The Dental Smell: Why Dental Offices Have That Smell

The Dental Smell: Why Dental Offices Have That Smell

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The Dental Office Smell
©Kzenon/Shutterstock.com

After getting a job at a dental office, a woman who goes by the name of W wrote, “Ya know that dental office smell? Well, imagine working at one. You come home and that smell is stuck to you like white on rice…It’s in my hair. It’s on my hands… I can tell you I washed my hands over 100 times today. Maybe more… And I can still smell dental office on them.”

Dental Office SmellThe dental office smell has been described by many internet users as smelling something like:

  • Antiseptic
  • Mint
  • Latex
  • A fake hospital (I’m not quite sure what that is)
  • Cloves
  • Air (whatever that smells like!)

The dental office smell: some people hate it, and some crazy people like it.  So where exactly does that smell come from?

What Causes the Dental Office Smell

As far as I can tell, the dental office smell actually is a medley of many different odors that can be divided into three main odor-causing categories:

1 – Aromas That Come From Dental Products

Clove Oil Is a Culprit of the Dental Office SmellIn dentistry, we use a lot of funny smelling materials on people’s teeth.  When you get a temporary crown made, we basically combine a strong smelling liquid and a powder to make acrylic.  Acrylic is also used to construct many dentures.

Dentists put in fillings that contain eugenol – commonly known as clove oil – in people’s teeth.  Many people say that clove oil is one of the major smells found in dental offices.  An interesting study found that clove oil invokes sensations of anxiety and fear in people who dislike the dentist while people who don’t mind the dentist think that clove oil smells “pleasant.”

Another strong odor that occurs at the dental office is when you have a root canal done.  The dentist uses disinfectants in the canal — many times bleach is used, which has a really strong smell when squirted into a tooth!  Other pulp treatments may require the use of different chemicals such as formocresol and metacresylacetate (Cresatin).  Those chemicals can quickly make a dental office smell like formaldehyde.

2 – Scents From Cleaning Products

Infection control in dentistry is very important.  In fact, dentists use many infection-control products that have their own various smells.  Here’s a few that may leave a lingering smell in the dental office:

  • Antibacterial soaps
  • Disinfection wipes used to clean have an alcohol smell
  • Gloves – some people swear that the dental office smell is caused by gloves.
  • When we sterilize dental instruments, we put them in what is basically a high-pressure oven that kills every form of life.  This process can cause certain smells to gradually nestle their way into the walls of the dental practice.
  • Glutaraldehyde can be used to clean products that can’t be heat-sterilized.

3 – Odors That Come From Dental Procedures

One of the main components of the dental smell is something that I like to call tooth dust.  This is that smell that permeates the air when you get your tooth drilled for any reason (such as a filling, crown, or root canal.)

The smell of tooth dust can be lessened by using lots of water during the drilling and having the dental assistant hold the suction as close to the tooth as possible.

Although worse smells can come from infected nerves inside the tooth, I’ve never smelled those odors lingering in the dental office, so I figured I wouldn’t spend too much time on them.

Have You Noticed the Dental Smell?

I was talking with a few of my classmates during downtime in our emergency dental clinic at school and a few of them said they don’t notice anything.  One classmate commented, “It’s the fluoride gel.”  She thinks the dental office smells like a fruity fluoride treatment.  Personally, I think it’s the tooth dust smell.

In any case, many dental offices around the country are turning to scented oils and waxes to try to infuse a more pleasant aroma into the dental office.

Have you ever noticed the dental office smell?  Do you like it?  Hate it?  I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading!

20 COMMENTS

    • Hi Narelle – Thanks for your comment! I don’t mind the smell either. To me, it’s always just been the smell that I expect to smell when I go to the dentist.

  1. I have always disliked the dental office smell. I never disliked my dentists, in fact, they were all great people, I just don’t like the combination of being out of control and anticipation of pain, even if minor in nature. Combined with a strong apprehension about needles, especially in my mouth, the dental smell sums all these unpleasantries up in my head.

    I appreciate it the less a dental office looks and smells like one. My current dentist has an open office, where the chairs are not in different rooms surrounded by walls, just shielded from each other’s view for privacy. I find that VERY reassuring because it tells me that this dentist doesn’t need to hide his patients from earshot or view. There is always music playing and the staff is making jokes. The “typical” eugenol smell is noticeable, but not pervasive so it makes it bearable. I remember that during previous dental visits at other offices, the mere smell greeting me as I open the door triggered considerable anxiety, even though I never had a real bad experience.

    As a matter of fact, I doubt the often-cited “past bad experience” syndrome as the lone explanation for dental anxiety. I have never had any bad experiences, other than minor pain or discomfort during treatments, and still I’m very, very apprehensive about dental work. It’s just the thought of what is happening and the idea of pokey metal things probing my sensitive mouth that sets me off. The best thing that has ever happened to patients like me is IV sedation and nitrous oxide.

    Thanks for posting all this information. This really helps nervous patients like me.

