People shell out millions of dollars a year to smell like something they're not, dabbing on perfume and splashing on aftershave in the eternal quest to attract their preferred gender.
But does perfume really work? Sure, a little eau de toilette makes
you smell nice, but does it make you ... sexy? Will Red or Drakkar Noir weave a scented spell that enthralls the object of your desire?
Maybe, maybe not.
Indiana University psychology professor James Craig doesn't think that fragrances by themselves can make a person more attractive.
"It's pretty clear that much of peoples' responses to perfume and
other smells has got to be learned," Craig said.
Smell is a very powerful memory trigger, and past associations
often dictate how a person will respond to a given scent, he said.
For instance, if you're a woman who's had a rotten relationship
with a guy who wore English Leather, chances are that if you meet a man at a party who's wearing the stuff, your nose will tell you to run away.
Conversely, if your first true love put on Polo before he took you
out, you might find yourself subtly attracted to new men who wear that
"Culture and conditioning play an important part in how we
perceive odors," agreed Milos Novotny, a professor of chemistry at IU.
For example, while most people enjoy the scents of both pizza and
violets, few would be interested in a cologne that smells like a
pepperoni pie. Perfumes contain scents from blooms and not bakeries because flowers are symbols for things such as life, fertility and romance in most human cultures.
But Novotny added people's reactions to perfume is more than just
conditioning. There are some odors, such as the rich scent of roses or
the sweet smell of ripe apples, that we naturally enjoy because of our
When humans were evolving millions of years ago, those that were
attracted to the lush scents of flowers and ripe fruit got a better diet and therefore had more and healthier children than those proto-humans
whose malfunctioning sniffers led them to eat hard, unripe fruits or
The proto-humans who benefitted from their good sense of smell
eventually evolved into modern humans. Although modern life has nearly
eliminated the need for a sharp nose (and, indeed, over 70% of our genes for our sense of smell don't even work anymore), we've retained our ancestors' attraction to certain scents.
But Novotny added that we've apparently inherited a few other
smell-related traits from our primitive ancestors.
Many animals, such as mice and pigs, exude chemicals called
pheromones that they use to communicate things such as a readiness to
mate. Pheromones are known to influence the behavior and reproductive
cycles of other members of their species that are exposed to the chemicals.
Novotny said that while no scientist has shown that humans
produce pheromones, "some pheromone-like reactions exist in humans, such
as women living in dormitories getting synchronous menstrual cycles."
Because of this, Novotny said that it is possible that some
substances in perfume could act like pheromones in humans and thus
heighten a person's sexual attractiveness.
"Certainly, this is an area which has been insufficiently
explored," Novotny said. "It's possible that the perfume industry may
know more about all this than they're telling the general public."
What could be in a perfume that might act like a pheromone?
Well, pheromones, for one thing.
"I know they (synthetic pheromones) were put in Jovan a few years
back," said perfumer Keith Pierson. "But to my knowledge, it was just a
Pierson, who is the lab manager for Belle-Aire, Inc., added that
some perfume ingredients have been derived from secretions that animals
use to mark their territories. These animal-derived perfume notes
include civet, castorium, and musk.
Civet is an extract from the skunk-like spray of the civet cat.
Castorium comes from the peri-anal glands of beavers, and musk is derived
from a gland in the genitalia of the male musk deer.
As befits their origins, these substances smell pretty foul in
their normal state. But Pierson said that if they're diluted to a
10% or weaker solution, they impart a pleasant warming effect to a
perfume or cologne.
Pierson isn't sure if civet and musk have an effect on humans or
not, but said they definitely attract other species.
"If you put them on yourself, half the animals in the
neighborhood will follow you around," he said.
Women can recognize the smell of musk whereas three-quarters of
all men cannot, he said. Accordingly, most men's colognes contain musk
while few perfumes do.
But those concerned with animal rights need not worry that a
beaver or deer died to make their perfume, provided they buy
Pierson said that all but the most expensive perfumes contain
synthetic versions of the chemicals derived from animals.
"The industry came out with synthetics to replace the naturals
because the naturals are so expensive," he said. "Absolute civet goes
for about $3000 a pound these days."
He added that the synthetics are easier to work with and lack the
foul edge of the originals.
Pheromones aside, perfumes do smell nice, and many of us will
enjoy them even if they don't help us get a date. But people should
remember that shopping for perfume or cologne is very much like shopping for clothes: you've got to try them on to see if they fit. And, if you want to be sexy, wear just a little: you should be bathing with water, not cologne. Fragrance isn't a suitable cover for rancid body oils and fermenting sweat.
"Body chemistry makes as much difference in the fragrance as the
original ingredients," said Harry Hugar, a perfumer at The French
Connection in Bloomington. "Probably, if you had twenty women in an
office who were wearing Giorgio, only three of them would smell alike."
Because of this, it's not a good idea to try to buy perfume for
somebody else, Hugar said. Gifts of perfume can also backfire by
triggering allergies or bad memories.
"You yourself may like a fragrance, but a close friend of yours
won't even be able to wear it," he said.
And finally, when you combine body chemistry with the pheromone
mystery, it may be that the most alluring fragrance you can wear is the
one you make for yourself.
This is a slightly-expanded version of a story I wrote for the Indiana Daily Student