Friday, July 31, 2009

Pheromone-ladden Body Washes and the Myth of Cumin as Related to Sweat

"Body washes, cosmetics, perfumes, and more all boast of their pheromone contents. There’s just one problem: There is no scientific evidence that people produce or respond to pheromones at all, or that dabbing them on will make you more attractive to potential mates.
This dearth of scientific evidence didn’t dissuade Dial, however. The soap-maker recently released a “pheromone-infused” body wash, then held a speed-dating “experiment” in which nine blindfolded women had to choose between nine men (some had used the wash, some hadn’t) they would go out with in order to 'prove' the wash worked" [...] “We don’t claim using our product you’re going to hit a home run,” said Ryan Gaspar, a [Dial] brand manager. “We say, ‘We’ll get you to first base'." Read the whole article on Discoblog from Discover Magazine.

On the other hand, and far from the lathering board, cumin, an oriental spice of most often Turkish production, has been inumerable times linked to the scent of sweat on online fora and communities. The source of this rumour has been firstly the use of the cumin spice in many classic French perfumes which have a slightly "dirty" undertone starting with Roudnitska creations, the re-issued Femme by Rochas and numerous Jean Claude Ellena compositions; and secondly a quote from the book by Chandler Burr where he likens the smell of cumin to female sweat. Researchers at Firmenich however have disagreed: men's sweat smells of cheese and female sweat smells of onions, according to their research in their Swiss laboratories.

According to an article at the New Scientist: "[...]research in Switzerland involved taking armpit sweat samples from 24 men and 25 women after they had spent time in a sauna or ridden an exercise bike for 15 minutes. The researchers found marked differences in the sweat from men and women. "Men smell of cheese, and women of grapefruit or onion," says Christian Starkenmann of Firmenich, a company in Geneva that researches flavours and perfumes for food and cosmetics companies. The team found that the women's armpit sweat contained relatively high levels of an odourless sulphur-containing compound - 5 milligrams per millilitre of sweat versus 0.5 milligrams in men" , making female perspiration the more "unpleasant" one. Sulphur-rich materials include onions, garlic and grapefruit (which is why so often grapefruit scents can turn "garlicky" and sour on many women). The female sweat had ten times the level of an odorless sulphur-containing compound than men. It turns out that when this ingredient interacts with bacteria present in the axilla, it creates a chemical called thiol—which is the cuplrit for smelling like onions. Men had increased levels of an odorless fatty acid, which gives off a cheesy smell once it mixes with the armpit bacteria.

Incidentally experiements as to the attractive properties of androstenone secreted into male sweat have proven that clean sweat from men at a reproductive age is considered attractive to a substantial segment of the screening subjects.
Your cumin-containing fragrances can be absolved, ladies!!

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) however is a fascinating material for perfumery indeed: almost green and aromatic on one end, very warm and aniseed-faceted on the other end. It is no wonder that Pharaohs, ancient Greeks and Romans all prized it for its rich aroma and its stabilising aromatherapy properties. One imaginative tradition wants newlyweds sharing a cumin-laced tisane as a means to ensure stability in their marriage.
The oil comes from steam distillation of the dried and ground seeds of the small annual plant that blossoms at the border of the Mediterranean, in China, and in India (the latter is the largest provider of black cumin, a more powerful variant from Northern Kashmir, which is prized in North Indian dishes and is frequently featured in the Garam Marsala sweet spice mix). It is frequently featured in men's perfumes to offset lighter notes and it imparts a wonderful carnality in feminine fragrances. It being a great divider, however, several people find a prominent note of cumin too foody or too "dirty", so sampling is definitely recommended for the following list of fragrances containing it.

Please also refer to my What are Animalic & "Skanky"-Called Fragrances Anyway article for more details. 

