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From suntan lotion to freshly cut grass: Why summer smells delight us

Scents like freshly cut grass, the ocean spray or sizzling hot dogs have the power to transport us back in time and fill us with happiness.
/ Source: TODAY

We’ve opened the windows, fired up the grill and slathered on the sunscreen before we dip our toes in the ocean. Summer brings wonderful smells.

And some of those scents — like freshly cut grass, the ocean spray or sizzling hot dogs — will have the power to transport us back in time and fill us with a rush of happiness.

Girl smelling flowers
Smells can be “very potent emotional triggers," experts say.Shutterstock

“Scent is very evocative,” says Avery Gilbert, a psychologist who specializes in the science of smell. “For a lot of people, it brings back all kinds of memories, emotions and feelings.”

During summer we are surrounded by scents. There are more fragrances around with flowers, trees and plants blooming. The warmer air carries smells farther and our noses work better — for better or worse, experts say.

“Summertime is a time of maximal smells,” Gilbert says. “It’s the biggest bouquet.”

Read more: Smells like teen—and tween—spirit: 11 popular scents that take us back in time

Smells can take on emotional meaning when they are paired with a memory, often formed during childhood when we smell them for the first time, typically during a pleasant activity, like camping, going to the beach or having a picnic, experts say. When we smell them again later, the emotions from that time may be revived.

“The smells of summer are a common backdrop for the good times that most people associate with summer, so when we smell them again, we’re recalling past good times and anticipating new pleasant experiences,” says Gilbert, who wrote “What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life” and founded Synesthetics, Inc.

Studies confirm that many smells have distinct emotional connotations, but that doesn't mean the feelings are triggered by a specific chemical in the scent, Gilbert said. Positive emotional responses to a scent are the result of past happy memories associated with it, he added.

Though many of us like that coconut smell that reminds us of sunscreen or the smell of the sea spray, each person has his or her own emotional link to a smell.

“It’s individual,” says Pamela Dalton, a cognitive psychologist and faculty member at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “You had to have had that previous association in order for it to have formed.”

Smells, she says, can be “very potent emotional triggers.”

“We could feel elated, we could feel extremely joyful,” Dalton says. “We could have all sorts of rushes of positive emotions.”

Read more: Smell you later! The surprising reason we shake hands

While there are aromas may of us enjoy, people have happy ties to scents that many of us don’t have a special affinity for. For Dalton, it’s the smell of diesel gasoline, which reminds her of boating in Florida as a girl.

“I would smell it and we would be going out for the day and I was looking forward to it,” she says. “Now, when I smell it, I get energized and I feel happy. I feel a sense of anticipation that something really joyful is going to happen.”

There are usually just a few smells for each person that are significant enough to bring out an emotional memory.

“Probably most people have four to five of those throughout their life that are truly where they get that rush of emotion,” Dalton said.

With so many people cooped up in the winter, especially this past one, summertime brings an abundance of aromas. There are all the indoor smells plus all the outdoors ones, too. Our noses work better in the summer when the nasal tissues are warmer, Dalton says, and the warm air allows smells to travel faster and be more available to be inhaled.

All of that means that just as we can take a big breath in and enjoy the flowers and vegetable gardens and the plastic smell of new pool toys, there are some summer stenches that overwhelm us as well.

“If you have to have a trash strike,” Dalton says, “you’d rather have it February than August.”

Lisa A. Flam, a regular contributor to, is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.