Home Icons Oil Diffuser

Scent turns a rented apartment into a home

Full-text audio version of this essay.

This essay is part of Home Icons, a series about the cultural and material histories of domestic objects. Read the others here.

I’ve always liked to surround myself with scent. An outcome perhaps of my mother’s habit of lighting incense every morning, and stocking a full arsenal of essential-oil burners and odor neutralizers from back when my father used to smoke. Living in a succession of rented bedrooms with increasingly awful landlords, it became a way to mark space as mine and make these situations feel bearable, a kind of territorial pissing not dissimilar to the way that animals deploy their scent glands to delineate property lines. This became literalized in my last house where I waged an extended battle with a new roommate’s aggressively needy cat, which made it its life mission to slink into my room. (I am extremely allergic and the roommate promised me it would limit itself to the basement; I didn’t understand how cats worked.) Instead, I was the one who ended up limiting myself to my tiny bedroom, with occasional forays to the kitchen. I spent the time not being able to smell very well, using three to four times as much essential oil as recommended.

Now in my own studio, a whole lineup of scented accoutrements overrides the stale cigarette smoke from my downstairs neighbors and cures what ails me: room and linen sprays, candles, solid and liquid perfumes, floral hydrosols, mentholated rubs, essential oils in various configurations, Thai herbal inhalers, and eucalyptus — branches in the shower, or oil on a pillowcase, which reminds me of my uncle’s house in the high Nilgiris, where the silvery forests scent the air and sting the skin. I still use way more essential oil than you’re supposed to in order to fill the big single room, and feel like I’m constantly taking an aromatherapeutic bath. Like a cat owner who grows used to the constant ammoniac scent of the litter tray, I grow nose blind as the days inside bleed into one another. But when I return to my apartment, the scents greet me as a furry pet might, minus the allergies, winding their way affectionately around me as I climb up the last flight of stairs. Most of all, these scents act as a kind of olfactory mood playlist to move through my day.

When I return to my apartment, the scents greet me as a furry pet might, winding their way affectionately around me as I climb up the last flight of stairs

My one true scent love is incense. In the past two years, I’ve dived into an exploration of different styles, from the woody, compressed sawdust cones that make it feel like you’re burning a wintry fire in your overheated apartment to the austere subtlety of Japanese styles which don’t have a wooden or bamboo core, and the super-thick, aggressively smoky masala sticks — the same brand my mother burns every morning and which I find especially comforting. There’s something about the lighting ritual that I love: the short few seconds aflame, the extinguishing, the smoldering, and those first few elegant curlicues of smoke. I usually burn incense in the kitchen, when I wake up or to accompany doing the dishes, and especially like using the gas stove to light a stick for the way it forces a momentary yellow halo in the blue flame. Scent, in short, turns a rented apartment into a home.

As the pandemic unfurled, however, I read that incense irritated your respiratory passages while humidifiers help. So I brought out my mostly neglected diffuser, a cheap plastic device I bought online after my stone oil burner caught on fire. It doesn’t have abrand name, but is all but indistinguishable from what Amazon calls the “VicTsing Essential Oil Diffuser, 150ml Mini Wood Grain Aroma Diffuser, Aromatherapy Diffuser with Auto Shut-Off Function and BPA-Free for Office Home Study Yoga Spa Baby (Dark Brown).” Two buttons debossed with ʟɪɢʜᴛ and ᴍɪsᴛ toggle its features — runtimes of one, three, or six hours — as well as a colorful light effect, which I like to leave cycling in a never-ending gradient. Customers love it: It has over 18,000 reviews on Amazon (2,000 more than the last time I checked, in late September) and an overall rating of 4.5. When I bought it a year or so ago, it cost $19.99; it currently retails for $26.99. It sits in my studio on a top shelf next to a ZZ plant and the upper leaves of a little rubber tree, neither of which seem to mind being constantly showered in an aromatic mist. Maybe they like the extra moisture; maybe it works like a less malodorous neem oil to keep the bugs away.

