Q&A for "When Love Stinks"

Wise Readers,

Refusing or seeking a mate because of smell: It’s normal for women.  But readers were left with questions:  Do people with specific genetic profiles choose specific kinds of colognes?  Why do men fall in love using their eyes—women, their noses?  What if someone rich, powerful and good-looking stinks—can women overlook (oversmell?) that?  And what role do factors like anti-depressants, age, diet and sexual orientation play in smell and sexual attraction?  Read on! 

Cheers, Duana

Reader Comments (20)

So, what if I *really* like the way he smells normally but not when he gets all sweaty? Which smell is the “right” one?

January 20, 2010 | Laura


I absolutely agree. This is why I always let her pick out the cologne I wear as well as the scented candles in our bath and bedroom, massage oils, body sprays - you name it.

January 20, 2010 | Matt


The women in the three most serious relationships in my life all made it known that they loved the way I smelled; including the one I married. I’m very much onboard with women and the scent theory.

For guys, I don’t think we notice a female’s scent so much in the beginning, but moreso long after the relationship has ended. I can be walking through a mall to this day and catch a whiff of a perfume that takes me back 20 years to a specific old girlfriend.

January 20, 2010 | DW


Are we talking about perfumes or natural body smells? Or are we chemically drawn to a fragrance because it mimics our own and so the analysis is the same?

January 20, 2010 | Monica


Good questions, all—thanks much. Monica, we’re talking about natural body smells—smells that may be partially masked by colognes, bath oils, massage oils, soaps, deodorants, and the dozens of other products that get in the way of The Important Scent of our partner’s natural skin. During courtship, one good strategy is to specifically request that your date *not* wear anything scented. You need to get The Real Him.

But not *too* real, right, Laura? The right smell is how your beloved’s scent comes across when he’s been away from the shower for a few hours…but not after he’s been felling trees, mowing the lawn, or enjoying a power workout. Science finds that an overpowering stench is an overpowering stench—and a lived-in cleanliness is next to My Side Of The Bed, lol.

Which brings us to you, Matt. Although it’s great that your sweetie likes to pick out fragrances, it’s important for her to like the way you smell in the raw. That said, there is at least one big But: As it happens, people with a given MHC seem to gravitate towards particular colognes. In other words, men who have a particular MHC profile seem to wear a particular scent…and it’s possible that their partners pick those scents for them, too. (You score and win, Monica. If you ever quit your day job, there could be a social science position waiting for you.)

And DW, what you’re talking about probably has to do with classical conditioning, meaning that after you’ve had a special scent (a lover’s perfume) paired with something really wonderful (the woman herself) repeatedly, you’re going to feel a Wonderful, Special Something when you get a whiff of that aroma again. In a process called “spontaneous recovery,” it can even happen many years after the relationship is over. Kinda like hearing Your Song from a relationship long since done.

January 20, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.


I only have one thing to say…it’s quite obvious that my long-time hubby and I have different MCH’s. He’s always smelled good to me, even before I began taking the pill and after I stopped. This union was obviously Meant to Be, for many reasons.

January 20, 2010 | Carmen


Carmen, I’d like to elaborate on your story a bit more. You remarked that you loved your husband’s smell before and after The Pill…am I right in guessing that you were not on The Pill when you met him?

Increasingly, scientists are recommending a number of behaviors to help women make sure they don’t wind up with a bad genetic match and/or get skunked; here are some:

1. Make sure you’re *off* The Pill when you are courting, at least long enough to know that you love your sweetie’s natural smell. Ditto for Depo Provera and all other hormonal forms of birth control. Whereas some advise waiting ‘til you’re in love and then getting off hormones to see if this is the Right Match, I think that is quite dangerous…because if you have already fallen in love, then you’re going to have to break your (and maybe his) heart to break off the relationship if you can’t stand the man’s smell. Instead, *start* courtship sans chemicals, and *then* get on the birth control (if that’s the option that best-suits you) after you’ve figured out that you are into this man’s scent.

2. Stay *off* anti-depressants if you are looking for a long-term mate. Just as with The Pill, some research indicates that anti-depressants have mucked about with women’s sense of smell; so some women, after finding a great relationship, think they’ve achieved enough stability to go off their medication—only to find they can’t tolerate their man’s scent.
Of course, one solution is a lifetime on anti-depressants, and some people truly require that —for them, being on anti-depressants during courtship is not only fine, it’s preferable. But for the majority of others who can respond to treatments such as counseling/therapy, or who find that a daily half-hour walk works as well as an anti-depressant (which studies now show is true for many folks)—best to skip the AD’s when you’re looking for Mr. Right.

