The power of smell in picking sex partners
January 13th, 2011
08:50 AM ET

The power of smell in picking sex partners

Ladies, be honest: When it comes sexual attraction, how important is a guy’s smell? Not just his cologne or deodorant, but his natural scent? At Good in Bed, we believe that a woman should “follow her nose—it always knows.”

Research supports this idea: In two large studies led by Brown University olfactory expert Dr. Rachel Herz, women ranked a man’s scent as the most important feature for determining whether she would be sexually interested in him.

As it turns out, scent may be the main way in which women literally sniff out genetic compatibility with a potential mate. How we smell is an external expression of the genes that make up our immune system.

Like fingerprints, each of us has our own unique “odor print,”  which is part of a region of genes known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Women prefer the scent of men whose MHCs are different from their own.

So when we say that opposites attract, we may not be talking about differences in personality, but rather differences in immune systems.  This is one of Nature’s ways of ensuring that we produce the healthiest offspring. No wonder that a woman’s sense of smell is at its peak when she’s ovulating and most likely to get pregnant.

In one study, a wide variety of men were each asked to wear the same T-shirt for two days in a row, after which the shirts were put into identical boxes. Various women were then asked to smell the shirts and to indicate which they thought would have the most sexually attractive wearers, based on the smell. The results showed that women were most attracted to men with an MHC most dissimilar from their own, while T-shirts worn by guys with similar MHC profiles tended to be rated as “fatherly” or “brotherly” but not sexually attractive. And in a survey conducted by the research firm Strategy One, 56 percent of women said they wouldn’t date a guy who smells like their dad.

So what about that cup of joe? Dr. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, conducted research on behalf of AXE body products to determine women’s scent preferences in 10 different cities. “In each city we tested, women reported different scent preferences,” he says, “indicating that geography has a direct correlation to what scents women find attractive.”

Here are the scents that women found most preferable by region:

1.      New York – coffee

2.      Los Angeles – lavender

3.      Chicago – vanilla

4.      Houston – barbeque

5.      Atlanta – cherry

6.      Phoenix – eucalyptus

7.      Philadelphia – clean laundry

8.      Dallas – smoke/fireplace

9.      San Diego – suntan lotion/ocean

10.  Minneapolis-St. Paul – cut grass

I know what you’re thinking: Cut grass? Clean laundry? What the…?!

But there’s a science to these preferences. Scent can trigger powerful memories, especially from our childhoods, which is why these scents may still exert a hold on us years later. And according to Hirsch, “Research has shown that when women are in the presence of a preferred scent, they are more likely to project positive feelings on those around them, which can lead to increased attraction.”

While there is little to evidence to suggest that scent plays as powerful a role for men in sexual attraction, another study by  Hirsch found that the scents of lavender, pumpkin pie, donuts, and black licorice increased blood flow to the penis by nearly 40 Percent. And as I discuss in my book 52 Weeks of Amazing Sex,  “Certain scents increase oxygen in the brain, which in turn affects emotion, attitude, hormone levels, and energy. Both men and women respond positively to scents such as vanilla, black pepper and cinnamon. Other scents that are supposed to have libido-boosting qualities include frankincense, ginger, lavender, lime, orange, patchouli, and rose.”

So, enjoy that cup of coffee, mow the lawn, or fire up the grill—you never know what will happen!

Ian Kerner is a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.

soundoff (276 Responses)
  1. willie

    Absolutely correct. Not just for women either. Men should choose their mate the same way. Just one more reason perfume disgusts me. You never know what your getting.

    January 13, 2011 at 23:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • AreYouSlimWillie

      Like when the pushup bra, 2 layers of 'toning' panty hose, and $150.00 makeup are peeled off... SAD. Go to the gym ladies...and take a shower, don't bathe in perfume.

      January 14, 2011 at 00:06 | Report abuse |
    • saywhat

      even if they are wearing lotion or perfume it's still their own smell. our bodies have different chemicals. if you were to put on the same lotion that i put on per say it wouldn't smell the same on you as it does on me.

      January 14, 2011 at 11:04 | Report abuse |
  2. Richard

    Cherries have a scent? Cherry trees maybe?