Unlike the handsome, minimalist diffusers you might see on Instagram and home design blogs, my diffuser looks like a Hershey’s Kiss, made of cheap plastic wrapped in a faux wood veneer that is already peeling off. It is the common ultrasonic kind, which you fill with water. The plastic water reservoir is irredeemably filmed with oil, like old tupperware. It uses an electric current to create vibrations in a small disk, which breaks the essential oil down into micro molecules that are then shot out in a satisfying, quietly burbly mist. The technology’s history is hard to pin down, but it seems to have been invented by Japanese ultrasound specialists Honda Electronics in the late 1990s, and perfected — made smaller and more portable — over the course of the 2000s.

As days blurred into one another and my sleep schedule slid around to working through the night, scent became a way to mark and signal shifts in my “day”

A diffuser can be a substitute for a humidifier, but most — including mine — do not release enough moisture into the air. No matter, because it served another essential purpose: As days blurred into one another and my sleep schedule slid around to working through the night and sleeping until mid-afternoon, scent became a way to mark and signal shifts in my “day.” One of the early symptoms of Covid-19 was said to be anosmia, or a loss of taste and smell. I understood it didn’t happen to everyone, but setting up the equivalent of an olfactory boombox still assured me, on some level, that if I could still smell I was okay, and that everything would be okay. Above all, I used scent to break up the never-ending monotony of pandemic life, like this viral Election Day tweet about sitting on anti-homeless architecture just to feel something.

Picking scents offered some semblance of control and agency at a time when the world offered none, between the Covid-19 pandemic, the epidemic of police brutality, the economy in freefall and, for people on visas like me, a heightened sense of precarity and instability. (It’s also less permanent than getting a stick-and-poke tattoo, another way to respond to churning fear and boredom.) While I was already a full-time freelancer before shutdowns, many millions of people found themselves suddenly stuck at home and struggling to adjust. Unsurprisingly, even as the beauty industry has suffered staggering losses, the home fragrance industry is booming.

The diffuser is increasingly part of brands’ scent marketing platforms, too, which rely on our hard-wired Proustian associations between scent and memory. You can probably conjure up that iconic Cinnabon smell — our generation’s madeleine — for example, but did you know that it’s so baked into their brand image that they purposefully select sites where the smell can spread, bake new batches at least every 30 minutes (sometimes heating pans of cinnamon and brown sugar in between), install their ovens at the front of the store, and apparently tell franchisees to install the weakest hoods possible within legal bounds? Other stores operate with more artifice, from Lowes’ faux fresh-cut wood smell, chocolate pumped out at some Hershey’s stores, and ersatz buttery popcorn at movie theaters and Disney locations. Abercrombie & Fitch used to make its workers spray its signature woody scents around its stores, but has now enlisted nebulizers. Mostly, brands go to some effort to hide their olfactory marketing so as to more subtly influence customers, but some brands like Muji display their diffusers front and center.

Nobody would accuse me of being a hiker or camper or even someone particularly comfortable in nature, but the longer I, an avowed homebody, spent inside, the more I wanted to bring the outside in. And so I carefully measured essential oil blend formulas like aromatherapeutic subroutines: citruses, mints and woods to feel energized; lavender, chamomile and frankincense to wind down; any number of Indian floral-sandalwood blends for a swirly, sueded paisley kind of feeling. Sometimes I just mixed oils out of sheer boredom, as if to try to change the channel, and make the afternoon seem even slightly different.

Whenever I cleaned up around the apartment, I found myself craving an almost municipal sanitized smell that my too-natural products just didn’t provide. I sprayed and diffused variations of a blend known as Four Thieves, which confusingly contains at least five ingredients: clove; cinnamon; eucalyptus, or the more historically accurate camphor; lemon or orange; and rosemary. The name comes from its origin myth, which varies in different tellings, but most common seems to be: During the Black Death, four men were captured and charged for stealing from plague victims. Their crime warranted being burned alive, but a judge promised them clemency if they told him how they managed to keep from contracting the highly transmittable disease. The men explained that they were perfumers and spice traders, out of work because of the economic devastation of the plague, which included the closure of sea ports. Using their herbal knowhow, they concocted a blend which they applied to their face, mask, and hands to protect themselves. (It was no match for the carceral appetite, however: The judge ordered that they shouldn’t be burned, but hanged instead, or so the tale goes.)