January 20, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.


This sent privately from “Paula”:

“I have been on the pill most of my adult life because of “female problems”. Although I’d been in a couple of long-term relationships and dated a lot, nobody ever felt right to me for marriage.

“Then, I took myself off of the pill recently because I thought my body needed a break. Interestingly, it wasn’t long after that that I met a wonderful-smelling man who I think could be The One. Coincidence?”

January 20, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.


Paula, that is fascinating—and congratulations on meeting a prospective Mr. Right. I don’t know of any research about whether women on The Pill tend to overlook The One (or a possible One—seeing as there are several, actually). But it certainly fits in with theory. Also, scientists have long observed that many women report a decrease in libido when on The Pill. To the extent that our sex-drive is hindered by hormonal contraceptives, it’s a reasonable guess that we’re less open to relationships and/or less motivated to find one. Horniness gets people up off the couch and into courtships, in other words. And The Pill can mess with that.

That said, The Pill has dramatically changed women’s lives for the better, and this article is not an anti-Pill diatribe. Because of hormonal regulation, women no longer have to suffer with overly long/painful/irregular cycles; can lower their risk of death from bearing too many children at too young an age; and can plan their families with greater effect than many other methods provided beforehand. It can be a tremendous boon to many.

Just not, perhaps, when giving a guy the first sniff-over.

January 20, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.


LOL I was asking the same question as Monica when trying to get a better understanding of what the article was referring to but read it a second time for clarity. I, like Matt give creative license to my mate to ensure a fragrance that she prefers.

But to the article’s point, I have never heard this nor had scent brought up by a woman I was with so I guess I’m glad it hasn’t been an issue or at least it was never brought up. I imagine this discussion could be made as well towards women too???

I wonder if the natural scent of a man is a real deal breaker even if it could be trigger to incompatibilities between partners. I mean, I am sure Vicki has had men with approving scents but obviously didn’t work out. I’ve heard continuing stories of actors Brad Pitt and Mathew McConaughey being known to be malodorous. I find it hard to believe they are hard pressed to find women not willing to overcome that flaw.

I do find it fascinating how nature has so many ways to show chemistry. I will be mindful of the woman sniffing unusually long on my neck. Now I will know what’s going on. Pepe Le Pew needs love too. :)

Great stuff Duana!

January 21, 2010 | Quinn


Duana - the point I was trying to make is I feel women notice a man’s natural smell from the beginning, while guys only notice a woman’s perfume; and it tends to stick with us for long periods of time, whether we like it or not.

January 21, 2010 | DW


Nice article, and very comforting. Glad to know I’m not alone. Years later, I figured out why I didn’t marry the FBI agent. He was sarcastic. Also, he didn’t smell right and neither did his apartment. One time when we kissed he accidentally burped in my mouth - Oooh the taste! Yuck. And he ate his fish with the skin on it.

January 22, 2010 | Gillian


Dear Quinn, thank you for your as-always delightful response and thought-provoking observations. To answer:

No, the observation doesn’t hold with women; men are considered to be insensitive to smell/MHC in their prospective partners, instead using visual processing as the first-and-foremost sense. You guys quite literally fall in love with your eyes, and even the various reward centers of the male brain light up when viewing someone who is young, beautiful and of the sex to whom you’re oriented. Presumably that’s because males can a) procreate throughout their lives with b) a number of partners limited only by their ability and desire to get them into bed. But the partners do need to be fertile—and youth and beauty are the best ways for men to gauge that quality. (Women, who can procreate but a few times and for only a limited number of years, need to make sure that Every Egg Counts.)

On the other hand, just as you’ve probably seen some hot women who were a total turn-off once they opened their mouths, a great scent all by itself is not going to make the deal for women. As for Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey: Well, I hadn’t heard anything about their aroma, appealing or otherwise, but here are several responses:
—First, very few people are universally malodorous (love that word, btway). Some women may find Brad/Matt to be truly smelly, but it’s highly doubtful that all (or even most) feel that way, because…
—There will be many women who are MHC-diverse from those guys, and who will think they smell grand; and…
—Women everywhere seek men who have Great Genes for their offspring, and it’s almost a guarantee that Matt and Brad have that going for them. Symmetry is one of the most obvious cues to Greatness, and women can immediately detect symmetry in at least two ways: eyesight and scent. Eyesight reveals symmetry because symmetrical people are literally those that both men and women find to be best-looking. And scent (for women—again, men can’t do this) is a cue to symmetry as well; a recent study by Randy Thornhill and others showed that women given *only* t-shirts to sniff (and no other info) found the most symmetrical men to be the best-smelling.
All of which is to say: I really, really doubt that Brad and Matt are stinky to most women.
Even if they were, though, their wealth and power confer something else women everywhere seek: Provision and protection. Which means some women would indeed accept them for their abilities in these areas.

