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Scent and Attraction: Love at First Whiff?

Love at first sight. It’s one of our most popular romantic fantasies, idealized in movies, books and music. But what about love at first sniff? Scientists have been researching this phenomenon for decades and are discovering that when it comes to finding that special someone, your nose, not your eyes, may be your most powerful guide.

The T-shirt Test


According to the folks in white coats, the clues to true love may be lurking as close as your laundry basket — specifically in your sweaty T-shirts, guys. In a 1995 research study, several men were asked to wear the same T-shirt for two days in a row, and then those stinky Tees were submitted to unsuspecting females for a sniff test. The women were then asked which shirts smelled best to them, and, using the scent receptors in their brains, most chose the sweaty aromas of the guys whose DNA was least like theirs.

But not all of the DNA. Just the tiny but important parts that help people’s immune systems fight disease by spotting which cells are friendly and which are hostile or infected. Like bloodhounds, the study suggests we can sniff out partners whose genetic makeup is more varied than ours, so we can breed stronger, better humans.

Animal Attraction

Animals have demonstrated this behavior for centuries. Dogs sniff one another’s rear ends not only to say hello, but to gather as much information as they can about a strange, new pooch from the odors it emits. Just by sniffing, they can tell if the fellow canine is happy or unhappy, healthy or unhealthy, friend or foe. In fact, a 2006 study showed that dogs can detect deadly diseases such as cancer even on humans. Using five dogs of different breeds, research scientists found that their noses were so sensitive, they could identify breast and lung cancer on patients with an accuracy of 88 to 97 percent — just by nuzzling them.

Using their highly developed vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s, organ, which lies between the nose and mouth, animals can also smell when members of the opposite sex are angry, excited or amorous — and in the mood for love. That’s because animals are believed to release pheromones, or odorless chemicals, into the air conveying multiple pieces of information about their mood, fitness and status, to others within reach. Those chemicals also help them find the healthiest and most suitable mates — the ones who can best continue the species, or star in blockbuster films. (‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua,’ anyone?) Odor even helps them recognize their fellow pack-members.

Love Potions

Love isn’t in the air just for canines. Ever since human pheromones were discovered in subjects’ underarms in 1986, perfume companies have been trying to whip up chemical love potions guaranteed to spark attraction in hopes of big profits. But so far, no such luck!

You can’t blame them for trying. After all, women of child-bearing age rated a pleasing aroma at the top of their romantic wish list. In a 2002 survey conducted by researcher Rachel S. Herz, ladies ranked a “man’s smell” to be more important than “looks,” “voice” or even “how his skin feels.” For you discouraged guys who think women are only attracted to flashy cars and high-powered careers, here’s some more good news: the study indicated a man’s scent was even more important to a woman than “money” or “ambition.” In contrast, the results also revealed that guys judged “how a woman looks” along with a “pleasant” personality as their top criteria for choosing a mate.

So next time things are heating up with a potential partner, give them the “sniff test.” It might tell you all you need to know.