Scent, safety and seduction

Burlington House, Royal Society of Chemistry

Burlington House, Royal Society of Chemistry

I attended the “Scentsory Question Time” organised by the British Society of Perfumers in January. Many people might not be aware that these events are open to the general public, so if you are interested in perfumery or chemistry, it’s worth keeping an eye on the event calendars of the BSP and RSC. The evening covered many topics around scent and perfumery; from our reptilian brains to fragrance safety and the controversial role of IFRA in the industry. If you want to read what happened, head over to Basenotes to read the report.

“The discussion inevitably turned into whether it’s possible to design a scent to attract the opposite sex.

Lisa Hipgrave (IFRA UK) mentioned some interesting immunology studies that have shown correlation between scent preferences and types of immunity genes expressed in the individual, leading us to seek out a partner whose own smell we find most appealing. It is therefore better for us to seek fragrances which gently enhance our natural odour fingerprint – if we’re on the pull, that is.”

Actually, the first time I learned about these immunology studies was at a BSP annual symposium, where Craig Roberts of the University of Liverpool gave an engaging and surprising talk to us about the so-called “Lynx Effect”. He had conducted research which showed that the way in which female participants rated the sexual attractivemess of men was affected by how confident the scent made the man feel. The women could only see visual images. They couldn’t smell the men.

This goes to show that in some ways, the “Lynx Effect” is real – alas, not necessarily because of the way the product smells, but because of the incredibly successful brand image and advertising campaigns. If you feel confident and sexy, your appearance and body language matches this and the potential partners out there will rate you as more attractive.

Craig also told us about the immunology studies where his team had analysed body odour fingerprints (we all have a unique one) and compared these to the way in which the genes of our immune system are expressed. If you find someone’s personal body odour very attractive, it’s likely that their immune system is compatible with yours and you would produce a healthier offspring.

The Economist ran a good article on this:

As long ago as the 1950s, a perfumer called Paul Jellinek noted that several ingredients of incense resembled scents of the human body. It was not until 2001, however, that Manfred Milinski and Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern wondered whether there was a correlation between the perfume a woman preferred and her own natural scent. They found that there is.

The correlation is with the genes of what is known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This region of the genome encodes part of the immune system. It turns out that one of the most important aspects of mate choice in mammals, humans included, is to make sure that your mate’s MHC is different from your own. Mixing up MHCs makes the immune system more effective. The MHC is also thought to act as a proxy for general outbreeding, with all the hybrid vigour that can bring. Fortunately, then, evolution has equipped mammals with the ability to detect by smell chemicals whose concentrations vary with differences in the MHC of the producer.

That means people are able to sniff out suitable MHC genomes in prospective partners. A woman, for instance, will prefer the smell of T-shirts that have been worn by men whose MHC genes are appropriately different from her own. Dr Milinski and Dr Wedekind also found an association between a woman’s MHC genes and some of her preferences for perfume. Perception of musk, rose and cardamom is correlated with the MHC. Perception of castoreum and cedar is not.

Women, it seems, choose not the kind of smell they would like on a partner, or even one that might mask a nasty odour of their own, but rather something that matches their MHC. In other words, they are advertising their own scent.

We should all look for scents that enhance our natural odour in a good way. This is one of the many reasons why trying perfume on the skin and wearing it for a while is the best way to find the right scent for you.

Of course this raises one worry from a commercial point of view: is it ever a good idea to buy someone perfume as a present if they don’t already know and love the scent?

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