Body odour and sexual attraction

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Research has shown that certain body odours are connected to human sexual attraction.[1][2] Humans can make use of body odour subconsciously in order to identify whether a potential mate will pass on favourable traits to their offspring. This is based on the fact body odour may provide significant cues about the genetic quality, health and reproductive success of a potential mate.[3] There is an extensive amount of research demonstrating that body odour affects sexual attraction in a number of ways including through human biology, the menstrual cycle and fluctuating asymmetry. Research indicates that body odour also affects the sexual attraction of insects and mammals.

Human biology[edit]

Research has attempted to clarify the relationship between sexual attraction and various aspects of human biology and genetics, including: HLA, dissimilar MHCs, heterozygosity of MHC, and rare alleles for MHC. While research is not conclusive, hypotheses suggest such genetic factors play a role in sexual selection.[4]


See also: Major Histocompatibility Complex and Sexual Selection

MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) are a group of genes essential for the immune system. Unique body smells are heavily influenced by MHC, and studies have suggested that these olfactory cues are involved in mate choice and preferences. Similarity or differences in MHC genes can indicate variations between individuals' genotypes.[5]

MHC is expressed codominantly; a more diverse set of MHC genes leads to a stronger immune system.[6] It has been found that women prefer male partners with differing MHC genes from themselves. Therefore, one evolutionary explanation for these differences in attraction proposes that females are more likely to be more attracted to males with MHC alleles different from their own in order to provide their offsprings with a stronger immune system.[7]

A study by Weekend et al., provided confirmatory evidence to show that MHC influences mate preference. In the study, males wore a T-shirt for two consecutive nights without adding any artificial scents then had females smell the shirts and classify the odor as attractive or unattractive. Females not using hormonal contraceptives were more attracted to the scent of males with dissimilar MHCs, whereas females on hormonal contraceptives preferred the scent of men with MHCs similar to their own.[8] Research has also shown that the scent of low FA person is universally more attractive.[9]

The increased attraction between people of dissimilar MHCs is also hypothesised to be a prevention of incest and subsequent birth defects.[10] This inbreeding avoidance hypothesis proposes that biases towards hetrozygotic alleles prevent harmful genetic consequences which can arise from mating with genetic family members. The role of MHC in avoiding potential negative fitness effects from inbreeding has also been supported by Brown and Eklund,[11] who found that olfactory cues can be used to recognise kin.

It has been shown that couples who have many failed attempts at conception share a considerably larger amount of genes than those who are able to conceive without problems.[12] If, for these genetically similar couples, there is a successful conception, the babies are often born early or underweight.[13]

A third hypothesis explaining the function of dissimilar MHC mate preferences, the parasite hypothesis, suggests that MHC heterozygotes may be resistant to rapidly evolving parasites.[7]

Both sexes commonly use artificial scents to enhance their perceived sexual appeal. Many of these share a similar chemical profile with naturally produced body chemicals.[14] A study from Milinski and Wedekind found a significant correlation between an individuals MHC genotype and the ratings they assigned to certain perfumes labelled to use "for self".[14] This study supports the hypothesis that perfumes used personally enhance body odours which indicate an individuals immunogenetics. However, several infertility issues may arise due to the fact that people often use perfumes or scented body washes that erase their natural scent, hindering (women in particular) from being able to detect if their partner is genetically comparable.


HLA, the human leukocyte antigen is a gene complex which encodes MHC in humans. Men and women are attracted to the pheromones they produce and HLA is related to the perceptions of other peoples odours.[15] Males produce androstenol and androstenone. Androstenol is produced by fresh male sweat and is most attractive to women, while androstenone is produced once the sweat is exposed to oxygen and is highly unpleasant to women.

Women are able to detect a single HLA difference, and are more attracted to the HLA of partners with more matching elements of their genetics.[16] Studies have shown that women who are at the most fertile stage of their menstrual cycle prefer the smell of men that have higher testosterone levels.[17] Heterozygosity of HLA can also be detected through scent: in this case, heterozygosity confers greater ability to recognize a wider variety of antigens. Females, especially when not using hormonal contraceptives, are more attracted to the scent of males heterozygous for HLA.

