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Dental office smells can be tied to memories

Something Stinks

We have all heard it before: scents are tied to memories. According to Psychology Today, this is likely due to the fact that the olfactory bulb is located near other areas of the brain that are strongly associated with memory and emotion. So how does the smell of a dental office have an impact on our patients?

The smell of your office could be a trigger for patients with dental anxiety. The first few seconds of walking into a dental office and checking in at the front desk could be an instant mood changer for some patients. Just the smell of a dental office might trigger a memory and the emotions of pain and anxiety linked to it.

What is this smell? Practically living at dental school has made us “nose blind” to it, but it’s real.

I did some undercover work by polling students, assistants, hygienists and patients. It turns out,  different offices had distinct scents for specific reasons:

What the dentist said

One worker at an ortho clinic said it smelled like the disinfectant CaviCide from autoclaving and the constant upkeep of sterilization due to the number of patients they see in a day. Oral surgery said the office smells like iron because of the blood scent associated with extractions and procedures. Pedo simply said it smelled like “a daycare and Cheerios.” Endo said that their practices smelled like cloves from the regular use of eugenol. Walking by sim lab where students are cutting dry on extracted teeth has everyone smelling burnt Cheetos from the tooth dust in the air. Hygienists said they smell whatever fruity flavored fluoride paste or prophy polish they had been using that day.

What the patients said

One patient, who just recently visited a practice for her routine prophy, said the clinic had a distinct waiting room smell that was calming. But when she went back and sat in the chair, it smelled like a mixture of “cleanliness and old people.” This made me chuckle and I asked her to explain. She said you could tell that the dental team was good at keeping everything hygienic and clean as you walked in… “But it also smelled like older people. You know–like their denture soaks and dentures in general.”

All of the patients polled had answers that consisted mostly of “mint or cinnamon flavors” associated with toothpaste or prophy pasted linked to hygiene recalls. Also, an abundance of patients said “latex gloves.” One patient was adamant that their dentist always had coffee breath – this should be no surprise to dental students who thrive on caffeine. Luckily, I didn’t get any “old magazine” answers that usually accompany doctors’ waiting rooms.

Regardless of what type of office you are in, or what you are smelling, memories being tied to scents is something to take into consideration when trying to calm dental anxiety. So, how can we fix this? Tyler Brown, a D3 at West Virginia, and also a part-time Scentsy sales representative, said “I’d always planned on having something with lavender or eucalyptus in [my] office because they usually help with aiding a person relax.” Other than that, keep cleaning–no one can complain form re-assurance from a sterile dental setting. And make sure that you brush and use mouth wash between patients so they don’t smell that coffee breath!

In the end, I couldn’t pinpoint an exact “dental office smell.” But I can suggest that everyone makes an effort to invest in air fresheners that are associated with relaxation around their office. And make an effort to make each patient comfortable and calm. This will help combat dental anxiety and expire the bad memories linked to the scent of a dental office.

~Megan Borak, West Virginia ’16

Megan Borak

Megan is a third year dental student at West Virginia University School of Dentistry. She is currently serving as president of the WVU ASDA local chapter and District 6 ASDA social media chair. Megan's hobbies include dancing around, eating everything in sight, and taking care of her fur-child Samantha Spamonie the cat. Megan also loves to travel and meet new people and try new things!

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1 Comment

  1. Scent can certainly be a factor with dental anxiety, especially since certain smells are always associated with the dentist. The goal is to make sure dental visits are positive experiences so that patients don’t become anxious while there. Also, certain scents, like lavender and vanilla, have a calming effect on people and can be used in the waiting room.

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