Also, you're over-estimating the risk of using candles:

The scientists suggested switching to candles made from beeswax or soy, which did not release significant levels of the chemicals.

But Dr Joanna Owens, from Cancer Research UK, said: "There is no direct evidence that everyday use of candles can affect our risk of developing cancer.

From BBC news.

posted by modernnomad at 5:44 AM on August 31, 2009 [3 favorites]

Grow your own herbs, then dry them by making little bundles and hanging them up around your kitchen. Pinch off little bits when you need them the rest of the year. It's a two-fer herbs all year long and the scent of the little sachets.

Extra bonus - cooking smells overtaking toddler smells.

Another bonus - mint grows like crazy in all but the most extreme situations and a bruised sprig of mint can beat a diaper pail. You could even grow it in a pot inside during the winter and if the kids decide to taste the plant, no harm done.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:44 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm with kldickson. News media is not a good source for reliable medical information. The studies you linked to on incense, for example, look at the risks associated with chronic exposure to high levels of pollutants. That's a world away from proving infrequent exposure to a little incense causes cancer.

In fact, to quote one of the researchers:
"At the end of the day, people who use incense casually, I don't think that's a cause for major concern"
I understand that, especially as a parent, you want to minimise any possible risk to those in your household. But it's also important to retain a sense of perspective. Unfortunately "Eat plenty of greens, exercise often, don't smoke" doesn't sell many newspapers, but that's the best advice you can follow.
posted by SciencePunk at 5:57 AM on August 31, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I like to throw cinnamon and clove into a pot and let it simmer for an hour or so. It's especially nice during fall and winter because of the humidity factor.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 5:58 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

Definitely baking cookies. Or bread. Or simmering a pot of chicken soup on the stove. Really most foods that aren't fish or burnt popcorn will do! Simmering spiced apple cider will also smell pretty darn delicious.

For the artificial approach, you could probably do okay by getting some heavily scented soap and grating it finely into a bowl.

However, I have no proof that any of the above things do not cause cancer. Cancer is a mysterious thing that you will probably die of if you don't find some other way to die first. And now that we more or less know what to do about heart disease, cancer is really moving up there on the list of "things you're likely to die of." Just to warn you.
posted by that girl at 6:04 AM on August 31, 2009

Nthing cooking and live plants.
posted by box at 6:21 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Following on the "throw things into a pot and simmer", peel and orange and throw in the orange peel with the cinnamon sticks and cloves. Awesomeness.
posted by olinerd at 6:30 AM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you're really concerned with antiperspirant, which is what is sometimes suggested to be linked to disease (though, as scruss points out, it's not something you actually need to worry about), not, as you said, deodorant, wash your armpits frequently with antibacterial soap, use non-antiperspirant deodorant (there are a million of them), apply cornstarch to absorb sweat, and consider using perfume to mask any smells, depending on how stinky you get. I did this when I was in a colder climate, not because I was worried about disease but because I was tired of stains on shirts, and it worked well, but now that I live in a tropical environment, I really, really need me some aluminum.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:31 AM on August 31, 2009

Deodorant is not linked to cancer. Sheesh. However, it won't do much for your house either.

Plants are the best. They improve air quality and give off gentle and pleasant scents depending upon the plant. Chemicals and incense etc. seem a bit strong unless you are trying to cover up something equally strong like cigarette smoke.
posted by caddis at 6:42 AM on August 31, 2009

Fresh air? Open all your windows and run a fan.
Buy a HEPA air filter and let 'er rip.
Never let more than a small grocery bag's-worth of garbage accumulate without taking it out.
Vacuum, sweep and dust every night before you go to bed-better yet, get rid of rugs and carpet and put in wood, tile or laminate.
In sum, anything that kills germs is better than trying to cover them up.
posted by aquafortis at 7:16 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not all candles are as toxic as you fear, and even the most "toxic" ones may not be that bad. But if you're concerned, the only candles you should be wary of are ones which are petroleum-based and which use artificial fragrances. However, soy-wax based candles using essential oils are just fine.

"Throwing stuff into a pot and simmering" is another good fallback. Others have suggested cinnamon or cloves; I use citrus fruits. I try to always keep lemons and limes on hand in the kitchen anyway, but if any of them start to turn, rather than throwing them out, I just cut them into big chunks and simmer them on the stove. Usually a lemon "goes bad" one of two ways -- if it's growing obvious mold, then yeah, throw it out, but if it's just drying out, the inside's still fine and it can be simmered like this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:30 AM on August 31, 2009

The realtor trick to the nice-smelling house is to bake things.

Wow, maybe if they're underemployed realtors. Baking is a very time-consuming.

A handful of cinnamon in the oven for 20 minutes, on the other hand, is easy.
posted by rokusan at 7:34 AM on August 31, 2009

Wow, maybe if they're underemployed realtors. Baking is a very time-consuming.

Not this kind of baking.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:41 AM on August 31, 2009

Wow, maybe if they're underemployed realtors. Baking is a very time-consuming.

You can make chocolate-chip cookie dough and get one sheet of cookies in the oven in about 10-15 minutes, easy. Then you can make the rest of the dough into a log with waxed paper, stick it in the freezer and cut off the log to make more cookies whenever you want.

