Confidence, a sense of humour and good looks are common qualities we hone in on when assessing our attraction or potential compatibility with people. Then there are elements like political and religious beliefs, geographical location and even star signs, which we often heavily consider, also. But when push comes to shove, these desired traits we say we want in relationships seemingly become somewhat negotiable — and what consciously and subconsciously kicks in is someone’s body odour.
Does smell affect compatibility?
It sounds a bit strange, and by no means are we implying that you should revel in the smell of your Hinge date or current partner’s un-deodorised armpits. (No judgement if that’s your thing!) But if you can dig into your memory, there’s a good chance you can recall a time when you passed a stranger and found their natural musk to be particularly captivating. Or, maybe whenever you hang around your partner or a close friend, you can’t help but notice they give off an addicting scent that just makes you feel, well, comforted.
That’s because when you inhale a smell, the compounds are processed by the limbic system – the region of the brain that regulates emotion and memory – so a certain scent can immediately trigger a memory or feeling with great intensity.
Now, when it comes to chasing romantic chemistry, it’s said that we release pheromones (oxytocin) – aka love hormones – when there’s an attraction, and this is what we’re subconsciously drawn to in a person.
“Humans sense smells via the olfactory system so it’s likely that pheromones do play a role in sexual attraction and how we feel towards different people,” explained Lysn psychologist Bethany Howsley.
“Oftentimes, attraction to another person’s scent is happening outside of our awareness and so most people are unaware that this biological process is taking place.”
What does it mean to be compatible with someone based on smell?
The idea of ‘odour compatibility’ might seem transitory, but studies have proven time and time again that physical attraction itself may be based on smell alone.
A recent study published in the journal Science Advances found humans pick up on certain elements of others’ scents that subconsciously draw them towards particular people and can even create that desired “chemistry”. Analysing the body odours of 20 pairs of friends who mutually agreed that they “just clicked” when they met, the researchers found the smells of each pair were significantly more similar to each other than they were to random others.
To confirm their findings, the researchers used the participants’ T-shirts that they had slept in for two consecutive days, during which they deterred from using any perfumes, deodorants or scented soaps and stayed away from pungent foods and drinks so that their body odour remained completely natural. Interestingly, even though these people had met their “click” friends IRL – where a number of these scent-altering lifestyle elements could have been in play – they still gravitated towards people whose underlying natural odour was similar to their own.
The study also tested this theory on strangers, concluding that 71 per cent of the time, strangers would “click” with others who shared some components of their own body odour.
But this isn’t the only piece of scientific evidence highlighting the power of odour compatibility in romantic and platonic relationships.
“Our sense of smell can act as a compass for initial attraction, drawing us to potential mates through pheromones and a gene called the MHC (major histocompatibility complex),” Howsley noted.
“Pheromones are understood to stimulate arousal and increase desire and bonding, with some researchers even proposing an impact on reproductive biology.”
How important is odour compatibility with forming – and sustaining – relationships?
Scent is a wildcard because it’s deeply personal. For example, just because lavender is renowned for its ability to promote relaxation, it might not be a stress reliever for you if your toxic former boss wore it.
It’s also important to note that just because someone smells good to you – consciously or subconsciously – it doesn’t mean they possess other traits necessary to sustain a healthy, long-term relationship (hello, communication, trust, empathy and kindness).
But from a romantic standpoint, natural musk does remain a crucial factor of initial attraction — and possible demise.
“It would be very difficult to maintain romantic chemistry if you couldn’t stand how your partner smells,” relationship expert Alina Rose said.
A small 2021 study even provided evidence showing disliking a partner’s body odour became a key consideration when breaking up. It concluded that lower relationship commitment can be associated with lower levels of liking a significant other’s body odour.
“You would literally be repulsed by them and struggle to maintain physical intimacy no matter how many other traits you liked in them,” Rose added.
So, there’s the issue of disliking an odour, but then on the other side of the spectrum, you also have anosmia – the loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial. Rose pointed out that this issue is also a major factor in relationship breakdowns.
“Couples who have this imbalance of odour compatibility would have more of a friendship and sadly, a vastly reduced or lacklustre erotic and intimate life.”
On the flip side, the same study also identified a potential “positive feedback loop” between how much a person likes their partner’s natural scent and how much they’re exposed to it, so admiring a partner’s smell could signify relationship longevity.
“From the smell of someone’s hair to their skin, liking how someone smells is a very positive indicator of how well you will get along — and have sexual compatibility,” Rose explained.
That said, keep in mind this study was on a small number of people, so more research is definitely needed to get a better grasp of the full breadth of how smell, the nose, the brain and pheromones are all intertwined.
In the case of platonic relationships, body odour can define who we categorise as “friends” versus “acquaintances”.
“We would lack the kinship and social chemistry required to really ‘click’,” Rose explained.
However, it’s also likely that odour compatibility could become less important as a friendship strengthens. Because humans seek friends who are similar to themselves, two compatible mates will most likely lead similar lifestyles, eat the same types of foods and live in nearby locations, so it’s possible all these factors can eventually alter an individual’s smell.
What scents do people like most?
By now, you’re most likely wondering how pleasant or unpleasant your natural odour may be — and if your smell is a trait that’s negatively affecting your attractiveness to others.
First of all, a lot of this is subjective, so try not to worry too much!
However, if you are concerned, you could make lifestyle changes like changing your diet and wearing more breathable fabrics. You can also try the addition of an arousing perfume.
Seductiveness is embedded in the history of perfume, and fragrance brands have long attempted to bottle up all these jittery pheromones with the promise that they’ll help one’s attraction game. Their effectiveness, however, is down to personal preference, just like our assessment of a person’s physical appeal.
“There is no universal answer to what we’re attracted to because we’re all driven by and attracted to different scents based on our own unique experiences,” explained Alex Wilson, founder of Australian natural fragrance brand Heartwood.
“The best way to work out what someone likes is to just ask them.”
While our bodily odours won’t necessarily send potential mates into a romantic frenzy, the wealth of research surrounding scent and social chemistry suggests it definitely holds the power to shape perceptions of others’ attractiveness. So, maybe keep it in mind the next time you vibe with someone — how do they smell to you? The answer will probably tell you a lot.
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