MARILYN Monroe famously declared that all she wore to bed were a few drops of Chanel No 5. Cleopatra is said to have lured Marc Anthony to her bed with a scent of rose, cardamom and cinnamon.
Scent is seductive. It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow and men and women everywhere will give loved-ones gifts of perfume and cologne.
€84m was spent on fragrances in Ireland in 2013, so, like Marilyn and Cleopatra, we, too, have bought into the idea that a few dabs of fragrance on our bodies makes us magnetically attractive.
But is this true? Does our natural scent contain pheromones that communicate sexual messages, or does perfume lead us by our noses in choosing partners?
“The first thing we have to understand is what a pheromone is,” says Dr Tristram Wyatt, from the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford.
“As far back as ancient Greece, humans knew that dogs sent invisible signals to each other. Males from miles around knew when females were in heat. Humans couldn’t smell it, but dogs did.
"Then, in 1959, a German team identified the first pheromone — the sex pheromone of the silk moth — showing there was transferred excitement between male and female individuals of the same species. It’s since been shown to exist across the animal kingdom, from insects to lobsters.”
But no scientific studies have yet proven that pheromones exist in humans. This discounts the claims of some perfume companies about the pheromones contained in their fragrances.
“Perfume companies sell us this attractive idea of sexual abandon and loss of control,” says Dr Wyatt.
“They even mention scientific- sounding molecules and men in white lab coats. But these are fraudulent claims supported by dodgy science.”
Dr Charles J. Wysocki, from the Monell Chemical Senses Centre, in Philadelphia, hasn’t used deodorant, cologne or any scented products since the early 1970s. “They make us smell like something we’re not,” he says. “I believe in natural scent.”
Though there is no proof of human pheromones, Dr Wysocki and Dr Wyatt agree that natural human scents have an effect on other humans.
“Just think of Napoleon,” says Dr Wyatt. “He wrote to his wife, saying: ‘don’t wash; I’m coming home’.
"That shows that smell is important. Then, think of the changes that happen as we grow up. The smell of a room of teenagers is different to that of a room of small children. We are mammals and mammals are smelly. We may well produce pheromones. We just haven’t discovered them yet.”
James McInerney, professor of bio-informatics at the National University of Ireland, in Maynooth, says studies show that our scents affect people around us.
In a study in 1998, women living together menstruated at the same time, because of the chemical messages released in their sweat.
Another study, in 1996, found that women preferred the scent of men whose immune systems were most unlike their own. And, in 2007, a study found that dancers in lap-dancing clubs got 80% more tips on the days they were ovulating than they did on days they were menstruating.
“These are all interesting experiments and while they don’t prove the existence of pheromones, I’m convinced they show we send signals through scent,” says Professor McInerney.
Dr Wysocki, and his team at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre, are to the forefront of research in this area. He cites a study that shows humans can identify each other’s sexual orientation by scent.
When asked to rate the odours of t-shirts worn by different people, heterosexual males preferred those worn by females, while gay males preferred those worn by other gay males.
Another study collected pads worn in the armpits of women at different stages of their menstrual cycle. Men sniffing these pads rated them in order of attractiveness.
The most attractive were those worn during the women’s fertile phase and the least attractive were those worn during menstruation.
What this means in real-life — where people are more likely to encounter each other in bars, rather than through sniffed t-shirts in a laboratory — is that women seem to be more attractive around the time of ovulation. Consider that when planning your next night out.
It’s not just women who emit signals, either. Men do, too. Twenty men wore pads in their armpits while they watched pornographic videos. They also wore pads at other times, when they weren’t aroused.
Women participating in the study then had their brain activity monitored as they smelled the different pads.
The sexual sweat activated areas of the brain associated with emotion and sexual thoughts, while the non-aroused sweat didn’t.
Such findings have led some men to believe that their natural sweat is a turn-on for women. This is true, but only to an extent.
Women definitely find the scent of androstenol attractive. This is the chemical produced by fresh male sweat. However, it converts to androstenone after exposure to oxygen and this chemical is highly unpleasant to females.
So, unless you produce fresh sweat or change your clothes every 20 minutes or so, you’re deluding yourself if you persist in believing your sweaty, macho odour is attractive.
In the modern mating game, we spend millions on hygiene products to remove smells from our bodies, and millions more on perfumes, aftershaves, deodorants and colognes to replace them. What does science say about such behaviour? The answer is far from clear-cut, according to Professor McInerney.
“Humans unconsciously hide their sexuality. Cows on heat attract bulls from fields away with the scent they emit, but there’s little of this overt signalling with us,” he says.
“I recommend that everyone washes regularly and I’m neutral when it comes to perfume.
“It masks our genetic smell, so you won’t just attract those who respond to your natural scent. Technically, it could open you up to more potential partners. It smells pleasant, too, so I can see why people wear it.”
According to the Herz Survey for the Sense of Smell Foundation, 90% of women report feeling more confident when they wear fragrance.
Another experiment showed that daily use of cologne significantly improved the mood of middle-aged men. It’s hard to argue against such positive psychological benefits.
Humans are contradictory. We’re obsessed with bathing and eliminating natural body odours, and yet we’re drawn to perfumes that claim to recreate sexual odours.
The perfect example of this is Tom Ford, who told Estée Lauder executives he wanted his Black Orchid fragrance to smell like a man’s crotch.
That’s a lot to bear in mind when choosing a bottle of perfume this Valentine’s Day. Don’t over-think it: just follow your nose.
We all wear different perfumes for different reasons. Celebs share their reasons with us.
Cate Blanchett uses scent to help her understand the characters she plays. The actress, who is the face of Giorgio Armani’s Si fragrance, always matches a fragrance to each of the characters she plays. It may not even be a scent she likes but it brings her to what she calls “an emotional place”.
Keira Knightly has admitted that before she became the face of Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, she only wore ‘masculine’ perfumes.
“I didn’t want something light and flowery – I’m not that kind of girl,” she said. “Coco Mademoiselle has a mix of strength and subtlety. It doesn’t overpower but it makes you feel you can stand up straight and that’s important to me. One of the things I love about it is that although it’s extremely feminine, it gives me this feeling of power.”
Mad Men star Christina Hendricks loves perfume and has a particular fondness for the mandarin L’Artisan Parfumeur scent.
She bought it when she filmed the pilot for Mad Men and now every time she wears it, she is brought back to the excitement of starting what was to become a hit show.
Gwyneth Paltrow likes to vary her choice of fragrance. “I’m drawn to an eclectic mix of scents,” she said. “I wear different ones depending on my mood that day. I wear men’s cologne, really feminine florals, citrus-y things and really musky, woodsy ones too.”
Clive Owen likes Bulgari Man because it reflects what being a man means for him. “It’s fresh and elegant, very tasteful,” he said.
“I have a problem with a lot of men’s fragrances because they are very strong. Somebody somewhere thinks that masculine means powerful smells and I find them overbearing and not very pleasant... I don’t like it when people try too hard, that goes for clothes, for acting, for everything. It’s just not good when you’re making too much effort.”