    January 13, 2011 at 23:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TakeASinusPill

      Cherries themselves, piled in bags on a fruit stand! The scent can pull me several blocks across a sun-baked farmers market! If only women smelled like that...

      January 14, 2011 at 00:02 | Report abuse |
  3. lovehurts

    it's true, smell has a big impact on me, it's how i got into a bad mess, i wish smell wasn't that big of a thing but it is. So far I've only had a smell craze for one person, turned out to be an abuser a**hole, but his body's smell made my body go to him.

    January 13, 2011 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. RealityCheck

    The smell/scent aspect of choosing a mate may come from evolution, as in if you can smell that your sig-other does not smell good, he/she may not be healthy. If they are in constant state of unhealthy scent, why waste your energy to procreate with them, the children produced may be weak/unhealthy. The more cycles this went through, the more selective it became...

    January 13, 2011 at 23:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MrsRealityCheck

      So, let me get this straight. You're saying that generation after generation of my female ancestors selected their coal-mining alcoholic chain-smoking husbands by their scent? How does that explain my moving out of WV to NY to marry a collegiate althelete who studied business, got a PhD and landed a job in the biggest financial firm in the U.S.? (No he did not smell like money...though the potential was obvious to all around him.

      January 14, 2011 at 00:45 | Report abuse |
    • Sure

      Sure looks like you smelled money to me, smells are an important factor, but at the same time you need to factor in other things as well. My wife catches me smelling her hair all the time. I love the smell of freshly washed hair. Also why can't anyone one here spell "Perfume". Gees people learn to spell, you look stupid when you don't spell correctly.

      January 14, 2011 at 10:23 | Report abuse |
  5. NewProductLines

    1.) A shirt that houses not only you, but a sensor to detect the scent of a woman and a mechanism to despense the scent she is most likely looking for.
    2.) Pre-scented drink umbrellas; if you can't figure which scent she'd like, just keep the doubles going to her table...
    3.) Pre-scented underwear...you figure it out.

    January 14, 2011 at 00:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Enjoyingcomments

      Ahhhhh classic!!!! Great!

      January 14, 2011 at 11:19 | Report abuse |
  6. MatchMakerByScents

    I can smell an apple in a bin full of oranges, the single pine tree from a hundred yards away on a block full of blooming Liliac bushes, the tiny drips of oil on a cement parking lot, if a quite mouse has moved into the walls of a house, if the open bottle of wine is about to go bad, rain 2 hours before it occurs locally and fresh laundry on the line halfway down the block. Should I rent myself out as a match maker to those who were less blessed in the olfactory senses? Help guys with jobs in factories that use harsh checmicals which have robbed them of that sense to find gentically different female mates? Help women who'd rather smell rotting trash, than the sweaty, stinking and rumpled men at their gym? Sounds lucrative...?

    January 14, 2011 at 00:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • OhLaLa

      No, but you should move to Paris and work as a "nose" for a parfum maker.

      January 14, 2011 at 09:28 | Report abuse |
  7. Joe, San Diego

    You all smell of poop!

    January 14, 2011 at 00:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. PepeLeChris

    My love...My darling...My nose is insane for the smell of your twin cantelopes!

    January 14, 2011 at 00:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Louie D

    The smell of fish tends to attract me to women.

    January 14, 2011 at 00:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Bob200

    Good news for irish women – if he smells like alcohol, he's right for you!

    January 14, 2011 at 01:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. ChopStixGotNothingOnMyGirth

    I always loved any woman with almond shaped eyes who's hair smelled of licorice and nether regions had a slight hint of the scent of fortune cookies. Sweet and Deep. Anyone for take out ladies?

    January 14, 2011 at 01:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. jim

    personal favorite smell is Hai karate, Jade East, and English leather. ahhh memories.... "Oh Lady"......

    January 14, 2011 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. LingHuiCookie

    ChopStixGotNothingOnMyGirth – Confusioius wrote in my fortune cookie that licorice scent would take me on voyage deep into the oreient...

    January 14, 2011 at 01:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Roland

    Well hopefully I get to smell before she slap me.

