Written by Stacey Marcus
The dating app has revolutionized the way modern romance begins. Aside from a growing addiction to the screen, there is one major flaw many may not know about when they depend on swiping to find a suitor—the ability to sniff their skin. In her book The Scent of Desire, Dr. Rachel Herz notes that body chemistry “plays a startlingly large part in who we are sexually attracted to and that our noses speak loudly to our souls even if it seems like only a barely audible whisper.”
Of course, the perfume industry wouldn’t be a thriving multi-million dollar industry if modern society weren’t aware of the barrier a gross odor can create for a man on the prowl. But Herz (who also wrote Why You Eat What You Eat) explains that long before pricy man-made concoctions were sold, scent played a pivotal role in the law of attraction since “at least the time of the Egyptians.” The Elizabethan period saw women peeling apples, letting the juicy fruit saturate with her sweat and then gifting the apple to her lover. Many cultures today do recognize the special relationship among smell, affection and sexuality. The Indian word for “kiss” also means “smell” and Intuits rub their noses together instead of touching lips, and those are just two examples.
While no one can deny a intricate batch of sweet florals and sexy spices is a treat, Herz remarks that its our own natural aroma that holds the most power when it comes to attracting a mate; that everyone has their own signature body scent that is representative of their immune system. Contrary to popular belief, attraction is not as much about taking the perfect selfie or driving a Ferrari as much as it is about a woman’s primal instinct to pick up on “cues that reveal the quality of a man’s innate health.” Herz continues, “The most critical biological goal for a woman under the motivation of her selfish genes would be to find a healthy man who has a different immune system from her own.”
Dr. Ian Stephen, a Macquarie University psychology professor, doubles down on the scientific theory that “attraction is a mechanism for identifying a healthy, fertile mate.” A co-author of a study on diet quality and male body odor, Stephen finds that our sense of smell—particularly when it comes to carnal rituals—is motivated by our basic human want to survive, to be the fittest of them all. “Individuals who choose to mate with healthy, fertile mates are more likely to have offspring result from those matings, and therefore their genes (including the genes influencing what they find attractive) will be passed on to the next generation more successfully,” he explains.
And that one-of-a-kind scent can only be created in our genetic makeup, in a region called the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) or Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA). According to Stephen, the two genomes contain “a very large number of genes that code for antibodies that help our immune system detect and fight off pathogens. People with genes for more antibodies in this region tend to have more attractive smelling body odor, so women may be detecting genetic ‘quality’ through smell.” Women also subconsciously use this aspect of smell to detect compatibility. They may be more attracted to a man who has a smell that signals different genes to their own “because mating with a genetically different person will mean that your offspring will have more different genes in the MHC, and so will have better immune systems.”
One cannot write about men and scent without talking about pheromones. While no study has proven the influence pheromones have on human sexual desire, the beauty industry has countless sprays on the market that promise to enhance natural secretions. “I’m a big believer in the importance of chemical communication, but I no longer find it useful to talk about pheromones,” says Dr. Avery N. Gilbert, author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. “Mothers can recognize their babies by smell and vice versa. We use smell to detect disease and emotions in other people. A lot of information signaling goes on in body odor. But body odor isn’t a sexual trigger for us the same way it is for cockroaches, or even dogs. I say leave the pheromone concept for non-human animals.”
Dr. Stephen agrees, “Humans also produce pheromones, but there is less evidence that they are important in attraction. Many people are in fact unable to smell pheromones. This does not stop enterprising businesses from selling pheromone sprays to horny young men for them to use to attempt to attract women, though.”
With all of this in mind, then why are certain scents so popular for the men’s beauty industry? Is it pointless to spritz if it’s all about one’s natural smell? Serge Lutens is founder of his own namesake fragrance line argues that perfume should never by purchased like an obligation, but like a luxury. “It shouldn’t become a compulsion or about social hygiene. You can take a bath too,” he jokes. The origin of luxury and the start of cologne, according Lutens, is the ability to cleanse. Buying one of his scents or any other eau de toilette is a status symbol to women—a sign that a man puts in some extra effort when it comes to self-care. So even if a sports car won’t be what first intrigues a partner, an added layer of grandeur—on top of a shower, a great diet and regular exercise—never hurts when it comes to the art of seduction.