Scent and romance have always been intrinsically connected. If you think back to the first person you ever had a crush on, it’s likely that you remember their aroma (Axe Apollo crew, I see you). The idea that smell and attraction are entangled makes sense when you remember that fresh roses, chocolate boxes and sweet perfumes are at the heart of pretty much every Valentine’s Day campaign.
Although artificial fragrances are beloved by many, some people like things more au naturel. Known as olfactophilia, Psychology Dictionary defines it as a "carnal interest in and stimulation by body odors." This sexual arousal can come from someone’s natural smell or from more specific scents, like vaginal fluids, semen and sweat in intimate bodily areas. But how many of us are actually attracted to our partner’s natural smell?
Twenty-six-year-old Sophie* says the smell of sweat is a definite turn-on but only when it’s someone she’s already attracted to. "I think for me it’s less about the immediate post-gym smell but if they smell a little musky or natural-smelling, it’s like, Oooh, hello. Or if you’re lying in their armpit and it doesn’t smell the freshest? I like that," she explains.
Pop culture pushes this messaging too, from Twilight’s Edward being overpowered by Bella’s scent in science class to Call Me By Your Name’s Elio sniffing Oliver’s sweaty swim shorts and Ross giving away his feelings for Rachel by sniffing her hair in Friends. This attraction to naturally occurring smells is often spoken about in the context of pheromones (unique chemicals that the body secretes to promote a reaction from an individual of the same species). In mammals, these chemicals are present in bodily fluids like sweat and semen and can signal certain information to others e.g. "I want to breed."
However, according to somatic psychotherapist and certified sex therapist Dr. Holly Richmond, pheromones aren’t the main thing that affects attraction in humans (unlike in animals). "Olfactophilia is routinely connected to pheromones but we have to remember that each person’s sexual template is also a unique mix of biopsychosocial factors," she tells Refinery29. In particular this includes desire (what you find sexy) and arousal (what turns you on), with Dr. Richmond explaining that these factors are influenced by our genes, where we were born, who raised us, religion, education and first sexual experiences.
Cosmetic biochemist Nausheen Qureshi agrees. "There is limited scientific evidence to show the chemical compounds in human sweat can be classified as pheromones. However, there are some studies that link these chemical compounds to attraction mechanisms, although the study sizes are small and limited," she tells Refinery29. "For example, some studies showed men preferred the sweat of women who were ovulating over women who weren’t."
The connection between attraction and smell has validity in the scientific world, with one 2011 study identifying pleasant armpit body odor as the single attribute that consistently predicted attractiveness of nonverbal behavior. In one of the most widely renowned experiments on the topic, a Swiss scientist conducted a study in which men were instructed to wear the same unwashed T-shirt for two days. The T-shirts were then placed in identical boxes for women to smell and state which scent they found more sexually attractive. The results showed that the women were most attracted to the men whose MHC genes (essential for immunity) were the most different from their own.
The hypothesis is that humans could be similar to other animals who seek out mates based on their different genetic make-ups in order to produce healthy offspring. "Evolution tends to prioritize diversity so being attracted to a partner with varied yet complementary genes makes sense," Dr. Richmond explains.
Liking someone’s natural smell or your partner’s sweaty T-shirt can be complex. Dr. Richmond's clients often say they are most attracted to their partners when they are confident or being powerful, including working out or doing physical activities. This may indicate why we associate the smell of things like sweat with attraction, as it connects to our wider desire for confidence.
There’s little research on this but Illana Gambrill, founder of DanceBox studio and method, agrees, saying that dancers often deal with feelings of attraction in classes (a subject regularly discussed in the Dancing With The Stars discourse). "I am obsessed with natural body smells and it's something I talk about often in my dance classes. I think that sweat and natural body odors play a huge part in why dance and sensuality are often connected," she explains.
For others, the smell of a partner’s sweat is more romantic than it is inherently sexual. "If my ex had been on a run and we hugged, it was a comforting, familiar smell. I think the torso area was my favorite thing but it would make me want to snuggle more than rip their clothes off," explains 28-year-old Imogen*. This calming sensation may connect to science, says Dr. Richmond, explaining that some data show we produce less cortisol (our stress hormone) when we smell our partner’s scent.
This could be down to the proven connection between memory and scent, with people often reaching for their partner’s clothes when they're away to get a comforting whiff of their smell. "It is well known that scents provoke the memory centers of the brain much more than any other sense. If the person has a good memory associated with a particular scent, they’re much more likely to positively react to it when they smell it again, based on their prior memory being evoked," Nausheen explains.
So are we naturally attracted to bodily odors? It depends. While some people experience feelings of sexual arousal when they smell bodily odors, others won’t use scent at all to gauge a person's attractiveness, making smell more of a preference than an integral part of our sexuality. "People are attracted to different smells so there’s really no predictor, it’s just part of their unique sexual template," Dr. Richmond explains. "If smell is a central and necessary part of what turns them on, olfactophilia would be considered a paraphilia. For most people, our partner having a smell we like is a bonus, not a huge part of why we chose them."
*Name changed to protect identity