However, the same attraction and mate preferences are not held by males for heterozygous females. Males are, however, more attracted to the scent of females with rare HLA alleles.[18] men's arousal can be influenced by a variety of odours. For example; pumpkin pie, liquorice, doughnuts, and lavender can increase penile blood flow consequently causing arousal.[19]

Body odour and menstrual cycle changes[edit]

Women’s fertility levels shift dramatically throughout the menstrual cycle, so the period surrounding ovulation is extremely important because it represents the peak period of reproductive fertility.[20] As conception is most likely to occur during a woman’s brief fertile period, evolutionary theories suggest that men possess adaptations designed to maximize their reproductive success during this period.[20] Women’s fertility shapes male mating behaviour, many studies have shown that being exposed to the scent of women’s fertility led men to display greater implicit accessibility to mating-related concepts, males also judged the odours of women during the follicular (ovarian) phase as more pleasant and 'sexy' than odours during the luteal (non-ovulatory) phase.[20][21] Olfaction, therefore, transmits information relevant to human mate selection, through which men are capable of detecting shifts in women’s fertility.[20][21]

There is now also considerable evidence from psychological studies that women’s preferences for various male traits change throughout the menstrual cycle.[22] Hormonal fluctuation across the menstrual cycle explains temporal variation in women’s judgment of the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex as the psychological processes that shape the formation and maintenance of human romantic relationships are influenced by variation in hormonal levels.[23]

Due to their high hormone content, oral contraceptives have the potential to alter women’s partner preference for a range of male traits, which could have important consequences on sexual relationships, as it alters women’s attraction to their partner and, potentially, to other men.[22] If a woman’s use of oral contraceptives is congruent, meaning she was using oral contraceptives when she met her partner, her current preference will more closely match the preference that shaped her partner choice in the first place, and the desire is higher than that of a woman whose use of oral contraceptives is in-congruent.[22] The resulting factor is that women’s partner preferences are influenced by oral contraceptives use, meaning that attraction towards an existing partner changes over time if a woman initiates or discontinues oral contraceptive use.[22]

Body odour and fluctuating asymmetry[edit]

Fluctuating Asymmetry (FA) is a type of biological asymmetry, referring to the extent to which small random deviations occur from expected perfect symmetry in different populations of organisms.[24] In humans, for example, FA can be demonstrated through the unequal sizes of bilateral features such as the eyes, ears and breasts. FA acts as an index for measuring developmental instability as it provides a clear indicator of the possible environmental and genetic stressors affecting development.[25] It is thought that having a preference for a symmetrical face offers some adaptive value as such symmetry may signal an individual's ability to cope with environmental challenges.[26] FA shares an inverse relationship with certain desired traits; a low FA is correlated with higher stress tolerance, larger body size in males, smaller body size in females, and higher facial attractiveness.[27] FA is detectable through the olfactory senses and it has a measurable effect on sexual attraction.[28] Significant cues may be found through body odour relating to a potential mate's health, reproductive status and genetic quality and FA is one such cue as it is considered to be a marker of genetic and developmental stability.[29]

During their fertile phase, females have repeatedly been shown as being more attracted to the body odours of more symmetrical males[30] and of males whose faces they rate as attractive.[31] The scent of symmetrical males provides an honest indicator of the male's phenotypic and genetic quality.[32] This may explain why women who are highly fertile find the scent of low FA as attractive and yet this scent is not necessarily as attractive to other women.[28] For example, it has been found that normal cycling women near their peak fertility tended to prefer the odour of shirts worn by symmetrical men and yet women at low fertility in their menstrual cycle or those using the contraceptive pill showed no preference for the odour of shirts of symmetrical men compared to those of asymmetrical men.[33] These findings support the good genes hypothesis such that when women are in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, they should prefer markers of genetic benefits or 'good genes'.[34] In other words, fertile women who prefer the scent of men with low FA are demonstrating a preference for the genetic benefits associated with those symmetric men.

It is widely accepted that men prefer the scent of women in her most fertile period. For example, in one study, men rated the body odours of T-shirts worn by women during their most fertile phase as more sexy and pleasant than T-shirts worn during their least fertile phase.[35] Despite this, much of the research in the area concludes that the effect of the scent of symmetry appears to be sex specific such that men do not find the scent of symmetrical women more attractive than the scent of asymmetrical women.[36][37] It therefore appears that attraction to symmetric body odour of the opposite sex appears to apply exclusively to women, and specifically fertile women, as non-fertile women and men do not display this preference.

