OnePoll poll revealed that, as guests, we prefer sweet (63%), floral (61%), and savory (51%) fragrances when entering a house. But what your home actually smells like goes well beyond your choice of air-freshening products. So, does every house have a smell?

Here’s the TL;DR:

Every house does have a smell, but you can’t smell yours due to olfactory adaptation. A home’s smell is a combination of scents — scented products, air fresheners, personal care products (like body wash and deodorant), furniture and materials, pets, odors, and environmental factors like humidity.

Keep reading to learn what makes up a home’s unique smell, from common household odors to your choice of personal care products. I’ll also discuss why you can’t smell your home and how to find out what it smells like.

What Makes Up a Home’s Smell

A home’s unique fragrance is actually a combination of several things, including:

Household Odors

Though they may only make up a fraction of your home’s scent, guests can easily detect even the slightest odors odors, including:

In fact, an Arm & Hammer poll found that rotting garbage was the most offensive home smell. Though, a OnePoll poll (say that three times fast) labeled cigarette smoke as the worst. 

A pile of unwashed laundry may not make your home reek of BO and sweat. But the odor may be noticeable in certain rooms or subtly blend with the rest of your home’s scent.

Scented Products

household cleaning supplies
Various household cleaning supplies

A large chunk of your home’s aroma comes from the scented products you use. These include those you use to intentionally alter the scent — like candles and cleaners — and body care products — like hand soap. 

Home Fragrance Products

Candles, incense, diffusers, air fresheners, and deodorizers let you customize your home’s fragrance. They typically work by masking — or covering up — bad odors with a more powerful, pleasing one. 

Depending on your preferred fragrance, these products can make your home smell fresh and clean, exotic, warm and rich, fruity, floral, or a mix.

Household Cleaning Products

Surface and floor cleaners typically contain synthetic fragrances like citrus or pine. These leave behind a long-lasting, fresh scent that can blend with the rest of your home’s aroma, making your space smell generally clean.

Scented Personal Care Products

The scented products you use daily can also influence your home’s fragrance. 

Perfumes and colognes, for example, are highly concentrated and linger on clothes and in rooms. They can contribute to your home’s scent profile if you use them regularly and pass the scent off onto upholstery and linens. 

Known for lighter, cleaner scents, shampoos and body washes add subtle freshness in bathrooms and bedrooms.

Lifestyle + Habits

Your day-to-day activities also play a role in how your house smells. Everything from how you cook to whether you smoke indoors to how often you bathe can determine what guests smell when they enter. 


Cooking smells take on several forms and largely depend on your favorite dishes. For example, stir-frying releases oil particles into the air that can stick to nearby surfaces. This may add a spicy tinge to your home’s scent over time. 

cooking food in a pan
A person cooking food in a pan

How you cook can also change your home’s fragrance, especially when cooking with high heat. For example, grilling and frying may trigger what’s known as the Maillard reaction

This chemical process, common in high-heat cooking, produces a more complex smell. As sugars become different and extremely tiny compounds, they become gasses that we can smell and add to the food’s flavor. Meanwhile, baking good-smelling treats like cookies and pies can make a home smell sweet. 


Tobacco smoke contains high levels of nicotine and tar, which can cling to surfaces like walls, fabrics, and floors. This is also known as thirdhand smoke. The smell is particularly noticeable when it seeps deep into porous materials — including fabric, wood, and plaster. The residue left behind continues to release the odor of cigarette smoke, even long after you stop smoking. 

High humidity and temperatures can further intensify the odor. The smoke particles may also coat the ducts and filters in your home’s HVAC system. That’s why you may notice the smell of stale cigarettes whenever the heat or AC kicks on. 

Hygiene Habits

Part of your home’s scent profile depends on how often and well you keep yourself clean. Human skin has a diverse microbiome featuring viruses, fungi, and bacteria. In fact, humans have about 1,000 species of bacteria on our skin alone. 

As these microorganisms interact with sweat and skin oils, they create body odor. Whether yours smells sour, sweet, or like onions, your body odor can transfer to the fabrics and linens in your home. The less often you bathe, the more intense the odors your natural oils, sweat, and skin cells create. 

Body odor naturally clings to clothes and linens like bedsheets. The sweat, skin cells, and body oils absorbed by these fabrics create a stale, sour, or musty smell — especially if you let them sit unwashed in the hamper. 

On the other hand, doing laundry with scented detergents and fabric softeners can do the opposite: add to a home’s clean and pleasant fragrance. 


handsome black cat
A ridiculously handsome black cat (yes, I am biased)

A survey of 2,000 pet owners found that 79% know their home has a pet smell, and 66% believe they may be noseblind to this odor. The source of this stereotypical “pet smell” is a combination of several factors. 

For one, cats and dogs have their own unique scent caused by the oils and pheromones secreted from their skin and fur.