But take it from me: A horrible-smelling man is a horrible-smelling man, and if it’s bad enough, nothing is going to overcome that for those of us women with operating olfaction. Put it this way. If a woman were truly hideously ugly to you, could you overcome that? Perhaps…but in a world of women you find appealing, there would be little impetus, and the lack of attraction/chemistry would always stand in the way of real intimacy with her.

Thanks again, Quinn.

January 22, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.


DW, point taken. At least you’re not a female rat, though. They have to sniff the males’ urine to determine MHC compatibility.

January 22, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.


Hi, Gillian, Anything else you weren’t wild for? LOL. Sounds like ditching Mr. FBI was a good call.

PS: I’m glad this article was a relief to you.  I’ve since heard from a number of women who said they had felt just plain crazy to ditch a man over scent, and are hugely unburdened to realize their noses are just doing an important job. 

January 22, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.


I have several questions as I find this subject quite intriguing. First, at what age do women actually develop this sense? And is the sniffer consistent throughout a woman’s life? I am thinking of a mother who can’t understand what her daughter sees in a potential mate as I would think that the olfactory gene deal is passed on by dear old mom.

Diet can be a strong determinant of one’s scent. So what happens to a woman’s affection should a man convert from beer guzzling carnivore to a strict vegetarian?

Finally, what about all our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters out there? Are gay men more like women in there need to appreciate smells? And what about lesbians who can run the gambit from hard core butch to lipstick? Can they be grouped together or is there some kind of continuum deal that explains it?

By the way, your articles rock! However, with all my questions, feel free to tell me that I have to wait for the book   :-)

January 22, 2010 | BandB

Hi, BandB,
Fascinating queries you’ve posed, some of which I can answer, some not (I suppose the “nots” are the parts that will wait for the book, lol).

Let’s start with how women detect the MHC. They don’t necessarily like the same smells as Mom, because Daughter got her MHC from a combination of both her parents’ MHC alleles. And what any woman finds appealing is based on her unique MHC + what she senses about a particular Special Someone. So—Daughter could well enjoy the Scent Of A Man that Mom just doesn’t get.

The age issue, though, is even more interesting to me. If this ability has to do with procreation—which does appear true—, then we’d expect olfaction to a) be keenest starting in puberty, and b) to wane as the reproductive years are drawing to a close. Although I’m familiar with research showing that women’s sense of smell does indeed decline with age, I’m not aware of any research that shows when the ability to sniff out compatible MHC’s develops or degenerates. The science I am aware of uses women of the traditional college age rather than looking at a variety of age profiles. So: Your idea to compare women of various ages on MHC scent-sation has the makings of a great doctoral thesis.

Diet can and does effect how any of us smells to others. However, again, scientists have not (to my knowledge) examined exactly what effect that is when it comes to MHC detection. In Claus Wedekind’s original research in 1995, the male t-shirt wearers were instructed to avoid foods with strong flavors, deodorants, etc…anything that could adulterate their natural scent. Other researchers have since followed suit.


January 23, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.

As for olfaction and mate selection among gay and lesbian folks: The best summary I have found of that work appears in science writer Jena Pincott’s book “Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?” Here, some of the research she reports on:

—Some findings indicate that straight women find the scent of men’s underarm sweat to have a literally relaxing and sexually arousing effect, especially during ovulation, presumably because of androstadienone (and closely related testosterone derivatives) in it. Heterosexual men are not moved by male sweat, though. Androstadienone also increases luteinizing hormone, which makes eggs ripen sooner—clearly not an impact that occurs with men smelling men.

—Okay, so that answer had nothing to do with homosexuality. But this one does. A reward area of the brain apparently involved in mate selection—the hypothalamus—“lights up” in brain scans, depending on the sniffer’s and sniff-ee’s sexual orientations. Straight women and gay men show more hypothalamus activity from the male pheromone androstadienone. But straight men prefer the Scent Of A Woman. And lesbians’ brains showed more activity when smelling estrogen derivatives. But, says Pincott, the results for lesbians were inconsistent, and it’s not clear why.
Other research I’ve read could give us a clue.  There is not just one type of lesbian. As you’ve pointed out, there are lesbians who are more femininely typed, and those who are more masculinely typed. And they don’t necessarily respond to various things the same way.

