The Scent of True Love

Pheromone parties say daters can find their match from the smell of a t-shirt, but the science is a little more complicated.

The 2006 film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a story of, well, murder. But it’s also a story about love.

The movie follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an 18th-century French orphan with a superhuman sense of smell, as he attempts to recreate a mythical perfect perfume—one that, according to legend, will transport all who smell it into a state of paradise. Convinced that the missing ingredient is the scent of a woman, our hero embarks on a killing spree, capturing and bottling the essence of each of his lovely young victims.

Fast-forward a little bit. Grenouille’s succeeded in perfecting his magic perfume, but he’s also been caught and sentenced to death for his crimes. On the morning of his execution, he applies a drop of his creation—and at the very moment he’s about to die, the angry mob before him catches a whiff and morphs into an adoring crowd. Surrounded by throngs of odor-addled devotees, he has a jarring realization: Scent can make him powerful, but it cannot bring him the love he has always lacked.

Then he douses himself in the perfume, and the crowd eats him.

Now let’s fast-forward a few centuries.

When Mark Iverson attended his first pheromone party in Santa Monica in 2012, he wasn’t interested in murder. He was, however, interested in love. He was also interested, just as importantly, in the power of scent.

Iverson, a filmmaker, is neither fictional nor French, and he possesses only an ordinary human’s sense of smell. But he was intrigued by the premise of the event: Participants had been instructed to sleep in a white t-shirt for three nights (“I chose the one with the least pit stains,” he says), put it in a plastic bag and bring it to the party at O’Brien’s Irish Pub. There, the bags would be numbered and color-coded—blue for men, pink for women—and guests could sniff as many as they liked, posing for photos with the ones whose scents they found attractive. The pictures would be projected onto a wall of the bar; if the owner of a t-shirt liked the look of the person who chose it, they could go strike up a conversation.

Single and frustrated by the typical avenues for meeting women, Iverson says, he was ready to turn his romantic fate over to a process that seemed to be guided by something more concrete than guesswork.

“Online dating, it kind of feels like luck,” he explains. “Maybe they seem great in their profile, but they’re not in person. Or you meet someone at a mixer, and it can be awkward."

"But with this, I really liked the idea—it was like, ‘Okay, you’re trying to come at this from science.’”

Fellow partygoer Tegan Artho-Bentz, who attended the same event in Santa Monica, agrees: “The science of it just blew my mind,” she says. “I feel like we kind of divorce the physical and the mental, and it was nice to incorporate that back in.”

It was an appealing idea to performance artist Judith Prays, too. The creator of pheromone parties, Prays says she was inspired in the summer of 2009 after she found herself on a date with—and attracted to—a man who fell far outside the bounds of her usual type.

“What struck me about this date is I never would have chosen him on paper, or in this case, on OkCupid/Craigslist/JDate,” she writes in an email. “But in real life there was something there, and I thought maybe it was smell.” Prays threw the first pheromone party in 2010 in the studio of a Brooklyn design firm (guests RSVP’d by sending in photos of their armpits) and followed up with parties in Santa Monica and Los Angeles; more recently, people as far away as New Zealand and the United Kingdom have gathered to mingle and inhale the smell of other singles, sniffing their way towards love.

In the broadest sense, pheromones are chemicals that influence the bodies or behavior of other members of the same species. Sex attractants, a specific subset of pheromone, have been documented all over the animal kingdom: Certain species of female moths send chemical signals into the air when they’re ready to mate, for example, while male boars woo sows in heat with the scent of a substance in their saliva.

So, okay. Bugs do it. Pigs do it. But do we do it?

Research says: Sort of, maybe. The science is still a little murky. At any rate, we’re a bit more subtle about it.  

“I don’t want to say there are no [human] sex attractants, because that has yet to be demonstrated,” explains biologist Charles Wysocki, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia (Prays had contacted him before the first pheromone party to ask how to collect body odor). But, he adds, “There is no good evidence for sex attractant releaser pheromones in the biomedical literature.”

That’s not to say humans don’t have pheromones, or that we don’t communicate things to one another via odor. Both are true, as demonstrated by a host of studies: Infants were drawn to the scent of breast pads used by their mothers over those from other women. Men who sniffed women’s tears saw their testosterone levels drop. People who smelled the sweat of skydivers, primed by the chemical odor of anxiety, could pick out images of menacing faces more accurately than those who smelled the sweat of runners. We use scent to signal love, sadness, and fear, among other things.

And, yes, we use it in mate selection. The role of smell in attraction is one that scientists and Old Spice commercials have been exploring for some time: In one study, gay men preferred the smell of sweat from other men, while straight men preferred the smell of sweat from women. In another, women favored the smell of t-shirts worn by men with more symmetrical faces, particularly when they were ovulating. And in a separate shirt-sniffing study, women preferred the scent of men whose genetic makeup was further from their own.

This last one can be explained by a collection of genes called the major histocompatability complex, or MHC, which governs our immune system. The MHC is also what determines our “odor imprint,” an olfactory signature unique to each person and caused by a collection of chemicals that we secrete throughout our bodies, most notably via our underarms. So far, though, scientists have been unable to parse the odor imprint to identify which chemicals do what. We know that we have pheromones, but isolating them is another story.

Nevertheless, the MHC is also a handy marker for who we should or shouldn’t be having children with, says Mahmood Bhutta, a U.K. otolaryngologist and author of the paper Sex and the Nose: Human Pheromonal Responses.

“Whereas it is true that humans do not have as strong a response to pheromones as some other mammals, there is some interesting research that suggests we are still more likely to choose a mate that is genetically distinct from us, and that we use smell as the means to detect this,” he says via email. “We know that human odor is genetically determined, and that humans can, for example, smell the odor of family members, or the odor of someone not related to them.”

“Smell” may be a strong verb, though, for something we aren’t exactly aware that we’re doing. With the possible exception of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, we don’t have the olfactory capabilities to recognize what it is we’re inhaling—the facts we take from the odor imprint aren’t processed on a conscious level. We can sniff a stranger’s t-shirt and think Man, this guy smells good. We can’t sniff a stranger’s t-shirt and think Man, this guy smells super unrelated to me, even though that may be what we’re picking up.

But while scent may be a useful evolutionary tool, a smell does not a perfect match make. Body odor can steer you away from a third cousin, but no magic perfume can steer you toward someone who laughs at all your jokes and lets you have the last donut left in the box. “There is potential that just by sniffing these t-shirts, a woman can extract information, even though it might be subconscious,” Wysocki says. “But then again, if the guy’s a real dork, body odor might not overcome it.”

Thus far, neither Iverson nor Artho-Bentz has smelled their match, though both say that that the experience has left them more attuned to the body odors of any potential paramours.

“It’s made me more aware of scents,” Artho-Bentz says. “It’s not going to work out if someone doesn’t smell good.”

“I haven’t been doing too much overt smelling” on dates, Iverson says, but he’s now less concerned about the impression his own scent makes: “I now realize it’s okay to smell the way you are. Not to say don’t shower, but I think having a little stench is actually okay, because you have the pheromones going.”

“We’ll put it this way,” he adds. “I’m not going to use cologne ever again.”

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Cari Romm writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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