The nose knows: Why scent matters when searching for a mate

Illustration: Mark Wang

In Patrick Suskind’s creepy classic Perfume, the protagonist is a serial murderer with a sense of smell so keen, his entire life is built around it. For him, scent is everything: “He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.” While Perfume may be a work of fiction, the importance of smell certainly isn’t.

It turns out that in real life, too, the nose knows.

Lisa Goldfarb, 51, has been married to her husband for nearly 20 years, but back when she was single and dating in New York City, she would determine the success of any given match from an olfactory standpoint. “I always gravitated to someone whose smell was amazing,” says Goldfarb, who confirms that the man she eventually married did (and does!) have a scent that does it for her in all the ways. “Smell is everything to me,” she says.

Something Wild

Science supports this. The “smell test” is a vital one, evolutionarily speaking. Animals secrete pheromones that are unique and individual. Those pheromones have an enormous influence on the response other members of the species have to a potential mate.

It seems we are not as far removed from the animal and insect kingdom as we’d like to believe. (The birds and the bees, indeed!)

In fact, speaking of bees, they have an incredibly sophisticated pheromone-driven drive that helps them accomplish everything from mating to work distribution. While less is known about birds and their sense of smell, recent research shows they, too, use their sense of smell in ways previous generations of ornithologists had completely overlooked. Pheromones and scent drive the animal world.

The genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC)—part of the immune system—produce unique odors. When another animal gets a whiff, they’re either attracted or repelled based on immune compatibility. Mice, for example, end up choosing mates with MHC types that are not too similar, yet not too different, from their own. This helps them avoid inbreeding and strengthens their potential offspring.

Humans do this, too. Whenever we meet a potential new lover, we are unconsciously seeking the best potential outcome for our offspring. All of our senses engage to make that happen, and our sense of smell is particularly key to this quest. After all, it has evolved to keep us safe, whether from rancid milk, a gas leak, or an incompatible mate. The nose will lead us.

Our sense of smell is also one of our most evocative senses, conjuring all kinds of childhood memories from just one whiff. Just a brief sniff of Shalimar and I am 9 years old again, watching my mother put on makeup before a date night with my father. Our sense of smell is attached to our memories and our emotions in a way that hearing and sight may not.

But what constitutes a “good” smell?

That answer will vary. For some, it might be a freshly laundered shirt. For others, the scent of light sweat does it. When my husband and I started dating, he once told me his favorite scent was vanilla. When I dabbed a bit on my wrists, it always made him crazy. These are the reasons a perfume that smells wonderful to one person is odious to another. Our sense of smell is individualized and particular.

Of course, there are universal turnoffs. “Bad breath is an obvious no,” says Holly Keith of Maplewood, New Jersey.

But even “bad” is relative. A man I dated in college told me that nothing smelled as sexy to him as an “unwashed woman.” It was one of the sexiest things I’d ever heard. And he’s not the only one. “When I’m really into someone, I find I not only like their freshly cleaned scent of soaps and shampoos, but I also like their sweaty scent,” says Angela Davis, 38, of Boston. “Normally I’m really offended by anything stinky, even my own sweat.”

Love changes everything—even someone’s scent. But what draws us in is not so simple to define.  “It really does vary by individual, says Tatyana Dyachenko, a London-based psychologist. “Clean smells are favored over stale body odor smells for most people. However, each individual will find different smells attractive.”

For Michelle Rowe of Dayton, Ohio, it’s not the smell itself, but the absence that does it for her. “I have a very keen sense of smell so, I can’t stand even mildly stinky body, feet, armpits, or breath,” says Rowe. “If you don’t smell at all, I like you best.”

Coming to our senses

The truth is, no matter what perfume ads would like us to believe, there is no way of magically creating what will attract a potential partner. Our best bet is just to keep up with hygiene and trust that our natural scent will attract the right person. After all, smell is only one part of the attraction equation, says Dyachenko. She likens the mystery of attraction to a multi-step sensory process, with smell being part two of that evaluation.

“Within three to five seconds of first seeing someone, we have made up our mind whether we find them attractive or not,” says Dyachenko. “People with more symmetrical features are generally considered to be more attractive. But once we get closer to a person and start talking to them, our smell sense takes over.”

When we meet a person, so much of our evaluation is unconscious. This process takes place on a level we can’t access until we have either fallen—or not fallen—for all the pieces of a person that tie into memories of childhood, our personal experiences with smell, and our limbic system. It’s all out of our control and highly individual. But most couples who have been together long-term will admit to being particularly seduced and comforted by their partner’s individual smell.

“When Julia goes out of town for work, [I like] to have a pair of her pajamas with me in bed,” says Doreen Chila-Jones. She has been with her wife for 20 years.

Chila-Jones was initially attracted to everything about her partner. Her scent was only one part of it. But now, that scent has become a part of their connection, even when apart. “It comforts me,” says Chila-Jones. And when it comes to a partner, what more could we want?

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