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Fragrant Attraction

The power of fragrance in sexual attraction

Many people, including mavens in the fragrance industry, believe that aromatic aphrodisiacs exist, and are only waiting to be found. The competition in the commercial world for this holy grail is fierce because if such a magical elixir could be captured it would be the beginning of a trillion dollar industry, not to mention the solution to loneliness and guaranteed success for nights out on the prowl. Type the word "pheromone" into Google and you'll get hundreds of hits for companies offering to sell you wearable pheromones "guaranteed for sexual success", along with various merchants purporting "data" that their elixirs boost the sex life of those wearing it. But think for a minute about how we might also interpret data that wearing these potions makes those donning them more sexually successful.

The marketers of Wonder Bra in Canada used a wonderful truism in an ad jingle of the 1970's; "if you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you look great." If you believe that by putting something on-whatever it might be-it will make you more attractive to the opposite sex, your behavior will change. You'll feel more confident and secure and you'll be more flirtatious and happy-which will increase your attractiveness to others and thereby boost your sex life. None of this has anything to do with mysterious pheromones, rather it has all to do with self-confidence.

Indeed in a recent study conducted in the UK, men who wore the British label version of AXE deodorant (Lynx) were rated by woman as significantly more attractive than men who weren't wearing scented deodorant (1). The surprise, however, is that the women didn't actually smell the men-the men just smelled themselves. Women rated headshots of 35 men and 15 second video clips of the same men imagining introducing themselves to an attractive woman. The women rated all the men as equally attractive on the basis of their photos. But on video, the men wearing scented deodorant were rated as significantly more appealing than the men who weren't wearing fragrance, and the women only watched the video clips for 15 seconds. Probing why the AXE men were so much more alluring the researchers found that it had to do with how confident the men felt and how the scent of the deodorant made them feel. The more the men liked the fragrance they were wearing, the more confident they felt-- and the more confident they felt the more attractive their body language was to women. The other amazing finding was that it only took 15 minutes of wearing the scented deodorant to boost the guys' self-confidence. On the opposite side of the aisle, in a large survey study I found that 90% of women (from teenagers to seniors) feel more confident when wearing fragrance than without (2). Therefore wearing a fragrance you like will make you feel better about yourself which will consequently make you more attractive to others.

However, there is biological peril, especially for women, to the magic of fragrance. Not only does a man's use of fragrance make him behave more charmingly, my laboratory has shown that above all other physical characteristics, women rank how a man smells as the most important feature for determining whether she will be sexually attracted to him. Critically, she doesn't discriminate much between whether his scent comes from his clean natural body-odor or from the bottle on his dresser. The reason this is a biological hazard is because, as my last blog explained, our body-odor is the representation of our immune system genes and women use their noses to choose their "correct" biological mate to ensure maximum fertility and child health (see The Scent of Sex). Therefore by wearing a fragrance that a woman finds enchanting, a biologically unsuitable man can trick a woman into being with him by "falsely" smelling scrumptious.

The take home message for men is: if you smell good to yourself and to the lady of your dreams you'll be a sure-fire winner. But for women the message is: beware a man who smells too good because of his fragrance. If you think he has potential and you're on the hunt for a man to be your mate, ask him to wash with unscented soap and to kick the fragrance/deodorant habit for a while. If your nose and heart remain enamored then you're on to something good.

(1) Roberts, S.C., Little, A.C., Lyndon, A., Roberts, J., Havlicek, J. & Wright, R.I. (2009). Manipulation of body odour alters men's self-confidence and judgments of their visual attractiveness by women. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 31, 47-54.


Rachel Herz is the author of The Scent of Desire and on the faculty at Brown University.

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