Sunday, January 10, 2010

Perfume Preferences and How Body Chemistry Affects Fragrances

According to an article by Gad Saad, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Marketing at the John Molson School of Business (Concordia University) and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, some additional scientific info is now presented on the much discussed matter of body chemistry affecting our preferences and suitability for certain perfumes.
"In 2001, Manfred Milinski and Claus Wedekind published a very intriguing study on the links between self-preferences of perfumes and individuals' major histocompatibility complex (MHC). The MHC consists of a set of genes that capture a person's unique immunogenetic profile/signature. As such, the MHC is a disassortative mating trait. [...] Incredibly, Milinski and Wedekind found that people preferred perfumes that seemed best suited for their unique MHC profile. In this case, this means that preferred perfumes are those that are most likely to augment an individual's body fragrances as a means of advertising his/her MHC signature".
A fascinating observation that extends the basic principle of evolution (survival of the fittest), as expressed in biology terms, into the olfactory.
Read the rest of the article on Psychology Today.

Other links with some info/opinions on body chemistry and fragrances:
Fragrances and skin (an introductory beginner's article on the issue)
How To Choose The Right Perfume For Your Body Chemistry (a more in-depth list of the factors which affect scent performance)
I Have the Body Chemistry of a Man (a self-flagellating satirical article about the perils of having the wrong "body chemistry" for a coveted perfume)
Fragrance Tips (Amidst some "general tips" for perfume use we stumble upon this pearl: "The biggest factor in how a fragrance will smell on you is your body's PH balance. Ideal PH is alkaline - but stress and poor nutrition will turn your balance to acid, and that will affect fragrance." Correction, dear sirs: skin should be slightly acidic, it's how the skin mantle is supposed to self-regulate in order to protect against certain microorganisms)

And you, how do you feel about "body chemistry" and perfumes? Do you have specific aversions or preferences that you feel are tied to your specific psychosomatic make-up? Did you have perfumes change their performance? Discuss!

pic via


  1. Such a complicated, interesting topic. That blog post was funny, but it inadvertently points up the fact that when it comes to finding a pleasing fragrance, the body chemistries of the people around us are at least as important as our own. Clearly, the blogger thought the rose oil was nice, but her companions had their doubts.

    What I notice most is the impact of hormone cycles on the scents I wear. Diet hardly seems to matter in my case. The one constant for me--and I guess this would be an indicator of true body chemistry--is that certain very indolic jasmines become "eau de sewer" on me, and supersweet gourmands invariably leave me feeling slightly ill, even if I love them out of the bottle.

  2. Carrie T.20:50

    Floral fits me perfectly, and I recently discovered that my dear friend is decidedly spicy. We both compared our stash of scents and after the eww's and aww's it was obvious neither of us could stomach the other's taste in fragrance! Eventually, I told her, "Look, you know I'm promoting L'Bel Paris, so let's just get you a bottle of Idolâtré and call it a day." It's the perfect spicy scent for her, and I'm glad we were able to agree on something before I started getting that powerful aroma headache.

  3. Anonymous21:27

    Dear E,

    Please bear with me; I will try to keep my own experience with perfume affinities brief although I still have not reached a conclusion as to what happened. Ten years ago I was a fan of all things fresh and floral. Purchasing a gift of Shalimar (a frag I cared nothing for) for my mother, I smelled one of Guerlain's newest, Herba Fresca, a frag right up my alley (green, fresh, herbal, floral). I loved it and decided to buy it when finances allowed. I returned several months later and gave it a sniff before a final purchase decision. I reeled with something akin to aversion and left without buying. The only obvious difference between the two occasions was that the second time I was pregnant with my first child. Interestingly, my taste for florals and fresh fragrances never returned. Now, after three pregnancies I am a committed lover of oriental, spicy, and more masculine fragrances. I fell in love with Shalimar (was it because I smelled it on my mother during a time when I was becoming one myself? no idea). I used to love L'Eau d'Issey pour HOmme on my man before we had children and now I wish he was not as devoted to it as he still is. Was it the slight "mal au coeur" caused by smelling Herba Fresca in the first trimester that "scarred" me forever? I'm sure hormones played a part, but then why did my senses not "reset" after the pregnancy hormones receded?

    On the other hand, advertising plays a powerful role as well as long as it is compelling. I discovered "my" Vol de Nuit because I learned that it was inspired by the St. Exupery novella. I could not resist: a beloved author, planes (a genetic predisposition to love them), and literature (an addiction). I had to smell it and I instantly fell in love. Did I fall in love only because of the story behind it? Would I love it as much if VdeN was a white floral?

    THis is a seriously fascinating subject; can you tell?

    Sorry for the saga.


    On the other side

  4. Hmm, I'm still not sure on the whole body chemistry notion. So far perfumes smell the same on me as on other people I've tried them on, but I won't rule it out. I seem to be missing something that everyone else "gets" in the Lutens line because they smell sweet and cavity-inducing to me. No matter what else is there, I cut straight to that typical Lutens sweetness that seems to be present in each. I have guessed that it's either my sense of smell that dislikes it and catches it immediately, or something in my body chemistry that augments this aspect of the fragrance. Maybe it's both. Either way, most of the Luten's line is thus absolutely lost on me, and I feel like I'm out of the club!