Body odour and sexual attraction in animals[edit]


Insects use extremely sensitive receptors to detect pheromone signals. Each pheromone signal can elicit a distinct response based on the gender and social status of the recipient.[38] In insects, sex pheromones can be detected in very minute concentrations in the environment.[39] Insect sex pheromones, usually released by the female to lure a male, are vital in the process by which insects locate each other for mating. The main purpose of releasing these sex pheromones is to attract a partner from a distance, however the sex pheromones also serve to evoke a courtship response and sexually excite the male prior to copulation.[40] Male insects can also release sex pheromones, but this is only for the purpose of sexually exciting the female, making her more receptive to the male's advances. Generally, the majority of insects are sensitive and selective to the sex pheromone of their own species.

Insects make use of two classes of pheromone signals; the pheremones that induce immediate or 'releaser' effects (for example, aggression or mating behaviours) and those that elicit long-lasting or ‘primer’ effects, such as physiological and hormonal changes.[38]

A pair of mosquitos during mating season

There is a significant amount of research supporting body odour and sexual attraction in insects. Observations and laboratory experiments of Culiseta Inornata, identified a chemical substance involved in mating behavior, when exposed to this scent the male mosquitos were found to attempt sex with dead females and when exposed to the scent of virgin females, the males showed increased sexual activity through excited flight, searching and attempts to copulate with other males.[41] Further evidence comes from research on the commercial silkworm moth, Bombyx mori, a chemical produced in the abdominal sac of the female adult moth is released shortly after it's emergence from the cocoon, male moths were found to be immediately attracted to this scent demonstrated by a characteristic wing flutter and attempts to copulate.[42] The sex pheromones of the silkworm moths can elicit responses in the male antenna at concentrations of only a few hundred molecules per square centimeter.[43]


For vertebrates, aquatic environments are an ideal medium for dispersing chemical signals over large areas. Aquatic vertebrates use chemical signals for a wide range of purposes, from attracting mates to distant nesting sites during spawning, to signalling reproductive readiness and regulating predator/prey interactions.[38] Research on goldfish has identified that the fish release hormones in various combinations, depending on the reproductive status of the releaser, and these different combinations can elicit varying degrees of male courtship in the recipient.[44]

In terrestrial environments, chemosignals can be either volatile or non-volatile.[39] Accordingly, terrestrial vertebrates have two functionally and anatomically distinct olfactory systems: the main olfactory system, which is receptive to volatile cues, and the vomeronasal system, which is thought to process mostly non-volatile pheromones.[45]


When it comes to sex, mammals use chemical signals (pheromones) to convey information to one and other. Mammal's heromones are air-borne chemical substances released in the urine or feces of animals or secreted from sweat glands that are perceived by the olfactory system and that elicit both behavioral and endocrine responses in conspecifics.[46] Mammals use sex pheromones to arouse, attract, and elicit specific behavioral responses from the opposite sex.[47] In mammals, chemical signals and the scent glands that secrete them have many features in common, for example, expression in only one sex, development only in adults, often only secreted in breeding season and used exclusively in mating.[48] For an odour to be exclusively result in sexual behavior, it must not only be perceived and preferred, but when absent there should be a decrease or complete elimination of sexual activity. This exclusivity has only been shown in golden hamsters[49] and the rhesus monkey.[50]

Mammalian pheromones can elicit both long-lasting effects that alter the hormone levels of the recipient animal, and short-term effects on its behavior.[51] For example, detection of male pheromones by female mice has been found to encourage onset of puberty, however the detection of female pheromones have been found to delay the onset of puberty.[52]

Odour can influence mammalian mating both directly and indirectly. Odour may act as a direct benefit to females, for example by avoiding contagious diseases by using odour cues to choose a healthy mate.[48] Odour can also act as an indicator mechanism, a form of indirect benefit, for example when a male displays a particular trait such as strength of odour which is in proportion to their heritable viability, females choosing males with strong odours will gain genes for high viability to pass to their offspring.[53]

There is vast evidence for the use of pheromones in mating behaviors. For example, when boars become sexually aroused, they salivate profusely dispersing pheromones into the air. These pheromones attract receptive sows, causing it to adopt a specific mating posture, known as standing, which allows the male boar to mount it and therefore copulate.[54]

Species specificity[edit]

Regardless of the species, sex pheromones are often structurally similar and for that reason different species need to be able to respond to the correct pheromone. It is the variation in the ratios of each compound within a pheromone that yields species specificity.[55] The use of mixtures of compounds as pheromones is well documented in insects, research into male orchid bees demonstrates that specific odours mediate exclusive attraction within a species.[56]

See also[edit]


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