The Smell Report
On standard tests of smelling ability – including odour detection, discrimination and identification – women consistently score significantly higher than men. One researcher has claimed that the superior olfactory ability of females is evident even in newborn babies.
One study suggests that sex-difference findings may not be entirely reliable, and that sex differences in olfactory prowess may apply to some odours but not others.
It is also possible, however, that many studies have not taken account of the changes in female sensitivity to smell during the menstrual cycle. It is known that female sensitivity to male pheromones (scented sex hormones), for example, is 10,000 times stronger during ovulation than during menstruation. It may be that female smell-sensitivity is also generally more acute during this phase. (It has been shown that other senses such as hearing are more acute around ovulation, when women can also hear slightly higher frequencies than at other times.) These fluctuations may account for some inconsistencies in the findings, although hormone cycles cannot explain why female children score higher than male children.
In an experiment at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, women without children held an unrelated infant in their arms for one hour and then were tested for infant-smell-recognition. Most were successful. The researchers conclude "This indicates that the ability to identify infants by their odor is a more general human skill than previously realized." But they didn’t test men, so it may only be a general female skill. Other tests have shown, however, that both men and women are able to recognise their own children or spouses by scent. In one well-known experiment, women and men were able to distinguish T-shirts worn by their marriage partners, from among dozens of others, by scent alone.
Women are also significantly more likely than men to suffer from ‘cacosmia’ – feeling ill from the smell of common environmental chemicals such as paint and perfume.