    January 14, 2011 at 03:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Justina

    Traitors know no true love. Their love making is mere animal acts. Stay virgin until marriage and be faithful to your husband or wife till the end.

    January 14, 2011 at 03:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rose Marie

      Very True. Well put

      January 14, 2011 at 09:37 | Report abuse |
    • Sure

      I agree with the stay faithfull part, but let me ask you this would you buy a car without test driving it first?

      January 14, 2011 at 10:45 | Report abuse |
    • Wisdom

      That is Wise.

      January 14, 2011 at 11:43 | Report abuse |
  16. wastedtime

    This article stinks.

    January 14, 2011 at 03:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Blame

    Clearly Sarah Palin's fault.

    January 14, 2011 at 03:58 | Report abuse | Reply

    You people are FREAKS..

    How abou that Crotch Smell most of you have.

    Or maybe it is the ass stench you prefer.

    With out the lotions and perfume, most woman stink....
    And most guys RANK unless they douse themself with so much cologne that it is hard to breat around them.

    Most people are dirty and disgusting


    January 14, 2011 at 04:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • saywhat

      you are a lonly soul aren't you? most people don't stink and don't need lotions or perfume.

      January 14, 2011 at 11:09 | Report abuse |
  19. Seattleman

    Wait, shouldn't the Seattleites be the ones turned on by the smell of coffee, not New Yorkers? Something's not right here.... haha, honestly though, they should expand this list. It could be useful to the frequent traveller.

    January 14, 2011 at 04:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ex-Seattleman

      Nah...it's got to be that smell when you walk down near Pike Place Fish Market. Just give me a woman that smells like a Tulley's blueberry scone...mmmmmmm. BTW-Starbucks is horrible....give me Caffe D'arte...that's the best coffee.

      January 14, 2011 at 10:35 | Report abuse |
  20. tired

    It all smell's like tuna to me ha ha. Besides I think all women love the smell of money whatever that smell's like. Don't tell me you don't pay for it , everybody pay's, one way or another.

    January 14, 2011 at 05:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jack

      Smells like fish, tastes like turkey. Stinks but ya love it.

      January 14, 2011 at 10:08 | Report abuse |
    • Ex-Seattleman

      If it's stinky...there's something wrong....ewwwww.

      January 14, 2011 at 14:59 | Report abuse |
  21. Letch

    I like the smell of long, shapely legs.

    January 14, 2011 at 08:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • construction man Burt

      I have long shapely legs...

      January 14, 2011 at 08:38 | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      the main requirement i have out of a chick is not to smoke. there may not be a bigger turnoff then the smell of cigarettes on a woman's lips, and clothes, and car, and...etc

      January 14, 2011 at 12:01 | Report abuse |
  22. Joesf

    Wow, I'm going to use coffee as an aftershave lotion from now on. lol.

    January 14, 2011 at 08:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Really?!

    What men like.... Milwaukee ... Cheese, Birmingham... Beer, Charlestown... BBQ San Francisco... Ass

    January 14, 2011 at 09:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Really?

    The smells that Men like... 1. Milwaukee – Cheese, 2. Birmingham – Truck Exhaust, 3. Philadelphia... Beer, 4. New York... Bagels, 5. Seattle... Patchouli, 6. San Francisco...Butt, 7. Portland...Marijuana 8. Dallas...Manure, 9. Charleston... Waffle House, 10. DC...Money

    January 14, 2011 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Joe in Colorado

    I bought some licorice last week that's in the kitchen, and I swear I have been walking around with a ridiculous woody every morning and every evening after I get home from work. Had no idea it could've been that. Too bad I'm single right now, grrr.

    January 14, 2011 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Really?

      And will be for a long time...

      January 14, 2011 at 09:48 | Report abuse |
  26. Jenny

    Oh yeah, that smell. I know when it goes by and turns my head. Can't put my finger on it (no pun intended) but I know it when I smell it.

    January 14, 2011 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Jim

    Hey women better check your oun stink, and you do stink. you ladies have more stuff to hide smells tha any guy stuff out there. think your all that, I'll tell you it taint worth the hype.

    January 14, 2011 at 09:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • saywhat

      so you like the smell of azz.

