Love (Literally) Stinks


A lot of initial attraction is based on visual cues, but just ask anyone who's ever used Tinder and they'll tell you: looks ain't everything. So forget love at first sight; let's talk about love at first prolonged, close-up armpit sniff. Because while you might think you want all kinds of qualities in a mate—floppy hair! trivia skills! a vast collection of striped button down shirts!—smell can actually be one of the simplest predictors of attraction*.

All of us, without knowing it, are capable of literally snorting our ways to a good mate. This is because we unconsciously "smell" chemical signals in our environment, including the components of other peoples' body scents. In fact, we have individual odors the same way we have unique fingerprints. Like stinky lil chemical snowflakes.

Smelling someone's B.O. gives us info about their personal major histocompatibility complex (or MHC), and kids whose parents have somewhat dissimilar MHCs are immunologically healthier. So when someone smells all sexytimes good to you, it might actually be your olfactory bulb screaming "YOU GUYS SHOULD TOTALLY HAVE BAYBEEEEEES." Which...inappropriate, olfactory bulb. Maybe I'm not ready to be a mom; did you think about that before sending a bunch of chemical signals to my brain indicating I should make out with this guy? No, no you did not. It's the same regardless of orientation or gender—a dissimilar (but not too dissimilar) MHC is associated with smelling more pleasant and attractive.

The only people for whom this isn't true, actually, are women on The Pill. Birth control actually changes who you're attracted to, with women preferring people whose MHCs are more similar to their own. So someone you thought was cute when you were taking Yaz may be significantly less charming when you go off it.

Which brings us to perhaps the most fascinating part of this whole thing for beauty fans: the genetic basis for having a signature scent. Turns out we probably love fragrance so much because we're actually using it as an MHC amplifier to help mates find us. Wearing that Byredo is like holding up a megaphone to your genes and hoping someone who really, really likes them will follow the scent trail straight to you. If there was ever an argument for buying the scents you like instead of just whatever's popular...well, this one's pretty definitive.

*The science of scent is fascinating, but before we go any further I should say that I'm covering this in a very, very cursory way. There's plenty of disagreement in the biological community about how much humans use olfactory data, so I've tried to take information from recent, reputable studies, with some additional theories offered because they're interesting and fun to consider!

—Lacey Gattis

Bianca Dueñas photographed by Emily Weiss.

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  • Anoushé

    How very "twilighty" an idea :) I kind of like it!

  • Ailyn Koay

    oh i have read about that once, where women on birth control pills choose guys that do not smell as macho as they were off it...

  • Miss Y.

    Ah love this article :-)
    It's true for me though, I can think someone is attractive from a distance, but if they don't smell nice to me, it will never work.
    It goes so far that I actually can start to dislike co-workers who are perfectly nice if I have to work often with them and they don't have good hygiene (think brushing teeth, taking a shower to wash off that stinky sleep smell, changing into fresh clothes every so often), even if I do not want to/have no reason otherwise to dislike them. I'm so extremely sensitive to toher people's BO. Well, at least I'm aware of it and can counter my own intuition.
    Funny thing is that if someone I didn't necessarily find attractive, can suddenly become attractive if they smell gooood.
    The topic is so damn interesting. Would love to get some more info on the different types of scents and how they affect us in general and our attraction to people.

  • Elle m

    Love your articles Lacey.

    • ITGLacey

      Thank you so much, Elle! :)

  • llama

    this seems to be a pretty subconscious thing. not that a nice smelling man isn't appealing...but i'm thinking of this time there was a guy who was into me and i totally wasn't feeling it. at that point we had never been physically close to each other, like he was literally always at least 5 feet or more away. but then one day we were setting up this display thing, and he had to lift me up to hang something, and bam, pheromone city. like the second our skin touched i became instantly, inexplicably in lust with this dude. weird weird.

  • Aubrey Green

    I read we shouldn't wear perfume for this very reason - perfume masks our natural smell. Which means we're all basically not with the 'right' person ;).

    • adamalpha

      Although everyone I know insists I smell the same no matter what scent I'm wearing. In my experience, Lacey's right - perfume amplifies our natural scent!

  • RYS

    Byredo FTW.

  • Clever Girl Reviews

    I've always wondered how my mating choices have been effected by by my BC and this very fact.

  • guest

    i think it's true to an extent..i'm really sensitive to my mom and dad's 'scent' and they both naturally smell like linen in their own way, so i like people who smell soft and unobtrusive. one time this guy who had a crush on me and whom i found kinda cute moved quite close and all i could smell were the mix of his bo and grease and heat and urgh...well, let's just say at least it's something his current gf (apparently) likes!

  • Mafer

    I used to date this guy who had some medical thing that made him sweat a lot (it was not gross at all, even though it reads that way) and, like every human being, after a looong day, his odor would be a little bit more... notorious haha and while all of his friends would tease him about it, when they asked me if it didn't bother me I could never find a reasonable way of explaining that it wasn't that it didn't bother me... I just was NOT SMELLING IT AT ALL. It sounds crazy, I know, and I'm not saying that he smelled like he'd just got out of the shower but I just wasn't getting the bad odor.

    Damn invisible chemicals!

  • Ygritte Snow

    HAH. you are all overthinking it.