reating a great home, everyone knows, is about color, space and light. It’s about choosing the right furniture, fabrics and accents.

But more and more, people are using fragrance to evoke experience, express individuality, and set the right mood in their homes.

It’s not only a question of personal style. A growing body of research tells us that pleasant scents can make us happier, relaxed and more alert.

“There are about 86 active studies validating the effect of odors on mood states,” says Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and the director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Center in Chicago. He has studied how odors can affect perception of room size, aid learning and arousal, and reduce the desire to eat.

Noting that last year’s Nobel Prize in medicine went to researchers who discovered how olfactory receptor cells enable humans to recognize and remember 10,000 different odors, Hirsch says, “I think we are just on the cusp of what is going to be a huge trend toward using smells functionally in the home.

“I think we’re going to be seeing interior decorating with smells in the future, the same way we do with color.”

Already, researchers are working on fragrance-infused fabrics for home decor, says Terry Molnar of the Sense of Smell Institute.

“The technology is there to microencapsulate fragrance into fabric, so that every time you open your drapes you will get a whiff of scent,” Molnar says.

For now, the growing ranks of the scent-conscious are snapping up candles, room sprays, and plug-ins that diffuse fragrant oils and solids.

According to the Consumer Specialty Products Association, whose air-care division represents more than 200 companies, including the makers of Glade, Renuzit and Airwick air fresheners, home fragrance products brought in $2.7 billion in sales in 2004. That’s projected to increase to $3.6 billion in 2006.

“There has been significant growth in recent years as the type of product has changed along with consumer demand,” said association spokesman Bill Lafield.

Not only have the scents themselves changed, so have the delivery systems. Among the new products: a revamped version of Glade PlugIns that allows consumers to customize scents. And Proctor & Gamble’s ScentStories, introduced last year. The device “plays” disks that cycle through five scents meant to evoke experiences such as “Relaxing in a Hammock” and “Exploring a Mountain Trail.”

And then there is the burgeoning high-end home fragrance market, with consumers shelling out for $38 bottles of Cucina kitchen spray (in scents of fig and fresh herbs or ginger and Sicilian lemon) and $76 flasks of Alora Ambiance air freshener.

The latter, touted by Oprah Winfrey in O magazine, comes with bamboo sticks that act as wicking devices for the fragrances (among them: gardenia and tuberose, and a muguet, lemon and sandalwood combo).

But the biggest phenomenon in this pricey realm is essential-oil-scented cleaning products.

The category, pioneered by the Good Home Co. and Caldrea (which makes proprietary brands for Williams-Sonoma), includes products for home and laundry – fabric softener, detergent, dish soap, cleanser, stainless-steel spray – all in exotic scents of green tea patchouli, cucumber mint, or lemongrass.

What these products promise is the chance for some sensual pleasure in housecleaning.

And for that, harried homemakers are willing to pay $15 for dish soap, $12 for ironing spray, and $22 for laundry detergent. (Those prices reflect the high cost of essential oils and other plant-based biodegradable, cosmetic-grade ingredients, the companies say).

For people whose identities are tied up in their homes, home fragrance can be a way to one-up the Joneses, says psychologist Rachel Herz, a visiting professor at Brown University and an expert on olfaction.

Says Herz: “Maybe Sally next door painted her living room. But people walking into my home are getting this multidimensional experience with scent. For some consumers, it’s added prestige.”

Yet devotees say there’s just one reason they covet pink grapefruit-and-ginger stainless-steel cleaner or Persian lime dish detergent.

“I tell you, it’s all about that smell,” says Jennifer Reid Holman of Philadelphia, who recently got hooked on the Good Home Co.’s lavender cleaning line. “It’s just so darned nice – lots more pleasant than Windex or Mr. Clean. That makes your house smell like the halls of your old high school after the janitor does his thing.”

Consumers’ embrace of enticing scents for the home makes perfect sense to Pamela Dalton, a research psychologist at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center.

Because the sense of smell appears to have evolved to warn against things that might hurt us (such as spoiled food or fire), “odor can be very powerful,” she says. So when a new smell enters our environment, it can help us pay attention.

“If you have a cleaner in the kitchen that smells of cucumber and sage, probably just the novelty alone can make some of the job you have to do seem like less drudgery.”

But, Dalton says, a scent can’t alter your mood unless you already have a positive association with it.

Which means “enlivening” orange-scented sheet spray won’t do a thing for you if you dislike oranges. And though lavender is said to be “soothing,” the scent could make you tense up if you associate it with the perfume your hyper-critical grandmother wore.

“In reacting to odor, you bring into play all of your past experiences,” Dalton says.

Still, she says, if you once had a blissful encounter at a scent-filled spa, bringing that same fragrance into your home wouldn’t be a bad idea. It just might give you that spa-day feeling – while you clean up after the kids and sort the laundry.

And who can argue with that?

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