How to Find a Candle That’ll Make You Feel Calm and Cozy

We talked to a local candle bar owner and an olfactory scientist to sniff out the notes that'll have you breathing easy.


Which scents make you feel calm and cozy? It might be different depending on your lived experience. / Photograph courtesy of Wax & Wine

This post is part of our Hygge series, featuring activities, products, and experiences that will make you feel cozy in Philly this fall and winter. Stay tuned for more local recommendations.

The mood shifts when you enter the scent cellar at Philly’s resident candle-making bar.

In the front room of Wax & Wine, light streams through the windows that look out onto South Street shoppers, and people chatter over wine and snacks they’ve brought themselves. Stepping into the dim back room, though, the noise level drops, and a sense of mystery curls through the air as you begin the smell test. Before you even make them, the candles are already creating a vibe.

What wick you choose is up to you. Wax & Wine stocks about 75 different scents at any given time, with 40 or so making up their “core” stores that always sit on the shelves and the rest representing seasonal or experimental smells. There are the classics: lavender, vanilla, rosemary, peppermint. There are the ones that smell of nature: cypress and bayberry, forest moss, pine cones. There are the novelty ones: wassail and snickerdoodle and Butt Naked. (The latter is a melon-based scent.)

Although some scents are certainly more popular than others, Wax & Wine co-founder and owner Jordan Beletz says the feelings aren’t unanimous. As Pam Dalton, olfactory scientist and researcher at University City’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, says, “So much of what we know about how we respond to scents is our unique past experience with them.” Wax & Wine’s Fireside Embers scent, for instance, takes Beletz back to childhood summers in the Poconos, where his family would light a fire and bask in its smoky notes. As a result, the scent is nostalgic for him, but a person who, say, had to escape a burning building might not be so keen on the smell of ashes.

Essentially, it’s tough to state that each scent produces a universal mood or reaction, although candle marketers have certainly tried. That’s not to say scent isn’t powerful; the olfactory system is tightly wound up with the brain’s limbic system, which generates emotions, and a decent amount of anecdotal evidence supports the idea that our moods can change very quickly in response to smell.

In fact, you can actually cultivate a positive reaction to a smell if you associate it with other activities you find pleasant. If you’re a bookworm and you burn a cinnamon-scented candle every time you’re deep in a riveting novel, eventually your brain will make those connections and you’ll start to feel calm or engaged (or whatever your emotion tied to reading is) whenever you smell cinnamon. Unfortunately, this conditioning process does take longer with positive associations than negative ones, but it can happen.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t try to force yourself to respond well to a scent you know you don’t like. “If you’re assuming, ‘I need to buy a lavender candle because this will calm me,’ but you don’t like the way it smells,” Dalton says. “It’s not going to work.”

In the scent cellar, I make a mental note not to go with honeysuckle if I’m trying to create a cozy hygge atmosphere — too much of a heavy perfume connotation for me. Red radish, though, is an unexpected hit for my nostrils. The second I inhale it, I time travel to the large garden my mother and a family friend cultivated when I was young, maybe five or six. I don’t remember them growing radishes, per se, but one of my favorite activities involved snapping fresh green beans off the vine and eating them by the handful as I crouched between the rows. The same earthiness is wound up in the radish candle I’m smelling at Wax & Wine. My senses reeling, I open my eyes and reacquaint myself with the scent cellar and the sirens of the Philly streets, better prepared to take on the day’s noise.