Sweaty-Scent, Body Odor, and Onion-Odored Women

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Research about smelly people
compiled by Alice Shirell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

(Image credit: Phil Scoville)

Cross-Adaptation: Sweaty-Smelling, Pleasant-Smelling Odorants
“Cross-Adaptation of Sweaty-Smelling 3-Methyl-2-Hexenoic Acid by a Structurally-Similar, Pleasant-Smelling Odorant,” J.D. Pierce Jr., David H. Blank, Evgueny V. Aronov, Zhenrong Guo, George Preti, and Charles J. Wysocki, Chemical Senses, vol. 20, no. 4, August 1995, pp. 401-11. (Thanks to Miriam E. Tucker for bringing this to our attention.)

Body Odor Transmits Happiness
“A Sniff of Happiness,” Jasper H. B. de Groot, Monique A. M. Smeets, Matt J. Rowson, Patricia J. Bulsing, Cor G. Blonk, Joy E. Wilkinson, and Gün R. Semin, Psychological Science, vol. 26, no. 6, 2015, pp. 684–700. The authors, at Utrecht University; Unilever Research and Development; Koç University, Turkey; and Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisbon, Portugal, report:

The evidence is inconclusive... as to whether happiness can be communicated through the sense of smell via chemosignals. As chemosignals are a known medium for transferring negative emotions from a sender to a receiver, we examined whether chemosignals are also involved in the transmission of positive emotions.... We observed that exposure to body odor collected from senders of chemosignals in a happy state induced a facial expression and perceptual-processing style indicative of happiness in the receivers of those signals.

Detail from the study “A Sniff of Happiness.”

Young People Don’t Smell Like Old People
“The Smell of Age: Perception and Discrimination of Body Odors of Different Ages,” Susanna Mitro, Amy R. Gordon, Mats J. Olsson, and Johan N. Lundström, PloS One, vol. 7, no. 5, 2012, e38110. The authors report:

Body odors were sampled from three distinct age groups: Young (20–30 years old), Middle-age (45–55), and Old-age (75–95) individuals. Perceptual ratings and age discrimination performance were assessed in 41 young participants. There were significant differences in ratings of both intensity and pleasantness, where body odors from the Old-age group were rated as less intense and less unpleasant than body odors originating from Young and Middle-age donors. Participants... were able to correctly assign age labels to body odors originating from Old-age donors but not to body odors originating from other age groups.

Smelly Genders
“Gender-Specific Differences Between the Concentrations of Nonvolatile (R)/(S)-3-Methyl-3-Sulfanylhexan-1-Ol and (R)/(S)-3-Hydroxy-3-Methyl-Hexanoic Acid Odor Precursors in Axillary Secretions,” Myriam Troccaz, Gerrit Borchard, Christine Vuilleumier, Sophie Raviot-Derrien, Yvan Niclass, Sabine Beccucci, and Christian Starkenmann, Chemical Senses, vol. 34, no. 3, 2009, pp. 203-210. (Thanks to Ron Josephson for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at the University of Geneva and at Firmenich, also in Geneva, report:

The volatile fatty acid (R)/(S)-3-hydroxy-3-methylhexanoic acid ((R)/(S)-HMHA) and the human specific volatile thiol (R)/(S)-3-methyl-3-sulfanylhexan-1-ol ((R)/(S)-MSH) were recently identified as major components of human sweat malodor. Their 2 corresponding precursors were subsequently isolated from sterile and odorless axillary secretions....

[We discovered that] women have the potential to liberate significantly more (R)/(S)-MSH, which has a tropical fruit- and onion-like odor, than (R)/(S)-HMHA (possibly transformed into (E)/(Z)-3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid) that has a cheesy, rancid odor.

Is Male Sweat Smell Disgusting to Youths?
“Age-Related Changes in Children’s Hedonic Response to Male Body Odor,” Richard J. Stevenson and Betty M. Repacholi, Developmental Psychology, vol. 39, no. 4, July 2003, pp. 670-679. The authors, at Macquarie University, Australia, explain:

Male sweat smells disgusting to many adults, but it is unclear whether children find it so. In Experiment 1A, children (mean age = 8.7 years) and adolescents (M=16.6 years) smelled male sweat and other odors, rated each for liking, and attempted their identification. Only female adolescents disliked male sweat and could identify it. Experiment 1B, using the same procedure, obtained this gender difference in adults (M=26.7 years). In Experiment 2, children (M=8.1 years) and adolescents (M=16.6 years) were cued about the identity of the same odors. Irrespective of gender, adolescents disliked male sweat more than did children. In sum, dislike for the odor of male sweat may be an acquired social response that is based on odor identification.



This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2016 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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