The Smell Report

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The Smell Report

Sexual attraction

The attractive powers of pheromones (scented sex hormones) have often been exaggerated – not least by advertisers trying to sell pheromone-based scents and sprays which they claim will make men irresistible to women.

Widely publicised research findings on female sensitivity to male pheromones have also led some men to believe that the odour of their natural sweat is highly attractive to women.

Women are indeed highly sensitive to male pheromones, particularly around ovulation, but many popular assumptions about the effects of these pheromones are the result of misinterpretation and over-simplification of the research results.

All male pheromones are not equally attractive, and some of the myths stem from an understandable confusion over their names. The male pheromone androstenone is not the same as androstenol. Androstenol is the scent produced by fresh male sweat, and is attractive to females. Androstenone is produced by male sweat after exposure to oxygen – i.e. when less fresh – and is perceived as highly unpleasant by females (except during ovulation, when their responses change from ‘negative’ to ‘neutral’).

So, men who believe that their ‘macho’, sweaty body-odour is attractive to women are deluding themselves, unless they are constantly producing fresh sweat and either naked or changing their clothes every 20 minutes to remove any trace of the oxidised sweat. Generally, the female-repelling androstenone is the more prominent male body odour, as the fresh-sweat odour of androstenol disappears very quickly. In terms of scent, the sweaty macho-man is therefore likely to be unattractive to most women, most of the time – at best, he may elicit a grudging ‘neutral’ response from women who happen to be ovulating (which of course excludes all those taking oral contraceptives).

Although the male pheromone androstenol has been shown to be attractive to women, men’s use of pheromone-based scents to attract women may not have the desired effect. An experiment in which a pheromone-sprayed chair in a dentist’s waiting room was most frequently chosen by women is often cited in support of the attractive power of male pheromones. The problem with this conclusion is that the pheromone in question can only be detected at a distance of about 18 inches, so the women would have to have selected the chair and sat down before becoming aware of its scent.

A further difficulty in this context is that although pheromone-based scents may have an arousing effect on women, the women will not be aware of the source of their arousal. A man wearing pheromone scent at a crowded party will still have to compete with the other men present for the attention of the women. Only in a strictly one-to-one, intimate encounter could the arousing effect of the scent actually benefit the man wearing it – and to achieve such an encounter, the man must presumably be capable of attracting the woman by some other means. In the context of social situations, it is perhaps also worth noting that androstenol has been shown to be attractive to men, as well as women!

Another experiment showed, however, that daily use of pleasant-smelling colognes significantly improves the mood of middle-aged men, reducing mood disturbances such as tension, depression, anger, fatigue and confusion which are associated with the ‘mid-life crisis’. This personal sense of well-being, good humour and confidence, which will inevitably be reflected in behaviour, may be of more help in attracting potential partners than the fickle and unreliable effects of pheromone-sprays.

Similar mood-improvements have been observed in studies of the effects of perfume use on middle-aged women. Women at mid-life, particularly post-menopausal women taking hormone treatments, tend to suffer fewer mood disturbances than middle-aged men. (Contrary to popular opinion, the so-called ‘male menopause’ seems to involve more pronounced emotional disorders than the female version.) But regular use of pleasant fragrances still had a significant beneficial effect on the emotional well-being of mid-life females, and another study showed that young women experience equally positive effects. Again, the cheering effect of pleasant fragrances may also make women more attractive to potential partners.

Women who believe that the use of ‘sexy’ perfumes will attract men, however, may be misguided. Women’s sensitivity to musk, an ingredient commonly used in perfumes, is 1000 times greater than men’s. ‘Sexy’ perfumes containing musk are therefore much more likely to arouse the woman wearing them than any potential male partners. But by making a woman feel more sensual, the perfume may affect her behaviour and thus indirectly increase her attractiveness.

A number of women’s magazines have recently carried good-news reports claiming that the smell of cinnamon buns has been proven to ‘boost male erections’ – some use the more scientific-sounding euphemism ‘increase penile blood-flow’. A few reports also mention lavender.

In fact, the study in question – conducted by the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago – discovered only that ‘in those with a normal olfactory ability, a variety of odours can increase penile blood-flow’. These odours included pumpkin pie, liquorice, doughnuts and lavender, and various combinations of these, as well as oriental spice and cola. The most effective were a lavender/ pumpkin pie mixture, a doughnut/ black liquorice mixture and a pumpkin pie/doughnut mixture – but the results depended on other factors such as whether the participants’ partners wore cologne and how many times they had had intercourse in the last month.. In short, the only reliable conclusion to be drawn from this is, as the authors themselves admit, that all sorts of smells can increase penile blood flow.

Even this is not very surprising, as any strong odour will have a stimulating effect, which will cause a general increase in blood flow to the extremities – inevitably including the penis. A very powerful odour, such as smelling-salts, can even revive someone from a dead faint. If your partner is actually asleep or unconscious, this old-fashioned remedy may be more effective than the lavender/pumpkin pie mixture – and probably no more offensive.