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The best essential oils for smell training?

The oils don't matter - it's how you train that really helps taste and smell to recover

People often worry about whether they are using the ‘right’ fragrances for smell training. Does the brand matter? Is organic better? Is lemon better than rose for smell training? Should I be training with the odours that I can't smell at all, like smoke?

Luckily we have a very straightforward answer. It’s not so much what you smell that makes for the best smell training: it’s how you train that really helps taste and smell to recover. 


Let’s go back to the original evidence for the effectiveness of smell training as a technique to help recovery. Professor Thomas Hummel published the first study in 2009 using the four odours of rose, clove, eucalyptus and lemon. He chose these fragrances because they are distinct from each other, and would be recognisable to most people in the study. 

The aromas used in the 2009 study were not even essential oils. Like the majority of fragrances and flavours used in millions of different products around the world, they were created from known chemical constituents.

In fact, the original study didn’t even look at which fragrances were most effective. Other studies since have replicated the results with different smells, but the ‘best’ odour materials to use has never been tested.

It’s not what you smell

The reason the type of odour material hasn’t been tested is because the effectiveness of smell training is in the technique of sniffing mindfully, and doing it daily.

In fact, anything with an odour can be used for smell training - it doesn’t have to be a fragrant oil. Essential oils are often recommended when you’re making your own smell training kit because they are easily available and inexpensive. But the brand, production method or fragrance doesn’t make a difference.

Top-down training

Our blog about the research published by Prof Maria Larsson and Prof Jonas Olofsson explains that in normal circumstances the brain ‘prepares’ to smell and calls on memory to generate expectations of the odour molecules that are about to be received. Keeping these connections active will improve olfactory function.

Myths busted

You may have heard about essential oils used in aromatherapy, but smell training is not related to aromatherapy in any way. Aromatherapy assigns health or wellbeing qualities to aromatic plant extracts and essential oils. Smell training simply uses essential oils as a convenient source of odours - the fragrances are not chosen because they are believed to have any specific properties. 

Another myth about smell training is that you are ‘re-learning’ individual smells. For example, if you train using a lemon smell you will become better at smelling lemons. This is absolutely not the case! Training with different smells exercises your brain by making you think about different things as you smell and gives you some variety during the long road to recovery.

You may learn to recognise some smells more easily because you’ve used them in training, but smell training will improve your overall ability to smell. 

Whatever you use for smell training, just remember the effectiveness is in your regular commitment, not the fragrances you use.

You can refresh you technique by going back to our smell training page. Network members can join our online course: Smell Training Masterclass.

August 20, 2021