Humans and animals alike must use their available senses to experience and interpret their environment and ensure their safety. Of all your senses, your sense of smell may be the most important for learning more about the world around you. While you may initially think of your sight or hearing as crucial to navigating your daily experiences, different odors can provide far more information about your surroundings and your food sources than you may realize.
The way something smells can have a profound impact on you: your emotions, and your behavior, even your spending habits1. Pleasant, inviting, or simple scents can encourage consumers to make purchases2, but pungent smells may just have the opposite effect. If a restaurant has an off-putting odor, guests may leave and eat somewhere else that smells more inviting. If guests stay, this unpleasant background aroma may taint their experience and give them a lasting negative impression of the restaurant and its food. In this way, smell can have a huge impact on a business’s bottom line, especially those that serve food.
Combating strange or unpleasant smells can be one of the most difficult challenges you face when establishing and growing your business. No matter what industry you work in, you must keep your business clean, healthy, and safe for both your customers and employees. To do so successfully, you need to understand how smells work and how they can affect your business — and how you can leverage the science of smell to rid spaces of bad odors.
Much like your sense of taste, smell is a chemical sense3; your body is able to discover chemicals in your environment and essentially translate them into a scent. When you inhale air, scent molecules enter your nose and dissolve in the mucus in the roof of each nostril. Sensory cells underneath that mucus then detect that odor and transmit a signal to your olfactory bulb, which is a bundle of nerves in your brain. Finally, your brain interprets that signal as a specific odor and synthesizes it into a physical experience or sensation.
Unlike your sense of taste or touch, your sense of smell reacts to a stimulus almost immediately. Other sense stimuli must travel to your brain through neurons and your spinal cord, but your ability to smell is linked directly to your brain. Because of this close proximity, your sense of smell is also closely connected to your memories, emotions, and mood.
A growing body of scientific research shows that smells can evoke emotions4, make you recall memories5, and even affect your behavior6. In other words, smell can do far more than just make people wrinkle their nose at a disagreeable odor — it can manipulate experiences and influence human behaviors.
For businesses, this means that you can use the power of scent to your advantage. Research indicates that the brain’s ability to distinguish between “good” and “bad” smells7 comes from the need to survive. From smell alone, you can help ensure your survival by assessing risks and avoiding potentially hazardous environments and food sources. Simply put, bad smells indicate that something is unsafe to consume or be near, while good smells suggest that your surroundings and food sources are safe. In modern life, follow food safety best practices and never rely solely on smell to determine if food is safe.
While a strange scent can drive customers away, a nice smell can create a positive experience for customers and incentivize them to support your business. Further, because scent is related to memory, you can use scent to help them remember how enjoyable and clean your business is. Creating a strong first impression that your business is clean and safe won’t just satisfy your customers during their first encounter with your organization; it may even help them remember how enjoyable their experience was and encourage them to return in the future.
Bad odors or scents are distinctive smells that are typically some combination of unpleasant, undesirable, or unbearable. They are caused by volatile chemical compounds that rise into the air, which are detected by your nose, and then translated into a scent by your brain. Without fail, bad odors are caused by something or come from a specific source. Common causes of bad odors include:
This is by no means an exhaustive list of bad odors, and it’s worth noting the subjective nature of scent; what smells strange to one person may smell nice to another. However, one study found that molecular structure may play a role in humans’ perceptions of scent8 and determine whether something smells good or bad. Generally, heavier molecules that are spread out are more frequently associated with a bad smell, and molecules that are lighter and more compact are often thought to be more pleasant. Further, most things that have a bad smell are considered to be unsanitary, unhealthy, or unhygienic in some way.