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What Does Quarantine Smell Like?

You should definitely be cracking the windows during this global pandemic

I hate to break this to you, but your quarantine apartment stinks. And that’s to be expected: You never leave the house, you spend most of the day in your pajamas, you’re showering less and you’ve stocked your cabinets with beans, beans and more beans — all of which are probably making for some pretty ripe living quarters. 

To find out how bad the average home is smelling during quarantine, I reached out to Pamela Dalton, an olfactory scientist at the Monell Center, the world’s only research institute dedicated to the study of smell, taste and chemical irritation. Dalton informed me that, even with our renewed focus on cleanliness, the average home is likely smelling a good deal riper, and the worst part is that we’re pretty much immune to detecting it. The issue is that we tend to adapt to smells fairly quickly — for example, if you go out to dinner with someone and they’re wearing a new cologne, you’ll likely acclimate to it within a few minutes, unless you find the smell especially offensive — in that case, it might linger, which is why you might be more sensitive to your date’s bad breath. 

Dalton explains that this response is “part biological and part psychological,” adding that, “when our odor receptors are exposed to the same odors over and over and over again chronically, they stop responding. This has been shown in numerous experiments with animals, humans and even petri dishes, where olfactory receptors have been bombarded with smells, and over time, they just stop responding.”

This, Dalton points out, differs from your other senses. For example, if you’re placed in a noisy environment — like your office is under construction — for the first couple of days the noise may bug you, but over a few days you tune it out. This is a purely psychological response, as you’re still hearing those sounds, your brain has just adjusted to them. Smell, though, is different — not only does your brain psychologically adjust to the same smells over and over again, but the receptors themselves stop responding to those smells. It’s a psychological and biological response that’s unique to smell.

The reason for this, Dalton explains, is that “the smell system was designed to detect differences and alert us to things that were new in our environment, so when something is there all the time, it’s a waste of resources to continue to process it. Your receptors change with chronic exposure.” When it comes to really bothersome smells, like someone with really awful B.O., Dalton says that your receptors are still adapting, but you don’t grow used to those smells because your brain is seeing them as dangerous or offensive, so it keeps triggering you to avoid the smell.

Since you’re likely under quarantine by yourself or with people you know well, you’ve already acclimated to the smells of your home and the people around you. “It takes about a week of daily exposure to stop smelling something,” Dalton says, so no matter if you’re with your partner, a roommate or your parents, you know those smells and really can’t detect them anymore, even if they’re getting a bit more potent with decreased showering habits under quarantine

If you do suddenly start smelling your partner, then, how bad must it be? Well, either it’s gotten so bad that your brain is offended by it, or their odor has actually changed. Changes might occur if someone has recently switched their brand of soap, and it may also happen with dietary changes, as how we metabolize food affects how we smell and what we’re sweating out. Your partner’s odor might also change if they become afflicted with coronavirus or some other illness, as Dalton explains that the indescribable “sick” smell people give off when they’re not feeling well is a result of inflammation (although she adds that science has yet to completely solve what that smell is or why we detect it). 

As for your standard home smells, though, the only time you can actually detect those odors is when you first enter the house, as Dalton explains that it takes a minute or so for your brain to readjust from one atmosphere to another. This will only last a few seconds, so that window to detect how your home truly smells is narrow. You might also try cracking a window, as that will help things twofold. See, by opening a window, not only are you diluting the smells in your home, you’re also introducing scents from outside, which Dalton says helps to “reset” your receptors. This is exactly why perfume counters have a jar full of coffee beans on the counter — by taking a whiff of that scent, it’ll reset someone’s smell receptors and allow them to truly absorb the smells around them. It also works with spices, so if you find yourself cooking more, take a whiff of those seasonings — you might find that you’ll get a hint to what your home smells like just afterwards.

Once you’ve gotten a true sniff of your smelly apartment, Dalton recommends utilizing air fresheners that actually take the odor molecules out of the air, as opposed to ones that just try to mask them. For example, Febreze surrounds odor molecules and makes you unable to smell them, whereas a candle or a plug-in generally just tries to hide odors. If you’re unsure which odor eliminators to go for, Dalton says to look for cyclodextrin in the ingredients, which traps and binds the hydrocarbons around you, eliminating their smell. You might also want to try cleaners that utilize enzymes to break down the smells in the air into components that don’t smell as much, which also works.

The good news is that none of these smells are likely doing you much harm. Now, if there’s something like mold in your house, that can be problematic, as you’d be around it more. Additionally, Dalton says that if someone doesn’t want to open their windows for fear of the virus, they might be increasing their exposure to stuff like cigarette smoke if they smoke, or perhaps hydrocarbons, as some heating systems do tend to leak them. Both of these can be problematic as they may exacerbate breathing problems if that person gets sick. Fortunately, according to Dalton, cracking a window can help to mitigate these effects, and there’s no reason to fear letting in a bit of fresh air. 

Still, just cracking a window isn’t going to de-stink your home from continuous farts and worsening body odor — the only way to fight against that is to be vigilant in how you’re cleaning your home and yourself. That, or you’ll be in for a pretty rude awakening when someone’s finally able to come over and visit, and you see their face turn to disgust from what you’ve been neglecting all this time.