The olfactory chemistry of love

The olfactory chemistry of love

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Ever more studies on the importance of pheromones to sex appeal are being published. So, whose side of the story to believe – deodorant marketeers or the scientists?

When it doesn’t cause revulsion, someone else’s body odour can actually arouse sexual desire. Between instinctive attraction and conscious repulsion, here’s an overview of the multifaceted power of body smell.  

The chemistry of sensual smell

It took recent pheromone studies and findings on smell-induced sexual attraction to recognise the role of smell in human love life, which up until now was believed to be a uniquely animal feature.

A long time ago, James Tyler Kent, one of the founding fathers of homeopathy, put together a list of the various types of body smell: sour, fetid, cheese-smelling, green maize, musky, mouldy, sickening, putrid, rancid, spicy, spoiled eggs, sweetish etc. How is it possible that such odours, many of which seem unpleasant, can positively affect human relationships?

Neurologist Alan Hirsch discovered a link between loss of smell and reduced sexual desire. He also found that women’s olfactory sensitivity during ovulation, a time when they are more sexually receptive, dramatically increased.

Dr Hirsch also claims that women hitting menopause without replacement oestrogen experience reduced olfactory sensitivity, leading him to the conclusion that hormone production and olfactory abilities are intimately bound up in human beings.

Olfactory chemistry: nature vs. culture

Who doesn’t remember the distinctly sharp smell of teens, male and female alike, dressing and undressing in the lockers after PE? At puberty, body odour is often particularly strong, especially as adolescents haven’t yet adjusted their hygiene practices to their new bodies.

This is why most people usually start using products designed to eliminate body odour and replace it with sometimes overpowering synthetic smells. It’s easily understandable that everyone would want to get rid of body smell, and social norms even prompt them to do so, but this also bespeaks willingness to erase the animal component in human nature, while giving in to ever more sophisticated social expectations.

In a perfect world, perfume selection ought to be made not on the basis of how pervasive it is, with a view to masking bad smells, but rather on its ability to match and enhance the natural fragrance of its user. And this sometimes happens anyway – as we’ve all found that one particular perfume may ‘smell good’ on you and absolutely awful on somebody else.

The chemistry of natural and artificial perfumes

Perfumers have long possessed instinctive knowledge about the effects of pheromone. Musk obtained from secretions of male deer used to be commonly used and built into the composition of most fragrances. Nowadays, synthetic aromas have replaced musk and don’t produce the same aphrodisiac effects.

Perfume, luxury fragrances, soap and body milks all cancel out the effects of natural pheromones. Before intimate trysts, lovers should make sure they don’t wear too much perfume, for fear that it might hamper the unique ability of body odour to communicate emotional states.

When you’re attracted to someone, you’ll find that his or her natural odour reassures and appeases you, whereas artificial fragrances interfere with the message of love carried by natural smell.

Even though lovers enjoy the familiar smell of their partners, natural or artificial, because it signals the presence of the loved person or evokes fond memories of them, there is nothing quite like natural body odour to unconsciously stimulate sexual desire – even if your conscious nose doesn't always agree!

Marianne Chouchan

More information:
Biologically decoding the kiss
The erotic power of perfume
Couples discussions