Notable Perfumes Containing Cumin (with an asterisk, when prominent):
Links below redirect to full reviews
Alexander Mac Queen Kingdom (*)

Amouage Jubilation 25 (*)
Aramis Havana for MenAramis Tuscany Forte (*)
Bobo Dinner (*)
Bond No.9 Andy Warhol's Lexington Avenue

Cartier Déclaration (*)
Eau DynamisanteComme des Garcons Stephen Jones
Comme des Garcons 2 (*)
D&G 11 La Force

Dior Diorella (*)
Dior Jules (*)

Diptyque L'Autre (*)
Frapin Caravelle Epicée

Frapin Terre de SarmentGiorgio Beverly Hills Red for Men
Gucci Eau de Parfum I (2002, brown juice, square bottle) (*)
Hermès Eau d'Hermès (*)
Histoires des Parfums 1876Jacques Fath Green WaterJean Paul Gaultier Le MâleKenzo Jungle L'Eléphant (*)
Le Labo Rose 31
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue pour le Soir (*)
Parfum d'Empire Aziyadé
Patricia de Nicolai Vétyver
Penhaligon's Amaranthine (*)
Ralph Lauren
PoloRalph Lauren Polo CrestRochas Femme ~NB. the reformulated 80s version (*)
Serge Lutens Arabie

Serge Lutens Chêne
Serge Lutens El Attarine (*)
Serge Lutens Fleurs d'Oranger (*)
Serge Lutens Serge Noire (*)
The Different Company Rose Poivrée ~NB.before the latest 2008 reformulation (*)
Vero Profumo RubjVersace White JeansYves Saint Laurent YvressePic via


  1. Hello, E! But what makes men's sweat smell of cheese? And having spent time in India, I can confidently say that if one eats cumin regularly, then one's sweat will smell somewhat of cumin...

  2. Hello J! How are you, darling?

    According to the research, it has to do with certain fatty acids present in the genetic makeup of the skin (I added this bit in the article) as well as the percentage of sulphur-interaction with the bacteria (a higher percentage would produce more thiol as in women, a lower percentage would produce less). My personal experience is that men smell more "brutal" when they sweat (and I don't know if this has to do with their increased sweat due to typically higher blood pressure and metabolism) but often it's not sour; while women smell more sour when they do but they tend to sweat less (or they're more diligent with the anti-perspirants, who knows!).

    Of course there is no doubt in my mind that food consumption does play a role and a significant one at that and I agree with you: if one consumes cumin, it will be secreted in the sweat! But that has to do with inward consumption, not outward application (as in perfuming). I notice this with garlic, and even more so with fenugreek (have you ever eaten pasturma made from camels?): they have a marked effect in the whole -ahem- spectrum of bodily fluids...(Of course the very worst in that regard is asparagus, which is I believe non sulphur-related, so the whole subject is actually very "ripe" for research I guess! LOL

    Wasn't Jean Claude Ellena who was recounting how when he goes to different places he notices that people smell differently according to their diet? Chicken in France, fish in Japan etc etc. Or how Far-East Asians consider the Westerners to smell rancid like sour milk due to their high consumption of dairy?

    My own little personal experiment with this is quite neat and I highly rec you/all perform it: rub a warm, moist towel well behind your ears (not just right after your bath, at some other moment); there are glands there which produce a certain secretion that has a specific smell according to what you consume. That should give some degree of cognition into the make-up of your own personal smell. ;-)

  3. I wonder which women smell like onion and which like grapefruit, and whether the difference is due to genes or something controllable like diet? I wouldn't mind smelling like grapefruit!

  4. Alexandra15:58

    Hm, interesting. Cheese, onion... we have such great antiperspirants today, I don`t even know how natural sweat smells like.
    Femme Rochas is my favourite perfume and I`ve never detected that famous cumin in it. But when I tested Red Giorgio B.H., that was... well, cumin.

  5. Hi E --

    I know it is possible to sweat garlic because I once shared a (small) office with a guy who ate a whole lot of it.

    I remember learning in school that humans have two varieties of perspiration, produced by differentiated sweat glands. One is apocrine, which is produced by emotional arousal; the other kind is just body-cooling sweat. The apocrine glands are concentrated in the armpit but also scattered around the body in, well, pretty much the places you'd expect to find them. The perspiration they produce is very different from exertion sweat. I certainly can tell the difference in my own. But I don't see any reference of this in all the "pheronome research," which, imho, is laughable.