      January 14, 2011 at 11:15 | Report abuse |
  28. WhatDH

    and no chocolate smell! Chocolate is the best female attraction.

    January 14, 2011 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. V

    I think its more of a cultural thing than a geographical thing. Just saying...

    January 14, 2011 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Jack

    It has been my experience that if she smells like air leaking from a bicycle tire, perhaps it's best to look elsewhere.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Frost E Snowman

      ROTFLMAO...that is really good....bet 90% here don't have any clue what you meant.

      January 14, 2011 at 10:30 | Report abuse |
    • saywhat


      January 14, 2011 at 11:16 | Report abuse |
  31. Jack

    Sounds like you have considerable experience in this area.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. goat

    Good! Now we can use another one of our senses to judge each other, instead of personality!

    January 14, 2011 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. mike

    I LOL'd at "Philadelphia – clean laundry".

    I guess just not being a stinky dirtball is enough to attract the ladies in Philly...

    January 14, 2011 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Frost E Snowman

      Yeah...you might have thought it would have been Steak and Cheese.

      January 14, 2011 at 10:23 | Report abuse |
  34. Frost E Snowman

    Well, that explains those old Beverly Hillbillies episodes when Granny tried to attract men by dabbing a bit of vanilla extract behind her ear. Guess those hillbillies knew more than science researchers for all those years. Whodda thunk it?

    The thing that turns me totally off is ANY woman with a scent or perfume that can be smelled more than 3 feet away. There are some of those perfumes that simply make me want to puke. AXE Cologne...ick. Drakkar....ICK. When I was in college, I used a very little bit of Polo and it NEVER failed to get great comments from the ladies. Now it just makes me sneeze.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. budgie girl

    Love love love the smell of a freshly lanudered t-shirt on a guy.
    Hate the smell of minty shampoo.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Pat

    I smell medicated foot powder. Oh baby.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. jen58

    the once popular Chaps cologne drives me insane... also, citrus and rose smell....Chaps markets its smell as 'leather/tobacco' - also love drakkar 🙂 looking at the hubby now and thinking hmmmm....

    January 14, 2011 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. misterking23

    check this article out on why selling foreign cars in america is slowly rotting away our country from the inside


    January 14, 2011 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Jeremy

    This article is completely stupid. No credible science behind it and everyone has been talking about the idea for decades.

    January 14, 2011 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. PimmyZ

    I think what the article is trying to state is you women need to "wash it" cuz it be stankin...

    January 14, 2011 at 11:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. ADW

    just thinking of how my hubby smells is getting my juices flowing

    January 14, 2011 at 11:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. lemon.seed

    Why would we in Houston area, like our men with BBQ smell? Hello, might be more fascinating to sit in the restaurant and watch men go by than just pick one....If our guys smell like BBQ they need to take a bath. cut grass too....

    January 14, 2011 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. MaryJane

    OMG when i'm ovulating all a man has to do is walk by and i want.

    January 14, 2011 at 11:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Marsain

    I like turtles.

    January 14, 2011 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. slupdawg

    What a bunch of crap. First of all, men could care less about scents, but if your talking 40% increase blood flow by sniffing pumpkin pie I'm all over it. And as far as women are concerned, either young and hot, or rich, and that's what counts.

    January 14, 2011 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Alex

    this is stupid

    January 14, 2011 at 11:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Jay

    "So, enjoy that cup of coffee, mow the lawn, or fire up the grill—you never know what will happen!" - or, do your laundry!

    January 14, 2011 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Joe

    This is what I can't stand about women: Pure emotion instead of trying to be logical, thinking creatures.

    "No matter how good looking or how nice he is, I can't be attracted to him unless there's some magical smell there that only I can smell".

    January 14, 2011 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • A Trapped Viking

      so the trick seems to be to .... find the right smell!

      January 14, 2011 at 12:51 | Report abuse |
  49. Jim

    I watched a TV show about a girl that eats laundry detergent... I thought I would throw that in there.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Trekmyer

    This a story about women, tested by women by surveying women, of course all the above "findings" are subject to that particular womans' "mood" at that particular moment in time, and as such this is another worthless article.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
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