Hormones are shady little characters. Most of us know they have something to do with teenage angst and our menstrual cycles but did you know that they also play a crucial role in our immune system, how stressed we feel, weight control and even the fact that our legs are the same length? With this in mind, it may start to make sense that these elusive little chemical messengers may also play a role in our penchant for Jo Malone’s Lime Basil and Mandarin one day and Byredo’s Super Cedar the next.
'Many studies have investigated how our sense of smell changes during natural states of hormonal fluctuation such as the menstrual cycle,' explains Dr Sara Gottfried MD, best-selling author of The Hormone Reset Diet. 'Hormone levels in women influence their sense of smell in a way that promotes reproduction and it is thought that the ability to identify certain smells increases at times when procreation is more likely.'
In other words, we are pre-programmed to become adept at sniffing out a potential mate (even if our dating history says otherwise) when we are most fertile. Indeed, even as newborns us girls have a heightened sense of smell with a study conducted by the University of Rio De Janeiro indicating that women have a greater number of cells in their olfactory bulbs (the part of the brain devoted to smell). Why? Scientists believe it may be an evolutionary adaptation to help us determine the best DNA profile in our partners and also to help us bond with our babies.
But what about when we confound sexual chemistry by being… clean? Back in the day, the stench of our potential love interests would have announced their presence way before the three Sauvignons needed to get close enough to determine any baby-making potential these days. Put crudely, body odour is the representation of our immune-system genes and women use their noses to select their ‘correct’ biological mate to ensure maximum fertility and child health.
Studies show that our sense of smell is undoubtedly impacted by the ups and downs of our monthly hormones in terms of what we deem to be an attractive scent (we’re particularly sensitive to male pheromones around ovulation) but we may also be inadvertently complimenting our natural odourprints too as studies have shown that we often pick scents that enhance our own ‘eau de moi’.
Indeed, one particular study found that people with similar MHC profiles (MHC standing for Major Histocompatibility complex – or, in normal speak, immune system proteins) tend to go for the same fragrances.
'Perfume can mask or enhance the specific odours women are attracted to in the various stages of their menstrual cycle,' says Dr Gottfried whilst Dr Sohere Roked, Women’s Health and Hormone Specialist at OMNIYA MediClinic adds that; ‘The reason why perfumes smell different on different people is influenced by their hormones and pheromones.’
Scents to see you through your cycle…
WEEK 1: ‘Studies show you have greater arousal when you smell a pleasant cologne or perfume from the start of your period to the day before you ovulate,' says Dr Roked. 'Researchers theorise that during the first half of our cycle there may be a mechanism in the brain that reacts to fragrances in a way that boosts our physical response making intimacy more pleasurable,' she adds. Ooh la la.
But don’t necessarily reach for the musk if you want to snare a mate…We often believe the use of ‘sexy’ perfumes will attract men but women’s sensitivity to musk is over 1000 times greater than a mans therefore it’s more likely to arouse the women wearing them than the men they’re hoping to ensnare.
Try: Perfume profiling at Penhaligons, as it’s the perfect phase in your cycle to sniff out a new scent. We did ours (it’s free!) and were matched with Juniper Sling, £80, a fresh, unisex scent inspired by London Dry Gin with notes of black pepper, brown sugar and Juniper.
WEEK 2: ‘Your sense of smell peaks as you approach ovulation with the rise in oestrogen enabling you to pick out more subtle scents,’ says Dr Roked. However, you may want to hold back on scent in the bedroom: ‘Women experience greater arousal during physical intimacy in this period of their cycle when they don’t smell a cologne or fragrance,’ she warns. Why? ‘Researchers speculate that perhaps because higher oestrogen during ovulation is giving us a keener sense of smell, the scent of a cologne may be too over-powering.’
Try: An ultra-light, wearable fragrance such as Jo Malone’s Wood Sage & Sea Salt or Orange Blossom Cologne, £86.
WEEK 3: ‘During week three we get more attracted to the smells of fatty foods such as donuts, French fries and ice cream,’ says Dr Roked (we knew there was something else we could blame our hormones on). ‘This is thought to be due to the rising levels of progesterone which cause women to biologically crave calorie-dense foods in case we became pregnant during ovulation and are now eating for two.’
Try: Prada Candy , £60.50, which contains an indulgent caramel accord in the top, middle and bottom notes.
WEEK 4: AKA the week of doom. Zap PMS symptoms by sniffing lavender which has been found to have a mood-lifting effect according to various studies. Researchers at Japan’s Kyoto University measured heart rate variability as well as undertaking mood profiling tests on women displaying PMS symptoms and found that sniffing lavender both improved moods and reduced stress whilst a Swedish study found that it also boosted serotonin levels.
Try: Shay & Blue Suffolk Lavender fragrance, £55, which is warm and spicy with notes of incense, musk and melon rather than overtones of granny’s knicker drawer.
On the pill?
Think twice about opting for the pill if you’re trying to sniff out a long-term partner as it seems it may not only affect your choice of mate but also how potential partners perceive you; ‘A study from 2013 found that when women are cycling naturally men regard them as more attractive when fertile,’ says Dr Gottfried. ‘Women taking oral contraceptives don’t experience the same hormonal fluctuations and generally have decreased olfactory sensitivity,’ something Dr Roked also notes; ‘An article in the American Journal ‘Hormones And Behavior’ compared the smell sensitivity of naturally cycling women against women taking oral contraceptives. Participants sniffed odours of lemon, peppermint, rose and musk as well as male pheromones. Naturally-cycling women were more sensitive to musk and the pheromones than the women on contraceptives,’ says Dr Roked.
For those of us rendered less sensitive to musk thanks to the pill (musk has also been found to make women feel more sensual therefore increasing their perceived attractiveness) try Zarko Perfume’s Ménage A Trois, £80 which combines three irresistible musk molecules.
Pregnancy and fragrance
‘The majority of women self-report changes in their sense of smell during pregnancy,’ says Dr Gottfried. ‘Scientists have suggested that this could provide an evolutionary advantage as it can prevent women from ingesting substances dangerous to a developing foetus and additionally, it could increase the perceived attractiveness of their partner.’ The reason? We’re back to those pesky hormones again...
‘Pregnancy unleashes a surge of hormones which can have all sorts of effects on us and that definitely extends to smells that women deem attractive,’ says Dr Jane Leonard, GP and Aesthetic doctor. ‘Of course, everyone is different so the same smells won’t necessarily have the same effects on women but scent can definitely have a dramatic impact on a pregnant woman that goes way beyond her not liking it - the chemical compounds of an odour can actually cause her to feel nauseous and drastically unwell on a physical level.'
Try: Citrus smells are known for easing nausea so opt for Miller Harris’ Tangerine Vert, £95, which perfumer Lyn Harris created for her sister when she was pregnant.