Sex in a  Bottle

Ever wonder why certain scents can make one individual smell more attractive than the other? EM speaks to neuroscientists Dr. Rachel Herz and Dr. Janek Lobmaier to discuss the psychology, chemistry and physiology behind the smell of sexual attraction.

Carla Seipp

Sex in a Bottle

Sex has been the basis of selling scent for decades. Sure, one wants to smell good for the sake of personal hygiene and confidence, but wanting to attract the opposite (or same) sex also plays a role in us reaching for certain fragrances over others, or even scenting our bodies at all. However, funnily enough, the body odour we are born with will always waft through, no matter how much deodorant or perfume we splash on.



In order to fully understand scents and sexuality, one needs to begin with our genetics. First, there is the difference of odour perception between the sexes, which, while not hugely different, still plays a part in our scent-sitivity. “Every person smells the world ever so differently,” says neuroscientist and author of The Scent of Desire, Dr. Rachel Herz. “But there is, generally speaking, in addition to the lower threshold that females have for most odour detection over their lifespan, a case that they are given more verbal training with odours than males are because of cosmetics, cooking and other things with a gender bias.”


Every person smells the world everso differently

That means any sort of olfactory attraction that occurs is a matter of learned behaviours rather than innate responses — an accumulation of “culture, marketing and media”, as Herz explains. “The idea of floral and sweet notes for females has to do with a connotation of femininity, and for different notes for males a connotation of masculinity. There is nothing inherently interesting or attractive about it for the opposite sex. What it is is the learned response to something that potentially elicits a desire or sexual reaction from somebody else.”



We should not necessarily by all means get rid of our natural body odours because it tells us something about mating qualities

Playing a far more primal role in scent attraction is our personal body odour, which is influenced by our HLA (human leukocyte antigen) gene complex. Studies have shown that we seek out partners with a dissimilar HLA profile in order to provide the healthiest possible immune system for our offspring as a result of the ensuing genetic diversity. “What females are doing, and they are the ones who are most attuned to this because they have the biggest cost but also benefit to bear when it comes to reproduction, is avoiding males that smell like family. It’s basically a smell incest avoidance mechanism,” Herz explains. Two modern-day inventions that can muddle this odour profile are fragrances and the use of hormonal contraception, which both run a risk of us choosing a partner with a more similar than dissimilar HLA profile.

“We should not necessarily by all means get rid of our natural body odours because it tells us something about mating qualities. I’m not advocating that we should walk around without washing or using deodorants, but I think the fact that we disguise our body odour could also come with some disadvantages,” adds Dr. Janek Lobmaier from the Department of Social Psychology and Social Neuroscience at University of Bern.



It seems like certain women do universally smell more alluring than others

Lobmaier and his team recently completed a study which tested the individual body odours of 28 women, exploring if fluctuations in this signature body odour makes some women more attractive than others (to a panel of 57 male test subjects). Additionally, the team tried to identify if there was any smell that was universally appealing.

“We actually found out quite quickly and clearly that men agree highly on which body odours they find attractive. It seems like certain women do universally smell more alluring than others,” he states, adding that “there seems to be a correlation between reproductive hormones and how attractive somebody appears. We found that women who have high oestradiol levels and relatively low progestogen levels smell more attractive. This also is in line with the evolutionary viewpoint that of course women with higher oestradiol levels have potentially higher fertility than women with lower hormone levels.”



Having understood how these mechanisms work, the ultimate question would be: is there one universally attractive odour? Turns out, the answer is not so simple. Both Herz and Lobmaier agree that there is no singular smell that is deemed attractive across the board, but rather, that different scents will smell attractive on and for certain individuals. “Some studies show that we choose perfumes that fit to our HLA complex. That’s why certain perfumes smell nicer on certain people and less nicer on others, as it compliments the actual body odour,” Lobmaier comments.


Perhaps it is not so much what we smell like, but rather how sexually attractive that scent makes us feel

Recently there has been a rise in animalic scent releases employing everything from manure-esque oud to fecal-smelling civet in a bid to smell sensual. “It’s interesting socio-culturally how we have this cleanliness obsession to remove those funky body smells and then we’re using artificial fragrance to re-scent ourselves,” comments Herz. Could said fragrances be read as an attempt to recapture our primal nature? On the other hand, for every customer that buys a ‘dirty-smelling’ scent, there will be another who buys one that smells of delightful baked goods or zesty citrus freshness.

Perhaps it is not so much what we smell like, but rather how sexually attractive that scent makes us feel. Professor Craig Roberts from University of Liverpool conducted a study in which male test subjects had to present themselves on video to a female audience after not being able to shower for several days. Those who were able to apply deodorant had higher scores than those who weren’t, despite the viewers not being able to smell either one, indicating that those who felt more confident about their sense of smell acted more alluringly for the opposite sex. Simply put: just spritz on whatever fragrance makes you feel the most desirable, and confidence will take care of the rest.