The story, apocryphal as it might be, is rooted in truth. The foul-smelling, bloody, pus-leaking swellings of afflicted victims and rotting corpses meant that medieval PPE required some equivalent of Febreze. During that era, physicians largely accepted the miasma theory of disease, which posited that illness was caused by noxious vapors — or mal air, from which the bloodborne malaria gets its name. As a result, plague physicans’ iconic beaked masks were stuffed with strong-smelling herbs like dried lavender and roses, mint, camphor and myrrh, powdered viper flesh and a vinegar sponge. The beak was around a foot long, which its designer, royal physician Charles de Lorme, believed gave the mixture enough time to infuse the air before being breathed in by its wearer — a herbal filter. It was the masks themselves that probably protected the wearers, rather than the fragrance, but I’m delighted to learn that these beaks are the reason why doctors are sometimes called “quacks.” Wrong as everyone was about miasma, those four perfumers were onto something, and today the combination remains popular for its anti-fungal, anti-microbial and anti-viral properties.

Of course, 2020 has taught us that few things are as effective against viruses as soap and water. Evidence of bathing stretches back approximately three millennia to ancient Indian Vedic civilizations who bathed thrice a day. Soap came soon after, with the earliest examples made by the Sumerians in around 2800 BC, although they were used primarily in textile making, with their hygienic applications limited to ritualistic purification for priests. In Europe, public bathhouses remained common after the decline of the Greek and Roman empires, up until the late Medieval Ages, when people began to suspect that hot water carried diseases like Syphilis. It probably didn’t help that bathhouses often functioned as brothels, and the Catholic Church forbade mixed bathing as a sinful act. Elizabethans famously doused themselves and their wigs in essential oils instead of bathing. They did this primarily to mask the stench — the Axe body spray of the 16th century.

Still, it’s worth noting that although the Greeks and Romans had access to soap, they preferred to use it as a hair pomade. Their bathing rituals began with washing in water, exfoliating with sand, slathering on scented oils then scraping away the oils, dead skin, and dirt with a tool called a strigil. Contrary to popular depictions, Vikings are believed to have bathed weekly — much more frequently than their Continental contemporaries — but also saw soap as a styling product: the lye bleached their head and facial hair their preferred blond. In other words, Vikings preferred to be blonds with lighter complexioned facial hair, an association between cleanliness and aspirational whiteness that continues to this day. Even today, the health benefits of “clean” scents are often touted by marketers: During today’s pandemic, essential oil MLMs capitalize on collective fear of contagion and impurity — it’s hard not to think of the “ritual pollution” of caste subjugation here  — claiming “immune-boosting” and “antioxidant” properties.

Today we often refer to the purported health benefits of essential oils as “aromatherapy,” which can be traced to French chemist René-Maurice Gattefosse, who became interested in the medicinal properties of essential oils in 1928 after badly burning himself while experimenting in the labs of his family’s cosmetics company. He is said to have plunged his hand into the nearest vat of cold liquid — which happened to be lavender oil — and found that it healed surprisingly quickly, with minimal scarring. During the First World War, he experimented with additional antiseptic oils at military hospitals, including lemon, thyme and clove, and discovered that they helped soldiers’ wounds heal much quicker, without the side effects of other common antiseptics. (The bleach-based Dakin’s solution was the most common at the time, but was later replaced with penicillin.) He would go on to coin the term aromatherapie in French, and publish what is described as the first book dedicated to aromatherapy, which seems unsurprising given that he invented it.