    It would seem to me that if these companies are truly serious about creating "attraction" pheronome substitutes, then they would at least be basing research on the emotionally-based perspiration! Or maybe this is just more smoke & mirrors?

  6. Elfriede,

    this is an interesting question: I believe the difference is subtle since both smells are related to sulphur according to the data mentioned on the New Scientist article, although arguably grapefruit has a tamer scent.
    I think coupled with the finds that grapefruit makes women seem younger in the eyes of men the proliferation of scents with grapefruit isn't waning!!

  7. Alex,

    you make an excellent point! I bet many people are not tuned into their own (na dothers') sweat because of this anti-perspirant obsession we're living through. Not that stale sweat is a good thing of course.
    I believe it's the re-issued Femme which has a lot of cumin, not the old one (which is less spicy on the whole). Very cumin-y is Kingdom. I usually like cumin in scents however, it makes for a sensuous underlayer if one doesn't overdo the application (but that goes for everything).
    I don't think I have ever searched for cumin in relation to Red GBH, should track some down to test, thanks for the suggestion!

  8. Ahhh...there was a study that showed grapefruit scent made men perceive women as eight years younger. Perhaps it's the younger women who smell more of grapefruit. Jazzara at Makeupalley posted a link to this article referencing the study:

  9. P,

    thanks for chimming in and stating the facts, you're of course perfectly correct.
    Perspiration is based on a delicate science and in fact the different parts of the body have different bacteria colonies too, which accounts for the difference in smell in foot sweat as opposed to axillae or genitals. It's a most interesting division and one that should merit investigation as when a person enters our personal space it's not only armpit sweat we're smelling, is it?
    I don't subscribe to the pheromone research either, for the most part, at least not in the manner and context it is being researched into. Humans are terribly complex creatures and what might swift the focus of something might be completerly unrelated to sensory input or physical manifestation (an association, an emotional mood etc). Since those unrelated things cannot be effectively controlled and manipulated into submission I'd venture that results that might involuntarily involve them might be sweked.

    Re: garlic. LOL, I know! When a person eats tzatziki or skordalia in my country (both of which involve raw garlic, the most potent form) there is a "no kissing, no talking very closely" rule. People are aware of this and choose not to consume those foods when expected to be around...special company. ("No souvlaki tonight, mate, I got to get l@!d").

  10. Elfriede,

    thanks for replying so quickly!
    Last time I heard of this it was 5 years younger and it was conducted by the Hirsch foundation in Chicago. (article here)
    That company which shall remain nameless has issued a fragrance marketed upon exactly those findings (yet they're claiming more years "cut" through their formula without explaining why), but it's a little bit doubtful as the "grapefuit trick" seemed to not feel women at all and it only fooled men during the first whooosh. So one would need to constantly re-apply?? And what about grapefuit not suiting one's chemistry perhaps? (see today's entry).
    It's a very complicated issue, but a sound marketing tool in our youth-obsessed culture.
    Personally I would be more favourably inclined to a potion that made women feel younger themselves, than seem younger to others. Don't you agree?

  11. Thanks for the link--oh yeah, it's the "lavender and pumpkin pie study!" Confidence is the most effective aphrodisiac, I think. Whatever scent gives you that sort of boost, that's the stuff that works magic! (Grapefruit scents often do tragic things on my skin, anyway.)

  12. Yeah, that's the one!! It was funny in a way how they have upheaved the perfume community into searching for those notes in scents, but you're savant in saying it's all confidence and perception.
    Re: grapefruit, I bet some synthetic varieties wouldn't do that to you. Have you tried In Love Again or Jardin sur le Nil?

  13. I expect you're right about synthetic grapefruit. Haven't had the pleasure of trying either of those scents, but the more downmarket J.Lo Glow and Miami Glow both feature grapefruit notes and work very well on me. I expect those fragrances are mostly synthetic!