Yolanda Martins and Charles Wysocki did olfaction research with over 80 straight-or-gay participants who smelled armpit sweat of gay and straight strangers (No, they didn’t stroll up and sniff armpits; participants didn’t even know what they were being tested on. They just sniffed pads that had been worn in strangers’ armpits, and then rated how much they liked the smell.). Results?
a) Gay men loved the armpit smells of other gay men more than any other smell;
b) Everyone else put the smell of gay male armpit sweat dead last;
c) Gay men were neutral about straight women’s armpit scents, but actively disliked the sweat smells emanating from samples from lesbians and straight men;
d) Lesbians had the same profile of scent preference as straight men and women did—liking the smell of heterosexuals (male and female) the best.

Which brings us to yet another question: *Why*? Answers are speculations at this point, so here are the hypotheses:

First, it appears from many different studies that many women have a more malleable sexual orientation than men do—in other words, a man tends to be either entirely gay or entirely straight in orientation, whereas some women have an element of choice in the matter.

Second, the odor of a man is determined in part by his testosterone profile—and sexual orientation may flow from that. It behooves women to sniff out those who are Frankly Not Interested In Us, Dahling! And perhaps it’s a boon to men who are gay to sniff out other men who are gay—after centuries of persecution and risks of hatred that can still be appallingly high.

Thanks again for some riveting questions.

January 23, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Thank you Duana, for this site and its insights. Just wanted to share a guy’s experience regarding the scent of a woman.

I have definitely been able to smell a fully-clothed woman’s natural unenhanced aroma. I don’t know how, I just have done it. Since I became single a few years ago and started dating again, I had to back away from a woman who was very interested in pairing up. Her natural aroma was just “off” (and she was healthy, clean and tasted good). Some perfumes would cover it, but when the perfume was omitted, I could easily smell her light natural scent, and it was not for me. We stayed friends instead of getting involved.

No such problems with the woman I really dig. She smells and tastes excellent. I like being close to her. No reservations at the deepest level.

January 24, 2010 | Tom

Tom, thanks for sharing your experience. Science is excellent at telling us what most of the people do most of the time—but not what all of the people do all of the time. You’ve got me quite curious as to whether you’re detecting MHC, or if your awareness is solely about what/who smells pleasant. Either way—nice to know of such a scent-sitive man out there, lol. And welcome to Love Science.

January 24, 2010 | Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2009, Duana C. Welch, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.


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Reader Comments (5)

You have stated that scent detectability declines in women with age. Does it increase in men with age? I've noticed recently that i am unable to smell scents, various ones, that my husband is overwhelmed by. He has told me he is now able to tell if it is "that time of the month" for women around the office or if his employees went out drinking the night before. I guess this will help him gauge temperament each day. lol

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMad mamma

Dear Mad Mamma,
Smell does decline with age, but not just for women; it's true for both sexes, and even then, women typically maintain the edge. We are able to smell more across the adult lifespan, as compared with men. But these (as most) data are aggregate--averaged across many people. In your case, your husband may indeed have the Superior Sniffer.

I don't expect you to answer to this highly impertinent, personal question, but I am curious: Does your spouse also have the higher sex drive? Was there a time when your scent detection matched or surpassed his--and your sexual appetites were matched as well? As most of us know, sense of smell is tied to sense of taste and hunger for food; now there are indications that smell is tied to sexuality, too.

And in a gender that makes serious sexual choices based on smell, that makes scents.

But I wonder...

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Looks and smell are hard to detect until you have a much closer connection to the person. But I agree that when the smell is too strong there will be a divorced.

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVarria Studios

Do you think there is a correlation between what you say and the heightened sense of smell during pregnancy? I recall having a very strong increase in olfactory abilities at that time. I couldn't read a magazine without getting sick, I could smell the printing ink on the paper. I don't recall any aversion to my husband, though. In fact, I imagine it was probably stronger. But I don't remember for certain.

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCandi

Hi, Candi,
Women's sense of smell does become stronger during pregnancy, as you found--presumably to keep us away from toxins that could harm us or the baby we are carrying.

Yet the things women can/can't smell and consequently do/don't avoid show little pattern, to my knowledge. What one woman can tolerate, another finds unbearable. You couldn't take news print; a friend of mine couldn't be around Windex; and I couldn't handle garlic at all--whereas at all other times, my view on garlic has been in the "Too much is not enough" category.

But I've never heard of a woman finding her husband's odor more offensive during pregnancy, and that makes sense: If anything, we ought love our provider/protector even more when we are in a physical state our ancestors found vulnerable, and which is somewhat vulnerable even today.

These are just my speculations, though. Thank you for yours!

January 28, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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