In aromatherapy, essential oils may be applied topically if safely diluted, and are absorbed into the body through the skin. Research into aromatherapy’s medical applications is relatively limited, but studies do suggest that the oils can help with anxiety, depression, insomnia and nausea, and in the case of lavender, provide pain relief particularly for kidney stones and some forms of arthritis. One John Hopkins study finds that 10 essential oils, garlic, allspice, cinnamon, myrrh and thyme among them, are more effective than standard antibiotics at combating what is variously referred to as persistent Lyme infection or post-treatment Lyme syndrome. (It’s worth noting that this differs from the diffuse umbrella called “chronic Lyme.”)

The same studies are undoubtedly weaponized by scammy doctors, “quacks” in the modern usage, to prey on vulnerable people (mostly women) and sell them all manner of Goop-y snake oil and treatments. And while it is reductive to dismiss aromatherapy as psychosomatic, or purely scent based, there are dangers in extolling its benefits, too — side effects can range from allergic reactions to toxicity, if ingested or otherwise internally applied. Certain oils should never be used, even topically, during pregnancy, labor, or while breastfeeding.

What about smelling salts? I primarily associate them with fainting Victorian women, doubly afflicted with too-tight corsets and learned helplessness: They were known as lavender salts or as “lady revivers.” I was surprised to learn that they are commonly used by weightlifters and soccer, hockey, NBA, and NFL players as performance enhancers and to revive possibly-probably concussed players. Smelling salts used to be a regular feature at boxing rings too, but have mostly been banned. Lavender or eucalyptus are common scents, but their main ingredient is actually ammonia, which is produced — as in glow sticks — when the salts are opened. When inhaled, they irritate the body into breathing faster, which in turn boosts the delivery of oxygen to the brain and revives someone.

At this juncture I checked the ingredients of my aforementioned Thai herbal inhalant, and am relieved to learn its effects are due to menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus and borneol oils, alongside 15-17 proprietary herbs — cloves, mint, pomelo skin, mace, cardamom and star anise seem common — infused in eucalyptus oil. American wellness brands are getting in on the ammonia-free smelling salt act: On Election Day in 2016, Vogue ran an article about how smelling salts could “make your nervous system great again,” quoting a herbalist who claims that essential oils can “even generate new neural pathways.” In a throwback to those frayed lady nerves, she provides instructions for three essential oil-and-epsom-salts blends to relieve anxiety (chamomile, sandalwood, balsam), fear (rose, melissa, neroli), and panic (lavender, bergamot, valerian). For those who would rather soothe their nerves through retail therapy, Vogue suggests some chicer options.

With its emphasis on protecting the body from things like toxins and free radicals, wellness culture can often feel as scientifically dubious as the now thoroughly debunked miasma theory

It’s difficult and maybe impossible to talk about ambient scent without engaging with wellness culture, which promotes holistic healing through consumption instead of increased access to care or any form of systemic change. With its emphasis on protecting the body from things like toxins and free radicals — unstable atoms that cause illness and aging — wellness culture can often feel as scientifically dubious as the now thoroughly debunked miasma theory. And even as I understand that it’s marketing and not a reconnection with my Ancient Ayurvedic roots or whatever, I find myself embarrassingly susceptible all the same, believing the hype about green beauty, drawing the line at activated charcoal but lingering in the fancy juices and water aisle anyway.

Above all, there’s nothing Western wellness culture loves more than the adjective “ancient,” which allows it to present itself as a sensuous conduit of cultural rediscovery. The aromatherapy industry likes to hearken back to the Ancient Egyptians, who produced essential oils using a solvent extraction method known as enfleurage. Animal fats were melted and infused with flowers and plant matter before being strained to produce infused oil — you can do the same thing with chilis or herbs and olive oil to tasty effect. In the 18th century, the French developed a cold enfleurage method — think compound butter, or the way butter captures fridge smells — to capture the fragrance of more delicate flowers that would get destroyed in boiling oil. Today, the production of essential oils mostly involves distillation, though citrus oils, like the aforementioned olive oil, are generally mechanically extracted or cold pressed.