  14. Hi E -- Thanks for the reply! We too have tzatziki, as, believe it or not, there are many Greek people here. I love the stuff myself and could put it on everything. scents the whole house!

    You're right about varying bacterial colonies working on various body sites. I didn't think of that.

    Years ago there was a scent called "Pheronome." I had a sample of it. It wasn't memorable and did not appear to work, as it is no longer made. Have researchers decided if there is or is not a ventronasal organ in humans? That's what processes pheronomes, in other mammals. Also interesting to note that the mammalian breast is a highly specialized sweat gland.

  15. My understanding is that the whole raison d'etre of synth citrus is to bypass those problems (sulphur compounds, photosensitive agents etc).
    JLo Glow features grapefuit? I learn something new every day!! Actually I find Glow very nice indeed (it works perfect on me too) and surprisingly lasting, which of course re-inforces the argument on it containing mega-synths.

  16. Oh , my dearest P, then YOU KNOW!!! LOL
    There is a little trick involved in diminishing the breath smell at least: munching some parsley leaves later on. I can't say I am bothered (prefer a thorough tongue and tooth cleansing/brushing), but others say it works as an additional remedy.

    I recall the Miglin scent, had a sample my way from someone in the past. But I don't suppose it worked that well. There was also a Realm scent, wasn't there? Or are they one and the same?

    I believe (to the best of my knowledge) that the VN organ in humans is there but it has atrophied, which might explain why pheromones don't work the same way as with other mammals. The amygdala however does a lot of work in that regard and it all has to do with emotional response, so there you go ;-)

  17. My random responses:
    *So then, how can I explain Kingdom???
    *Sheesh, my next quiche is going to take on a whole other light.

    That being said, I am always fascinated by the olfactory process. I remember the mind blowing day I learned about molecular shapes and nose receptors...kind of like the gatekeeper and the key...

  18. I found that whole Dial-pheromone-body-wash article to be a bit ridiculous. I've mentioned my feelings before, I think, in topics here related to pheromones (I think there may be something there, and I have an interest in evolutionary biology, but I find the marketing of it almost always inane and juvenile). As I said on NST, maybe they should just name the product "Spanish Fly Body Wash" and be done with it.

    On another note, I have never found anything about cumin (or cumin in perfumery) to remind me of sweat whatsoever. It's interesting that it connotes that for so many people though. I love Arabie, I love El Attarine, I love Rochas Femme, Jubilation 25, etc.

  19. S,

    LOL!! I'd like to see that quiche and have a bite too! Believe it or not I don't get sweat from Kingdom, I get dirtiness, but not specifically sweat (unless it's someone munching a LOT of spices)
    You're absolutely right: learning about it is fascinating (science always is I find personally) and you're an investigative individual, so I am sure you know well that feeling.


  20. Joe,

    what a resourceful name you devised!! :-P
    I agree with you completely, the marketing is juvenile and a little...desperate? Not to mention in order to get to smell/register in mind the alleged pheromones one has to come close and to come close one has to have another reason in the first place...

    I am baffled on cumin as well, I absolutely love it and appreciate it on several perfumes which I wouldn't necessarily peg as "sweaty"(those mentioned among them)
    Have a great weekend!

  21. I can't tell you how many times I have cooked with cumin (making a curry or chili- in fact I used some this week) and have thought to myself that it smelled like sweat or body odor. So strange because I actually love the spice! Great article...

  22. That's very interesting, J, thanks! (and glad you loike the spice)

    Thanks for the kind words, these things fascinate me.

  23. I wonder if people are associating the cumin with the body odor because so often cumin is in things that also contain garlic.

    The cheese vs. onion thing is interesting -- I have known a few people in my life whose natural body odor turned me off to them so much so that it affected whether I wanted to be their friend, and in all cases it wasn't what we think of as a traditional BO funk, it was a sour milk smell that is causing me to wrinkle my nose right now just thinking about it. As for the BO funk -- it seems to me that often the worst of that is emanating from the sweat-impregnated clothing a person is wearing rather than the person himself. I know my own armpits never smell as bad to me as my sweaty running clothes, as strange as that might sound.