    • Hi Daniel – Thanks for your comment! The loss of control is definitely a common reason that people dislike the dentist. It’s good that there’s a variety of dentists around. Some people may prefer having their own room surrounded by walls while others (like you) prefer to be out in the open. That probably helps with your apprehension since you know that there are other people within earshot and you don’t feel trapped in a room.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Let me know if you have any questions at all. Have a great day, Daniel!

  2. i just had some white fillings put in . i don’t want mercury amalgam. but,my breath has been off, and pretty nasty,since then. what the hell do i do ? i’m insecure, now…

  3. I am the one of the one in five adversely affected by fragrance. I know that the chemicals dentists _must_ use create a “chemical soup” and, no, I prefer something else besides that smell.

    BUT–using scented oils, scented (esp paraffin) candles, potpourri, pulg-ins, and other odor-masking agents puts staff and patients at higher risk. Fragrances, for which MSDS are currently not required are for many asthma-triggers, and for many, contribute to migraine, respiratory problems, neurotoxic reaction, and are likely to be found as bad as secondhand smoke over time.

    Dentists can bake cookies, pies, breads, brew coffee, simmer bay leaves, cinnamon and apple juice, and do many other things to make the already soupy-with-chemicals air easier to breathe.

    They can also invest in low- or no-VOC or fragrance air remediation products like Petromist’s “Freshana” and use cleaners with the same qualities (again, Freshana which is organic, foodgrade) that do what nature does much faster–with less short and long term consequences to staff and patients.

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  5. It smells like kleenex tissues. (only certain ones though, I have a short box of kleenex here that smells like the dentist office and I searched for the dentist office smell and came across this page)

  6. I think it would be a great idea to use a Scentsy or something to get rid of the smell. The dentist freaks me out but if there was a different smell it would totally relax me more.

  7. i personally don’t hate the dentists it’s just every time i walk into the room i get hit with the smell and even though i expect it i’m still suprised for some reason and that just makes me scared and frighted because then i realize the reality for me even if it’s all in my head. i am always scared of the tiny sharp metal objects that they use and it makes me even more freaked out so i tend to try to avoid the dentists with everything i have.

    p.s. that felt good to type thanks

  8. My boyfriend’s law office was on the same floor as a dentist’s office (just down the hall). The dentist was the first door as soon as you stepped off the elevator, so I had to pass by there each time I’d meet my boyfriend at his office.

    I was never bothered by that lingering dental office odor during my own dental visits (and I have never experienced anxiety of any kind upon going to the dentist). But the smell grew to be quite annoying after passing by this particular dental office day after day over the course of several years.

    I can imagine that pervasive odor imparting a tiny sense of despair in the dentist’s receptionist each new day he or she arrived for work. For me it got to the point where each time I got off the elevator I would take a deep breath in and hold it as long as I could down the hall to avoid the worst of it. I definitely would have appreciated an essential oil break every now and then. Ha! I bet a good lavender oil would have masked it nicely.

    Thanks for such an informative website.

  9. I truly get ill as soon as I walk into the dentist’s office. That smell does me in. Nausea has begun before i get to the chair. Then, the latex gloves, the sharp metal thing, the laser teeth cleaning thing…by the time they are done with me, I am sick with nausea and sometimes feel dizzy. I can’t get out of there fast enough! I wish this wasn’t the case..I really do.

  10. I recently found out bou this new product Cero which is a powder that eliminates all kinds of odours from the biomedical waste in the dental clinics.. It even absorbs eugenol smell nd being a doc im really happi i dnt get those bad odours any more thanks to Cero..
    A must use for all clinics- http://www.cerodour.com
    Nd unlike any other aerosol spray or freshner its not a perfume so dsnt mask the bad smells it totally eliminates the stink for a clen fresh surroundings.

  11. We enjoyed this page and your sense of humor. We just received a topical product to use on our kurakats, well as soon as we opened it WOW, it really has a strong smell, not only that but we recognized the smell, you guessed it. Dental Office or the smell of some soap dispenser. Sulfer 73%, Pine oil 2%, Mineral oil 25% pretty much a home remedy. 🙂

  12. I wish I could get my home to smell like a doctors office. I have always enjoyed that smell since I was a child. I wish someone would make a room spray for the home and call it “doc office” I would buy it by the case. Thanks for the story and have a good one!

  13. We have that strong smell here, in Latvia in dental clinics. Especially in polyclinics in dental care rooms. Really, I hate that smell. It makes me to feel more nervous.

  14. Oh my god!! I thought I was the only person to become physically ill walking into my dentist’s office!! The antiseptic smell literally gives me a splitting headache as soon as I walk in. I will have it for the entire day. I am wondering how toxic this smell is and what effect it has on the patients and the staff that inhale that all day. Even masking the smell won’t eliminate the toxicity. I am considering changing dentists because of this. I have visited other offices with my elderly mother and this smell is not there.

  15. I’m a dentist and also very sensitive to smells. My top priority when opening my office 5 years ago was to ensure there are no lingering dental odors anywhere where patients are present. that meant a really good HVAC system with filters (expensive) and confining chemicals to a controlled cabinet in the laboratory. Even the staff room has its own odor elimination system. The result is a dental office more like a hotel lobby, which can be a very pleasant place to work!

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