Other possible culprits include:

  • Pet urine, which bacteria breaks down into pungent-smelling ammonia as it dries
  • Feces, with a smell caused by the bacteria in fecal matter
  • Dirt, dander, and skin oils on a pet’s fur and skin
  • Beds and crates that accumulate pet odors

Environmental Factors

Indoor environmental factors like humidity, ventilation, and temperature can add unique twists to a home’s aroma.


Damp air can carry odor molecules better than drier air, meaning high indoor humidity can intensify bad odors. High moisture also creates the perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew. As mold and mildew grow, they release microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs) that contribute to a musty or earthy smell


A home’s air exchange rate describes how often outdoor air replaces indoor air. By opening windows and doors, you can introduce fresh air and dilute or remove indoor pollutants (including odors). Rooms with little airflow — like closets or windowless bathrooms — are more likely to hold onto persistent odors. 


Temperature can also influence odor due to volatility — or how easily a liquid or solid can turn into a gas. Higher temperatures make odor-causing molecules more volatile and thus amplify their odors. 

Warmth also encourages some odor-causing bacteria to grow quickly, meaning there are more smelly bacteria! As this warm air rises naturally, it carries these odor molecules and spreads their odor throughout a house. 

Building + Furniture Materials

Building and furniture materials can absorb and release odors. For example, wood, carpets, and plasters are porous and notorious for trapping odor molecules, releasing them over time. 

New construction materials, furnishings, and paints release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) via off-gassing. Off-gassing is often to blame for that “new” smell in new carpets, mattresses, homes, and furniture. 

If guests notice a chemical-like smell and you recently added something new to your home, this may be why!

Why You Can’t Smell Your House

3d human brain model
A 3D model of the human brain

You can’t smell your house due to a body process called olfactory adaptation. This phenomenon explains why we become less sensitive to smells after prolonged exposure. It’s also sometimes known as noseblindness

Here’s how it works.

The olfactory receptors in the nose play a large part in the sense of smell. Odor molecules bind to these receptors, sending signals to the brain for interpretation. The olfactory system identifies new smells in the environment and searches for smells that signal danger or a threat.

When you experience the same odors repeatedly, these receptors become less responsive, “tired,” or “used to” that scent. The olfactory bulb — where we process scent information — and the brain learn to ignore it.

Because you’re exposed to these scents regularly, your sensory system determines that the odor is neither new nor threatening. There’s no “need” to focus on the smell, so your brain begins tuning it out.

It also explains why scents are extremely noticeable in new environments. When you enter someone else’s house, you immediately notice its smell because your olfactory system has yet to experience it. 

How To Discover Your Home’s True Scent

There are two ways to determine what your home smells like: reverse the noseblindness to get a fresh whiff… or ask guests for honest opinions. 

Reset Your Sense of Smell

If you’ve ever walked through your front door and briefly smelled “home,” then you know that olfactory adaptation is reversible

Here’s how to “reset” your sense of smell:

Smell Coffee Beans

There’s a reason that perfume shops have cups or jars of coffee beans: the smell of coffee is strong and distinctive. Sniffing fragrances back-to-back can create a muddled aroma in your nose where everything smells the same. 

an overview shot of a mug of coffee beans
A mug filled with fresh coffee beans

Many theorize that a few whiffs of coffee beans will clear your nasal palate and seemingly “reset” your olfactory receptors. Some experts suggest the opposite, though — that coffee beans’ scent overwhelms an exhausted nose. 

As an alternative, try smelling your own skin!

Leave for a Few Hours

One of the simplest ways to “forget” the smell is to leave for a few hours and expose yourself to a new environment. When you return, your olfactory receptors will be less tired of the smell and more likely to detect the true scent of your home. 

Do Physical Exercise

A short bout of exercise may also improve your sense of smell by increasing blood flow throughout the body — including your nose. Try a few jumping jacks or jogging in place, and then try to take a big whiff again. 

Ask for Guest Opinions

The easiest way to learn what your house smells like is by asking those who aren’t noseblind to it: your guests. For the best results, ask them as soon as they enter, as this is when their sense of smell will be most sensitive to fragrances. 

Avoid asking vague questions like “Does my house smell good (or bad)?” Instead, be specific: “Does it smell fresh and clean in here?” or “Do you smell the litter box from where you’re sitting?” 

Make it clear that you won’t take offense to their answer and want to use their feedback to improve your home’s fragrance.

You can also monitor for non-verbal cues that something’s amiss smell-wise. For example, are they scrunching their nose, looking around for an odor source, or waving their hand in front of their nose when you look away? 

Final Thoughts

Though every house has a distinct smell, that doesn’t mean your house smells bad. To find out what your house really smells like, try resetting your olfactory receptors or asking your guests for input. You can then use this information to make your home smell better.