    As a side note, I don't know how the whole biology aspect works with mate-choosing since I'm gay and won't be choosing a female partner to spread my genes around with. I'm not subconsciously choosing fragrances to select for female mating partners! The biology theories lend some interesting arguments to the origins of sexuality, though. But that's a debate for another time!

  5. maria13:16

    That sounds wonderful, but wouldn't be too simple? If you take as hypothesis the Freud theory on smell and the consumerists theories you get very easy to that. Still I have some dilemmas according to that:
    1. We would be surrounded by wonderful smelling people, or at least the other sex. Since the smell would go with their MHC and made for mating. So why then so many people smell so bad with their perfumes?
    2. Isn't too general? This young woman MHC works perfectly with the last Britney Spears perfume? Even when we talk about components, let's take amber, there are so many different ambers, and which one with go with the MHC? And the other components? How they fit with the personal MHC?
    3. What about the personal experience with smell? Memories, intellectual and emotional? It could be that our MHC is filtering them? Only the animal in us? But how comes that so many people used to love a perfume for years and then hate it.
    4. and many other……….. J

    I'm sorry, but I don't buy that. It was lately too obvious that the chords of marketing people where leading the production of perfumes, looking for what people like in order to smell sexy, clean, efficient or young and as effect we have thousands of cheap bad perfumes. Of course, the people react so different to different smells, and makeupalley can be a start to see how the most boring perfume for you can be the most attractive for other. But the reasons behind that are much more complex than the reduction to the animal in us. And very sad, such theory encourage that the perfumes are created as a form of mass goods. While the perfume is rather a form of art and matches the reflective individual when used for the one pleasure and not as a social reflex. What other mass goods have small prices for the best quality while the cheap but fashionable ones are sold for big bucks?

  6. stella p13:54

    Thank you for this links to very interesting articles!

  7. M,

    it is, isn't it?
    I got it to mean that the blogger was saying that her chemistry changed scents for the (perceived) worse but that also appreciation/perception was different among different individuals smelling them on her.

    How very interesting among hormones. I believe that is something that could potentially change things scent-wise and the kind of scents you speak of would be most likely, being heavy-hitters and all. Myself I have to say that despite hormones being amply fluctuating due to natural (both the regular and the bun-in-the-oven situations) and medicated (at one point) factors, I have never ever noticed any change in preferences or performance of scents. Other than my cranky tastes, that is. Odd...

  8. Carrie,

    looks like you had fun!! It's very interesting to compare between friends, as you're free to speak your mind and be honest, something that is difficult to do with strangers commenting. (Which leaves you scratching your head wondering what they meant by that gesture or that flare of the nostrils)

  9. Natalia,

    thank you SO much for your magnificent story about your mother's scent and your own progression into scent exploration. Pregnancy especially has been proven to heighten the sense of smell, so perhaps it made you perceive something which you hadn't perceived the previous time? That or perhaps the combination of hormones and some tendency to nausea are not very simpatico with fragrance testing.

    I definitely agree on the advertising part, it's something that fascinates me and I often focus on on these pages. Where would some historical companies would be without their romantic tales for each scent? That mythos created has a power of suggestion, a very powerful one at that. It's often perpetuated and if one encounters it BEFORE they test the fragrances it's very difficult to get things out of one's head.

    BTW, you need to sneak up on your hubby and present him with a gift basket of decants or something. Who knows, he might like something else as well! ;-)

  10. Jared,

    much as I wrote about this, I can't say I have ever noticed any specific effect of personal chemistry on myself either. Of course I haven't ever effectuated radical changes on myself (like becoming a vegetarian or such) apart from the hormones changes which I described above. Still, even then, nada...
    So I take this with a pinch of salt, but then I also do spray on clothes, which helps tremendously (no body chemistry factor!) But I can't deny it might hold water for others.

    Re:Lutens. are missing a bit, but that's all right. Perhaps you don't have access to some of his dryer stuff such as Iris Silver Mist (which is a Paris exclusive)? But yes, most have a sweeter underlay. You either like it or not and it's fine either way.

    Re:Biology and scent preferences. My own opinion is that probably everything gets ascribed to biology these days (because of the serious advancements in the last 20 years, what with reading the human DNA and cloning sheep) contrary to previous decades when behavioral psychology reigned supreme. It's the old nature or nurture dilemma and frankly, you have to take everything with a healthy dose of scepticism. Obviously as you know from experience, not every behavior is meant to spread men's genes. And wait, we don't even need it any more with such overpopulation ;-)

  11. Maria,

    thanks for the thought-provoking comment! You make salient points!

    To answer as best as I can (I'm no biologist):

    1.I deduce those people are not in good synchronisation with their scent compatibility to their MHC (or so the theory should go)

    2.There is never a simple answer. I doubt the researcher were very versed in the intricasies of perfume. I think the testing happens with very simple "blocks" of contrasting smells: citrus, pepper, sugar etc.

    3.Nature or nurture? Obviously as I explained to Jared above, biological claims on phenomena are the hot new stuff, just like behavioral psychological ones and anthropological ones were before. I am on your camp of the mind being over matter ;-)

    Certainly people react differently to scents and it's always fun to see just how different. The real trouble is that there is no set record of criteria OR vocabulary so we can all communicate starting from the same point. If that's solved, then I assume the mystery of smell will be easier to solve.

  12. Stella,

    you're most welcome. They're quite fun, aren't they?


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