Scent & Attraction Psychology — Why They Are So Connected

When it comes to attraction, a lot of factors come into play, from physical to mental. But there’s one crucial element that could be a make-or-break situation with your partner that you likely haven’t thought of: the way they smell. While, yes, someone can mask their natural scent with deodorant, perfume, or cologne — and even entice you with them — we’re talking about one’s pheromones, their au naturel scent. There’s a lot of research out there supporting the idea that someone’s scent can trigger everything from emotions and memories to romantic attraction.

“Smell plays a more significant role in the way we make decisions about what we enjoy than we think,” Dr. Joanne Frederick, licensed mental health counselor and author of Copeology, tells TZR in an email. “The perception of a potential partner’s body odor can subconsciously help one decide if they’re attracted to them or not. When you’re attracted to someone, you’re more likely to be drawn to their smell.” Some say that we release pheromones (oxytocin), also referred to as “love hormones,” when there’s an attraction — causing one to be drawn to someone’s smell, she explains.

Jennifer Stelter, psychologist and CEO of NeuroEssence at the Dementia Connection Institute, elaborates. “Olfactory stimuli has a direct impact on a person’s limbic system that houses the amygdala, responsible for generating emotions, and the hippocampus, responsible for forming memories,” she tells TZR in an email. “Therefore, if the stimuli is positive, or is attractive to the person smelling them, then this can influence the person to feel and associate positive feelings and memories with that person.”

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In fact, one 2018 study conducted by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology instructed female participants to smell three scents — their romantic partner’s, a stranger’s, and a neutral scent — after which they were then exposed to an acute stressor. Their perceived stress and cortisol levels (also known as the “stress hormone”) were then measured throughout the study. Perceived stress was lower in women who were exposed to their partner’s scent while cortisol levels were increased in women who were exposed to a stranger’s scent. So, on a subconscious level, the women were more attracted to their partner’s scent, the one they found familiar and safe.

But what exactly triggers these responses in our brains and bodies? Read on for the science and reasoning behind the strong connection between scent and the laws of attraction.

The Science Behind Scent

Amy Galper, certified aromatherapist and author, agrees that aroma triggers how our limbic system (the unconscious part of our brain) responds to external stressors. “So if we smell something pleasant, our body responds by producing hormones and chemicals in our body that tell our body to rest and relax,” she tells TZR in an email. “The molecules that make up a volatile aroma (a scent) actually trigger a response in our olfactory nerve cells in our nose that then sends a signal to the emotional part of our brain.”

In action, think about when you smell delicious food cooking. “The molecules that make up that aroma trigger a signal in our unconscious brain to produce the chemicals that get our digestive system ready to eat and digest food,” she says. “In turn, we experience that by ‘feeling hungry’ — producing saliva and triggering other hormonal responses that prepare us to eat. So the same thing happens when we smell someone that arouses us — it triggers responses (the release of hormones) in our reproductive organs to prepare us to ‘mate.’” That’s why we can “smell someone” and immediately feel attracted without knowing anything about them — the scent triggers a reaction in our unconscious mind, she adds.

Scientifically, we are programmed to search for partners who have a different gene configuration to our own. “Our noses can act as a compass to find suitable partners for two reasons: pheromones and MHC, the genes that compose a significant part of our immune system,” Frederick says. These genes then produce certain molecules, she explains, which define our unspoken, and unconscious, attraction to others. So while one’s natural scent definitely plays a role in how they smell, it can be masked by perfumes, body washes, colognes, you name it.

Speaking of external fragrances, Frederick says Someone’s “smell” can sometimes be a combination of everyday things — like the aforementioned deodorant, body wash, laundry detergent, and/or perfume/cologne. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a deal breaker if you don’t like how your partner smells,” she says. “It can be as easy as suggesting they try a different soap, body spray, or switch up their detergent and fabric softener — and see what happens then.”

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How To Switch Up Someone’s Scent (Or Your Own)

So, as you can see, all hope is not lost if you don’t like or respond positively to how your date or partner smells. But how do you broach the topic in a non-insulting way? “Different people find different things attractive; I’ve always had memories of a good cologne and smelling it even now brings back memories of old boyfriends,” Steve Safran, matchmaker and dating coach, tells TZR in an email. “If someone has bad breath or body odor, you need to say something rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. The better you are at communicating to people about your needs, the better the chance that your attraction to them has the ability to become a relationship.”

She continues, explaining that if you can’t articulate your feelings — even the ones that make you uncomfortable — how are you going to deal with situations that deal with other areas, like intimacy? “There seems to be a reason that deodorants, perfumes, colognes, mouthwashes, breath mints, and even feminine products are constantly telling us to smell good,” she adds. Even though you can “accidentally” wander through a cologne or body wash section of a store with your date and pick out some products for each other, it’s best to be open and honest. You can start by telling the person everything you love and appreciate about them before broaching the topic of how they smell. That way, you won’t hurt their feelings.

Galper adds that if it’s a scent that is naturally emitted, the person can try using essential oils to mask the natural odor, which will trigger more arousing feelings in you. She recommends oils like jasmine, ylang-ylang, patchouli, or sandalwood. Alison Angold, founder of the aromatherapy platform Beauty Taming The Beast, also suggests using essential oils — and not necessarily to wear. “You can create a massage oil, using aromas such as bergamot, rosemary, orange, or lavender, and suggest giving each other a massage, or using it in the bath,” she tells TZR in an email. “The aromas, while potent, are natural and will linger on the skin, so they’ll help a person to smell better — these oils act as natural deodorants.” (Plus, it can be a romantic experience, too!)

At the end of the day, it all boils down to how these little elements, like scent, make you feel and react to your partner. So, trust your gut and let your nose be your guide.

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