As for good smells, I second (or possibly third by now) the citrus. Also the throw stuff in a pot of water to simmer technique - I like to use cinnamon sticks, allspice and nutmeg. A great way to make the kitchen smell great is to grind up orange or lemon peels in the garbage disposal, if you have one.
posted by cooker girl at 7:51 AM on August 31, 2009

I've got a little bitty crockpot that I'll use for simmering cinnamon, orange peels, whatever. I fill it with water and whatever good smelly mixture I'm in the mood for, leave the top off (I think the top is actually lost), plug it in and let it run for a few hours. The only problem I've experienced is that the water can evaporate pretty quickly. So you'll want to peek at it to top off the water every now and then, and don't leave plugged in while you're not at home.
posted by lucyleaf at 7:56 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best smelling guestroom I ever stayed in had big pots of basil and parsley growing in the window. It's not everyone's idea of an awesome fragrance, but I thought it semlled terrific, Plus, hey, fresh basil!

You might also look into eucalyptus (either oils or the dried plants) which can give a room a light smell without emitting a cloud of anything. Similarly cedar and pine and other fresh woods have a nice smell that just says "cozy" without really making a stink cloud.

And yes, reducing negative odors like garbage, bathroom smells and mildew/mold/dirt will probably go a long way to helping the house smell decent in the first place which means less to coverup. I read the articles you linked to, and I think I'll still be using incense irregularly like I always do. I'd be more likely to quit cooking food on the barbecue first.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 AM on August 31, 2009

I think it's anti-perspirant (the stuff that actually works) that is supposedly linked to cancer.

Deodorant is harmless, since it really doesn't do anything.
posted by Zambrano at 8:35 AM on August 31, 2009

Open the windows, clean the house. Air out all the bedding in the sunshine.

If you can't do that, then toss things in simmering water. Lemon peel, orange peel, cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger, cloves, cardamom pods, etc.
posted by HotToddy at 9:31 AM on August 31, 2009

Cook bacon. Really good bacon makes the house smell nice all day!
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:32 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Then you can make the rest of the dough into a log with waxed paper, stick it in the freezer and cut off the log to make more cookies.

Ha. Funny, I do exactly that myself. But I've still never heard of a realtor doing actual baking just to make a baking smell. There are so many easier, cleaner, quicker ways. Cinnamon, or a spray of vanilla in the oven, and so on.

Those smells are more about making people feel safe and comfortable, of course. We don't really know the OP's motive or definition of "smell extra nice."
posted by rokusan at 9:37 AM on August 31, 2009

HEPA filters do work. I have one in my home-office room (only) and the air in there is always noticeably cleaner/fresher. It even defeats the cat, which is quite remarkable.

Whole-house HEPA is more expensive, but possible.
posted by rokusan at 9:38 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it's anti-perspirant (the stuff that actually works) that is supposedly linked to cancer. Deodorant is harmless, since it really doesn't do anything.

They do different things. Anti-perspirant stops sweat. Deodorant stops sweat from stinking. They both do these jobs well. Neither is "better" than the other, in the way that chocolate is not "better" than toothpaste.

(I prefer deodorant not because aluminum makes me worry (though it does, a bit), but because I find that when I use antiperspirant, I don't sweat anywhere except the spot(s) I miss, which sweat 10x as much to make up for the obstruction.)

Neither of these things make my house smell better, though. Maybe at very close quarters.
posted by rokusan at 9:41 AM on August 31, 2009

I just read on lifehacker.com today about hanging tea bags in inconspicuous spots - I'm going to give this a try in our basement to combat the litter boxes. Also, a reed diffuser works pretty well.
posted by Twicketface at 10:20 AM on August 31, 2009

Antiperspirant use does not increase the risk of breast cancer. However, these ideas are useful even in the absence of cancer phobia. Scented candles and commercial air fresheners are terrible for respiratory allergies and can cause serious problems in visitors who suffer from asthma or COPD.
posted by Ery at 10:32 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't use candles in a house with kids just because of the fire risk!

Honestly, I think the best way to make a place smell good is to be *clean* and get rid of smells at the source rather than just trying to mask them. The only place I use air freshener is in the bathroom to mask, um, un-pleasant smells directly after they, uh, occur.
posted by radioamy at 11:26 AM on August 31, 2009

Brew a big pot of flavored tea, such as Constant Comment. The combined orange and tea scent will get everywhere in the house. (This from a suggestion on Lifehacker).
posted by KRS at 12:07 PM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

The cosmetics safety database has nothing to say about artificial fragrances causing cancer, but it does link to a study on neurotoxicity. If you want to be extra safe, use fragrances from herbs, and spices, like many people listed above. Things we eat are pretty darn safe to smell.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:38 PM on August 31, 2009

How about essential oils in a lamp ring diffuser?
posted by wiretap at 3:20 PM on August 31, 2009

My mom used to make a little cup out of aluminum foil (or use a cupcake cup if she had a foil one around), put a little bit of vanilla extract in it, and put it in a warm (not hot) oven.
posted by litlnemo at 4:48 PM on August 31, 2009

Best answer: Spider plants are supposed to be the best for keeping the air in a home fresh. Easy to grow if you have a sunny spot to hang one.
posted by x46 at 8:16 PM on August 31, 2009

Response by poster: I'm awed and grateful for the voluminous output here.

I appreciate and acknowledge that the cancer risks for the smell-nicey things I mentioned are minimal and easily over-stated. Our goal isn't to mask bad smells — the house smells "neutral" these days :) — but rather to add extra good scents.

There are a lot of great answers here; newcomers should read all of them. I highlighted a few that I really like, and the cloves/orange peel in boiling water really work beautifully.
posted by lexfri at 5:42 PM on September 1, 2009

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