Love, sweat, and science

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With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, it’s a good time to talk about whether or not the way we smell has any impact on our love lives.

Did you know that all it takes for a female silk moth is one signal and smitten male moths come flying? In 1959, when scientists identified this powerful moth aphrodisiac called bombykol, they introduced the name ‘pheromone’ to describe the chemical signals animals use to attract a mate.

If only it were so simple for humans.

Alas, no matter what the advertisements tell you, there isn’t a single scent humans can use to attract the perfect partner. That being said, it does seem that smell plays an important role in romance.

It has long been considered that what sets humans apart from their animal counterparts is the vomeronasal organ (VNO) which is present in animals and allows them to detect pheromones. This organ isn’t always present in humans, and we aren’t hardwired to process the signals. Because of this, physiologists in the 1930s declared that body odor didn’t play any role in sexual attraction. What they weren’t taking into account were the subtle ways scent might impact how we are (or aren’t) attracted to someone.

Some research has shown that humans use a different set of smell cues to select a partner. Just like we all have unique fingerprints, we all have unique odorprints, thanks to variation in our major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which is our immune system genes. Unless you have an identical twin, you have your own set of odorprints. And some studies have shown that women prefer the scent of sweaty shirts from men who have different MHC genes than themselves—natures way of leading you to someone who will provide you with offspring that’s more diverse with stronger immune systems. Science is amazing, isn’t it?

We also have a lot of scent glands, all of which are thanks to our apocrine glands. They show up in dense concentration on our hands, cheeks, scalp and wherever else we have body hair. And these glands are only functional after puberty—when we want to start making eyes at people across the room. That can’t be a coincidence, right?! Add in the fact that there are some studies showing women’s perception of smells change during ovulation, and their own scent changes when ovulating, we know there’s more to be discovered about the role body odor plays in physical attraction.

If you’ve fallen for the advertisements that tell you bottled pheromones are a thing, you’re not alone. There have been big and bold claims on bottling sexuality for many, many years. In the last century, perfumers almost killed off the musk deer in their quest to bottle sexual attraction. And in Victorian England, an era where bathing wasn’t common, a semi nice-smelling woman could make a pretty penny by selling handkerchiefs that smelled like her body odor.

This doesn’t mean you should start asking people if you can smell their non-deodorized armpits and wait for a sign. But what it does mean is that our bodies are acting in ways we may not be aware of. So if you find yourself drawn to someone for some inexplicable reason...it could be because of their natural musk.

Trust your nose and your intuition.

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