Debunking Whiff Myths and Understanding the Smell of Attraction
As designers of the future of your intimacy, WISP take olfaction very seriously when creating fragrance diffusing jewellery. We spoke to Philosopher of Scent and creator of our Escape perfume collection, Harry Sherwood, to discover more about our sense of smell, how that plays into our relationships and explore the myths behind whiffs.
1. What’s the difference between musk and must?
First things first, where does musk come from and what does it actually smell like? Many people think of musky smells as being musty, because the names are similar. To clear up the confusion, musty smells describe an “unclean, stale and possibly mouldy smell” associated with a damp attic. Whereas, musks came to be synonymous with the scent that you’d use to describe fresh laundry. Today you’d find this smell in many perfumes and fabric conditioners. Sherwood explains that ‘natural musk’, used in nearly all perfumes until the 20th century, was originally taken from musk sacs found near the anus of a particular species of deer.
As this is illegal today, synthetic musks have been created to replicate the characteristic scent. Castoreum, however, is a similar ‘musky’ scent, which is legally taken from the culled castor sacks found near the genitals of Canadian castoreum beavers. So, if you are looking for more ethical brands, be aware of what goes into your perfumes and conditioners. WISP ensures to use ethically sourced ingredients for all of our fragrances, including avocado and coconut oils.
A similar odour is also recognised in flowers. Cis-3-hexenol for example, is released when some types plant matter is injured. Humans can easily detect this smell, used in our Garden Rain perfume, some evolutionary scientists have suggested this is a survival indicator to humans that food is fresh.
2. Do human pheromones exist?
The word ‘pheromone’ itself, was only invented in 1959, to describe a chemical substance released by an animal “affecting the behaviour or physiology of others of its species”, Zoologist Tristam Wyatt, believes that the science proving that pheromones exist in humans is “fraudulent” and “dodgy”.
Sherwood expands that while the vomeronasal organ, part of the olfactory system that detects pheromones, is certainly found in certain animals, there is evidence to show similar activity in humans, though the vomeronasal organ regresses as we develop after in utero, making it nonfunctional.
Animals are hardwired to act on these airborne molecules, almost like a drug. By saying we do have pheromones, what is implied is that we lose our sexual agency - which is just not true, as humans (at least in relation to animals) remain in control in sexual situations.
Wyatt explains that human pheromones could very well exist, but the science has not yet proven it in the same way it has with animals. So be sceptical of any perfume that is selling you a scent that people will find “irresistible”... they may be more attracted to you (if they like the smell), but it’s unlikely they’ll succumb merely to your scent.
3. Is there any science that links smell and attraction?
There are plenty of studies that link our bodily smells to romantic compatibility, and these are most commonly connected to our immune systems. When it comes down to scent-based attraction, some scientists have found that the chemical balance has to be “just right”; a Goldilocks-effect of a healthy immune system, with immune genes dissimilar enough from our own in order to produce “disease-resistant” offspring and reduce inbreeding.
The smell that determines this compatibility, comes from MHC, major histocompatibility complex, found in animals, but also humans, called HLA, human leukocyte antigen. This study that used sweat and urine samples, concluded that HLA mediates mate behaviour in humans, as an ‘olfactory match’ between people may explain our preferences to particular body odours that are just dissimilar enough. It has also been found that heterosexual women ranked body odour as more important for attraction than looks, over heterosexual men. Nevertheless, cis women on oral contraception, have been found to choose partners with odours they may not have chosen off the pill - which makes sense, if our reproduction is out of the equation.
Trusting our sense of smell, and of course liking the smell of our romantic partners important, however, these studies are based on heteronormative examples, and don’t explain the smell of attraction for same-sex couples. Furthermore, we spend so much of our time cleaning ourselves of our natural scent, and covering it with perfumes, it may be more difficult to decipher who we like through smell. This was one of the reasons why we created sensual jewellery that diffuses perfume through a release mechanism, not through application on the skin. Having it distinct from our bodily odour creates a different experience of the perfume.
4. Why do some smells have such a strong emotional effect on us?
Do smells ever take you to another time or place? You may not remember the details of what was happening, but you can remember how you felt. Humans actually have around 1,000 different types of smell receptors, compared to a mere four to detect light and touch. Our olfactory system is directly connected to the two parts of our brain that deal with emotion and memory; the amygdala and the hippocampus. Our sight, sound and touch information does not.
5. What is a fragrance pyramid, and how useful is it today?
A fragrance pyramid is a useful method used to explain the journey of a perfume. Popularised in the 1930s, they were able to visually determine how a fragrance would develop on the skin over time. For example, the head notes would be the initial and most powerful smell (from application to 15 minutes), whereas the heart notes would appear second (from 15 mins to 30 mins), and the base notes are specifically what would remain on the skin after some time has passed (30 mins and onwards).
These are dependent on the skin chemistry, and Sherwood explains to us that many contemporary fragrances are not built this way, and pyramids are more commonly used as marketing techniques. That’s not to completely undermine the usefulness and simplicity of a fragrance pyramid visually displaying a perfume. However, some perfumes just don't follow a linear pyramid narrative.
Many fragrances aren’t arranged in a three part process, some are headless and/or baseless. When conveying a scent, narratives can become kaleidoscopic with a harmony of aromas. This becomes increasingly complex, especially when perfumes are designed not to be applied to the skin, just as the SENS perfume is contained in the jewellery, notes can be experienced in a multitude of ways, depending on the environment.
Sherwood explains that the human odour detection threshold, our capacity to detect the lowest concentration of a compound, for example, how many drops you can put in a swimming pool to detect it. Geosmin (Greek for the smell of the earth), a compound found in freshly rained-on soil, a scent we used in our perfume Garden Rain, has a very low threshold.
SENS perfume collection is released via a modular mechanism that avoids perfume to skin contact, reducing any possibility of allergic reactions and the bodily interaction causing the scent to change, evaporate and fade, depending on the wearers clothing interaction, movement and sweat. The scent is held in a glass orb, distinct from the body, offering a multitude of sensory experiences that can be released and contained, turned on or off, throughout the day, when required to suit the wearer’s mood.