Love at First Sniff: scent and attraction

Love at First Sniff: scent and attraction

Locking eyes across a crowded room…. laughing at the same jokes…. tell-tale body language like running their hands through their hair. All are ways we think we get the ‘signs’ someone might be into us.

But just as powerful to attraction is what we can’t see, and which can’t be transmitted over an app: smell.

Specifically the way our aroma or fragrance is perceived by others and vice versa, often without any of us even realising it. We’re not saying you need to go round a bar sniffing everyone’s pits, though there are specialist dating nights for that…. But the science of olfaction, behaviour, mood and attraction is absolutely fascinating, whether you’re happily single, dating or settled in a relationship. Love is (somewhat) chemical, and at Diem we’re here to take you into it.

Get ready to learn some weird facts about body odour, as well as some helpful tips on how your choice of perfume might be interpreted by your date.

  • Which Perfume Ingredients Are Most Seductive?
  • What’s In Scent Ingredients That Attracts?
  • It’s Partly What’s In Them
  • It’s Partly About Your Association
  • It’s Partly Cultural
  • It’s Biology!
  • How Do I Improve My Natural Scent?
  • Sync With Your Cycle
  • Eat Garlic
  • Be Vegetarian
  • Be Single
  • What About Pheromones - Do They Exist?
  • Is Smell Important To Attraction?
  • How Do You Choose A Perfume That Complements Your Own Smell?
  • Why Is It Weird When I Smell The Perfume An Ex Wore?


Most of us (even if secretly) want to know the holy-grail of seductive scents: the magic ingredient that would make us smell irresistible to others. Is there one? Sort of.

The truth is that our response to any smell is highly subjective and personal. It’s shaped by our biography, our genetics, and our early associations with a smell. If as a child we smelled lavender in our grandparents house, it’s probably unlikely we’ll find the scent of lavender to be ‘attractive’.

However, if the first time you encountered lavender was on a holiday where we smelt it on someone with whom we were obsessed, safe to say lavender could be a lifelong talisman to young love. It’s possible, but quite difficult, to override these strong emotional associations once formed.

But: there are ingredients or types of smells that do have a reputation for being particularly seductive. Here are some to look out for:

Tuberose Flower

Tuberose - This night-blooming, white flower (so pallid it’s also called ‘bone flower’) was called ‘dangerous’ by Victorian love guide The Language of Flowers, who said to stay back or risk bewitchment. It then says: “to increase ten-fold the pleasure...come with the object of your affection to inhale its perfume by moonlight.” It’s used in marriage ceremonies and garlands in many cultures. Tuberose blends beautifully with jasmine, another white floral. It is sweet and creamy but with a green ‘flower shop’ smell that stops it being too cloying. You want to seduce, not send them into a stupor.

Ylang ylang flower on pink background

Ylang Ylang - The fragrant yellow flowers from this tropical tree are traditionally scattered on the beds of newlywed couples in Indonesia as a symbol of love and fertility. An incredibly heady, honeyed and spicy floral scent, which in classic aromatherapy would be commonly integrated into sensual blends. Ylang ylang was very popular in big, seductive 1980s perfumes, then went out of fashion. We reckon it’s due for a comeback.

Rose - famously associated with legends of Cleopatra who was said to dip the sails of her barge in rose water. We have to take some of this with a pinch of salt. There are many types of roses, from fresh tea roses to the wine-like scent of Damask roses. Some roses will register as sexy and others as old-fashioned and fusty. Roses contain a heady, intriguing compound called damascenones which smell spicy and fruity and which add sensuality to a fragrance. Damascenones are also found in red wine, which perhaps helps our association anything warm, inviting and heady. In perfumes they are used in tiny amounts to add their hint of special.

Sandalwood ingredient

Sandalwood - a prized material from a tree which grows in India, Sri Lanka, India and Australia. In recent years particularly associated with sensuality because it’s a complex woody scent with creamy, milky aspects. Mingles beautifully with and heightens your ‘skin scent’. Sandalwood is linked with contemporary tastes for seductive scents - not in your face but more subtle and ‘is it / isn’t it’ there.

