Do perfumes really attract the opposite sex?

Image: Elizabeth Ann Colette via Wikimedia Commons
Image: Elizabeth Ann Colette via Wikimedia Commons

There is good evidence that smell plays a role in human sexuality, and as we saw previously, ingredients such as cumin can be added to perfumes to evoke the primal smell of sweat.

Some perfumes make bold claims that they also contain pheromones – chemicals that get our sexual urges fired up. However, Scientific American says: “the idea of perfumes and potions based on human pheromonal communication just doesn’t pass the sniff test,” since scientists have “not definitively identified a single human pheromone.”

While there is some evidence for the function of pheromones in perfume, a blind study where some people’s perfumes were supplemented with these putative pheromones, whilst others weren’t, concluded that: “there is no support in data for the claim that the substances increase the attractiveness of the wearers of the substances to the other sex”.

That being said, we should not underestimate the placebo effect. One study found that men who had been sprayed with commercial fragrance gained a confidence boost that made them more attractive to women who could see them, but not smell them.

What is the difference between male and female fragrances?

When it comes to fragrance, what makes a scent feminine or masculine seems to be based on our culture, rather than anything biological. Traditional ‘male’ fragrances in the West are described as ‘fougère’ (meaning fern-like), and are typified by scents such as oakmoss, tonka bean, and lavender. Masculine scents may also be described as ‘woody’ or ‘spicy’.

The inclusion of lavender in these typically male scents may surprise some, as floral notes are more associated with femininity. In the Middle East, however, floral scents are common amongst males, with rose flower oil being particularly popular. Director of Agence de Parfum, Nick Smart, says that floral scents are a part of pretty much every male fragrance and that “the smell of rose in a fragrance is as intoxicating and addictive for men as it is women”.  Fragrance specialist Roja Dove similarly argues that “the idea that roses are feminine and woods masculine is nonsense.”

The popularisation of ‘unisex fragrances’ has blurred this arbitrary ‘flowery’ vs ‘manly’ gender divide yet further. These fragrances are described as being ‘oceanic’ – clean, crisp, and salty – or as ‘woody’, using scents such as oud and cedarwood. Interestingly, these traits are traditionally categorised as more masculine. Perfumist Antonie Lie says that women are more open to using masculine fragrances than the other way round. The rest just comes down to marketing.

Perfume makers therefore reproduce the smells we have evolved/leaned to enjoy – food, flowers, sex – and bottled it up for us to douse ourselves with at our leisure. Mix in a little vomit and rectal secretions and, voilà, you’re irresistable.

Previous: What the perfume ads don’t tell you: your cologne smells of poo

By Michael McKenna

Grammer, K. et al., (2004). Human pheromones and sexual attraction. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, 118 (2): 135-142.

Daisy Yuhas. (May 2014). Are Human Pheromones Real? Scientific American [website]. (Accessed 10 March 2015).

ABC News. (December 2005). Are Pheromones a Secret Weapon For Dating? ABC News [website]. (Accessed 10 March 2015).

Winman, A. (2004). Do perfume additives termed human pheromones warrant being termed pheromones? Physiology & Behaviour, 82 (4): 697-701.

The Economist. (December 2008). The scent of a man. The Economist [website]. (Accessed 10 March 2015).

Melissa Pearce. (November 2014). Floral scents for men are blossoming. The Sydney Morning Herald [website]. (Accessed 10 March 2015).

The Independent. (June 2010). Uncommon scents: the rise of unisex fragrances. The Independent [website]. (Accessed 10 March 2015).

Article by Michael Mckenna

March 12, 2015

Mike is currently doing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. When not talking about proteins, he watches an obscene amount of films and enjoys the odd pub quiz.

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