  24. If he smells like cheese and she smells like onion, together they must smell delicious!

  25. Stylespy,

    what an interesting observation! Could very well be and garlic does lend a pungency to body odour which is non typical.

    I can hear you on people with strong body odour affecting our feelings. Sometimes the odour is not as repulsive, but it is potent, othertimes it's less strong, yet more offensive on close quarters. It's a mystery how it happens. But I can definitely agree on the sweaty clothes smelling atrocious.
    You bring a very intriguing viewpoint in this with yourt parting shot: I wonder whether our own armpits don't smell as bad to us as the clothes because they're our very own. According to the theory "noone hates their own", at least,m which is also applied ~the shock!~ to our own faeces; people always report someone else's smelling worse than their own when exiting a toilet...Additionally, like child psychologists say, we're conditioned to learn that the minute something exits the body or becomes distanced to it, it is considered something "foreign" which is not to be embraced (contrast that with children who "claim" their own faeces or their own booboos from their nose ~OK, I am becoming disgusting now, sorry about that, but it's an interesting aspect of how our brain is hardwired, eh?)

  26. Katie,

    so nice to see you here, thanks for stopping by!! Had lots of fun with your youtube reviews and best of luck with the site too! (I am adding you)

    LOL on the comment, you've got a point: they should make a great quiche I bet! Perhaps we should get them all sweaty in the kitchen and get it going from there? :-)

  27. Copulins are female pheromones that have been on the market for quite awhile, and they work more reliably on men than any male pheromone product on the market - like the stuff in that soap. LOL, I could tell you stories...

  28. i wanted to add here that I have been told that my sweat smells like grapefruit. Especially by my BF who can smell when i get a visit by Aunt Flo..before i even know.
    What i would like to add here is that I dont think its JUST younger woman who smell like grapefruit. Because i'm 39 =) Nice to know that my sweat is making seem 8 yrs younger though =)

  29. Lor,

    by all means, tell me stories!! It sounds very interesting what you say! :-)

  30. Laurene,

    you see? It's all very confusing. I believe they mean that the overlay of a grapefruit smell should "smell like" younger women probably through association (citrus smells being chosen as sports fragrances, sports being chosen as recreation by usually younger people on the whole ergo grapefruit=youth >simplistic I KNOW!)
    But how very lucky of you as you say!! :-)

  31. Hello PerfumeShrine, since you have used the photo in this post, from our site,, please provide a link to our site as well, in the post.

  32. F,

    thanks, now fixed with link too besides the already accredited mention.

  33. Anonymous18:57

    totally disagree. sweat from both men and women smells almost just like cumin. but rotten cumin. apocrine glands release proteins and fatty acids which the bacteria consume. they excrete this stench that smells like cumin. asians have the least apocrine glands and therefore the least cumin smelling sweat.

  34. Anon,

    you may very well disagree, totally allowed, but your arguments are not convincing, I'm afraid.

    First of all, you say "sweat smells almost just like cumin. but rotten cumin". Cumin doesn't really rot; it's a dried spice, like ground pepper or cinnamon. The most that could happen is for it to get moldy in bad storage conditions, and in my experience, not even that smells bad. How on earth have you been able to smell rotten cumin to be able to compare?

    Secondly, you claim "asians have the least apocrine glands and therefore the least cumin smelling sweat". I think this contravenes biology 101, don't you?
    Obviously the Asian diet is typically less meat-packed than the average Western diet plan and that might result in providing less fatty acids & proteins broken down in the sweat on which the bacteria could feed on, therefore resulting in less "stinkiness". That, I can accept.

  35. Anonymous15:46

    Fallacy: the fact that a lion doesn't look like a cloud doesn't imply that a cloud cannot resemble a lion. Cumin smell definitely resembles sweat smell to quite some of us.

  36. Hi,
    Not a ‘myth’ cumin carries an absolutely disgusting BO odor for me and much of the population. I’m beginning to suspect it’s a genetic thing similar to cilantro. For me it’s an intolerance.


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