Q: This might sound like a crazy question, but can my fragrance or odor change how physically attractive I am?
A: Not a crazy question at all. In fact, science is showing just that.
A group of researchers in 2007 sought out to study the relationship between the senses in evaluations of attractiveness.
Specifically, they wanted to know if smelling bad or good changed how people’s attractiveness is rated.
But they made it even more specific: they wanted to know whether an odor can actually change the rated attractiveness for a certain crucial feature – the face.
The results of the experiment were published in the Oxford journal Chemical Senses in 2007.
The researchers got 16 female participants from the University of Oxford to be raters in this experiment.
They used females because females are generally more sensitive to smell than men.
The participants indicated whether they’d had any problems with their sense of smell in the past or present (whether they have a cold or flu, whether they have asthma, etc.).
Then, the researchers got pictures of 40 male faces taken from a facial database.
The database had already divided the faces into high, medium, and low attractiveness. The researchers chose 20 high-attractiveness male faces and 20 low-attractiveness male faces for this study.
The researchers also got samples of 4 odorants from chemical companies. The odors were:
- Synthetic body odor smell
- Male perfume (“Gravity” by Coty)
- Geranium fragrance
- And one sample of clean air (this was no fragrance at all)
The researchers used an olfactometer – a device designed specifically to emit a certain dilution of a fragrance in a specific amount – to deliver scents into the nose.
Each participant sat in a chair in front of a computer screen with their chin in a chin rest (to ensure they were all the same distance from the screen).
They got a series of male faces on the computer screen.
Each face (both high and low attractiveness) was shown 3 times through the course of the experiment.
Each face was shown once with a pleasant odor (cologne or geranium), once with an unpleasant odor (rubber or body odor), and once with clean air.
- Participants were instructed to exhale when a certain tone was played between faces, and then breathe in through their nostrils at the moment a face is displayed. That’s when the scent was released.
- Overall, the women viewed 120 faces over the course of the experiment. Each man’s face was shown 3 times randomly throughout the 120.
- After each face presentation, women rated the face’s attractiveness on a 1-9 scale (1 = least attractive, 5 = neutral, 9 = most attractive).
- Then, to ensure the scent from the previous face had worn off, unscented medical air was delivered between face presentations.
At the end of the experiment, each participant smelled each scent and rated it on intensity, pleasantness, and familiarity.
Remember – each face got presented three times. They’re comparing the attractiveness ratings from the same men’s faces with different scents.
So a certain man’s face with a pleasant smell, an unpleasant smell, and a neutral smell.
If odor didn’t make a difference, all three would be the same (because it’s the same face).
For both high and low attractiveness men, the unpleasant scents (rubber and body odor) reduced a face’s attractiveness.
Pleasant and neutral air did not affect a man’s attractiveness.
In other words, smelling pleasant or neutral didn’t necessarily enhance a man’s attractiveness, but smelling bad significantly reduced a man’s attractiveness.
This is consistent with previous research that found that bad odors can make physical touch disgusting, but pleasant odors don’t affect touch.
Thus, word to the wise – if you smell bad, it will influence other things about how you are perceived. This is like a “reverse halo effect.”
Dematte, M. L., Osterbauer, R., & Spence, C. (2007). Olfactory cues modulate facial attractiveness. Chemical Senses, 32(6), 603-610. Link: https://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/32/6/603.short