Here, there’s a very racial colonial framework of cleanliness and purity at play. One-hundred percent pure essential oil is said to be the best — despite many compounds being too volatile to exist this way — while something sold as fragrance oil is cheaper but adulterated, artificial, may cause headaches and other psychosomatic effects. The popularity of “clean” cleaning products and recipes (“DIY your own green cleaner with only vinegar, water and lemon!”) obscures the environmental impacts. Consider the fact that it takes 250 pounds of lavender, or 1,500 lemons, or 6,000 pounds of melissa, or a staggering 10,000 pounds of rose petals to produce just one pound of essential oil. All this plant matter has to come from somewhere: either corporate farms with their heavy pesticide use (there are currently no organic certifications for essential oils) or perhaps worse, wild harvesting, which can not only decimate populations, but also means that plants sacred to indigenous populations are now endangered and inaccessible. Additionally, the high flammability of essential oils means that their glass containers are difficult (and in some jurisdictions, impossible) to recycle.

We tend to think of diffusers as home goods, or associate them with places of commodified relaxation like spas, without considering the labor practices involved in their production and dissemination. And that’s to say nothing of other scented products, like the ubiquitous pearlescent pink soap — a terribly municipal pleasure that smells deliciously of almonds, but is made using prison labor by companies like Corcraft. (Earlier this year, NY governor Cuomo came under fire for trumpeting his new plan of having incarcerated people produce NYS Clean-branded hand sanitizer to meet the initial shortage, but it was later revealed that they were simply rebottling an existing product of unknown origin.)

Earlier this year I got mysteriously sick, with a furious itching that seemed to burn from the inside out and meant I managed to sleep only every two days; joint pain that meant difficulty bending some fingers; constant thirst and a mouth full of cotton wool, overwhelming fatigue; loss of appetite; and sudden, dramatic weight loss. Even with insurance, trying to figure out what was wrong was a nightmare of serial misdiagnoses and shrugs, U.S. healthcare at its finest. I convinced myself, with the help of WebMD, that I was diabetic and also possibly arthritic. Only after leaving for Dubai (for visa reasons), and undergoing a battery of tests, was I diagnosed as having essentially poisoned my liver — not from drinking (which I rarely do) but entirely from the arsenal of small-herbalist-made herbal tinctures I turned to during the pandemic.

Initially I took them to deal with a sudden debilitating anxiety and panic attacks every time a siren went by on my busy road, and, later in the summer, my entirely inverted sleep schedule. I had replaced my regular habit of overnight infusions (nettle and oatstraw, with some spearmint for flavor) with ghost pipe tinctures, which offered a lot of pain relief from the headaches and jaw clenching I just couldn’t shake. Multi-herb concoctions full of exciting-sounding plants seemed like they might fix everything, or at least go a long way toward amelioration. They were incredibly effective, much more than any diffused oil, and I soon replaced one set of eyedropper bottles for another. Perhaps I reacted badly to one particular ingredient or mixture, but I very certainly shouldn’t have been choosing my own adventure through these very potent tinctures, and 300 percent overdid it.

I stopped “everything but food,” as my doctor put it, while medications meant that my body slowly began to heal. Talking to others who had done something similar, I feel especially lucky, not in the least for being able to access a functioning healthcare system in the UAE. When I returned to NYC, though it took me a day to work up to it, I tipped each beloved bottle into the bin. I began running my diffuser and, as it got colder, burning candles again.

Do I believe that my diffuser has any appreciable effect on my respiratory system, or even my mental health? I’m not sure I do, beyond a familiar Vicks VapoRub-type congestion clearing. When they show up at the market, I’ll get new eucalyptus branches for my shower. Maybe I’ll try lavender oil on my still slightly stiff knuckles, but realistically, probably not. When I leave New York in a few months, I will leave my now falling-apart diffuser behind and, down the line, look for one that might last. Anyway, these scents mean something different to me now. I wonder if I’ll even be able to smell many of them again without thinking of this long, weird, lonely, scent-drenched year.

Rahel Aima is a writer based between Brooklyn and Dubai. She runs NIGHTLIFE, a newsletter about staying in, and is currently working on a book about oil, water, and digital culture in the Arabian Gulf.