Pile of white feathers

Synthetic Musks - these days musks are synthesised rather than coming from the musk deer. There are several different types. Some musks are associated with the scent of warm clean skin. They are intimate molecules that don’t necessarily project far, but if smelt up close are highly alluring. If combined with animalic smelling materials, musks can become much dirtier and more overtly body-like. This century there was a resurgence in niche scents that smelt animalic to the extent of being provocative or challenging, as a riposte to ‘pretty’ and inoffensive scents.

Labdanum - a sticky dark resin that resembles tar, but that exudes from a flower called the Rock Rose (you'll find these flowers on Greek Islands). It's been used in fragrance for thousands of years. Labdanum smells rich: a mix of dried fruits like prunes, a bit earthy and slightly balsamic. It blends beautifully with the skin to smell sensual or intimate, and can also be a bit dirty. Another benefit of labdanum is it’s incredibly tenacious and can linger all day.

Patchouli leaves

Patchouli - earthy and smells of being in the wild forest. This is a scent of free love and raw sensuality, not ‘beautiful’ in the classical sense. Patchouli was huge in counter-culture perfumes of the 1960s where it was worn by hippies and blended into products known as ‘love spray’. Modern patchouli perfumes tend to smell a bit cleaner and have some of the ‘muddy’ elements taken out.

Anything - Yes, any ingredient YOU love can be attractive. This is because feeling happy with the way we smell has an effect on how we present our body, how we move and how we talk. Scent helps to prime us to feel confident, and that’s ultimately what’s attractive. So if you love a scent that’s not got any of the ingredients above you’re absolutely fine! Go with what you like.


It’s partly what’s in them

Lots of white florals associated with sensuality contain something called indoles, a type of molecule that in small quantities makes scents much more complex, musky and alluring. Without them, the flowers would probably be more ‘polite’. They basically add a bit of filth. You need to be very careful how you use them. Add too much and a scent would start to smell like manure. It’s all about the dosing. Tiny amounts = ecstatic. Large amounts = probably turn-off.

It’s Partly About Your Association

Or: It’s not you it’s me. Much like clothing, if you smell a style of fragrance on a particular type of person you’ll start to involuntarily associate it with them, and have an emotional response next time you smell the scent. Take the violet. Over 100 years ago this flower was fashionable, young and exciting, and would have been likely to register as ‘attractive’. As the bright young things who loved violet perfumes grew older, their scents were encountered by their grandchildren, who’d have thought: “no way that’s an old peoples’ perfume!’. This means it moved away into the attraction wilderness. In the 2000s, dry woody perfumes were perceived as sensual because the early adopters were hip and fashionable, so the scent profile became associated with desire - helped by the fact that it was promoted as smelling like your skin.

In 30 years, who knows: this kind of scent might be seen as past it and something to wear while gardening rather than on a date.

It’s Partly Cultural

Many of our links between scents and sensuality have been inherited or learned through collective storytelling. This filters through ancient texts, folklore, into other media like films, novels, poetry and pop culture. If we hear enticing stories about Cleopatra using rose water to perfume her barge we’re going to believe in the power of rose petals.

Lots of perfume ingredients we associate with attraction were originally linked with ritual, status, and hospitality. Wealthy Romans and Greeks might strew their banquets with flower petals to demonstrate wealth or largesse.

Or there might be specific oil and unguents a woman would apply to her skin before getting married, because they were connected with fecundity or fertility. The Greek writer Athaneus mentioned one event in which rose petals were 18 inches deep. That makes for a heady moment. And thousands of petals means decadence more generally because excess often points to a loosening of inhibitions.

It’s Biology!

Fruit and flowers’ role in plant reproduction and fertility, to bring in pollinators using colour and scent, means they are already deeply entwined with attraction. It’s their raison d’etre, and perhaps we hope that by wearing something scented with jasmine, we’re absorbing a little of that power to lure.


Scent is an important part of communication. Our fragrance lets us speak without using words, and we want to put something out there that’s going to be received as irresistible. Ultimately wear what makes you feel fab, that’s all that matters. But if you want some fun tips, it’s important to align with where the date is. Think about noise. If you’re in a really busy bar, you talk louder. The same applies with scent. For example:

Club, Bar or Party: loads of people and ‘scent noise’, so you can wear something stronger to do the equivalent of speaking up. It’s also likely to be hot, which means faster evaporation, so go for a long-lasting scent. If it’s a quieter cocktail bar with table reservations, something smoky with the kind of notes you’d find in dark spirits could be great (e.g. dark woods, rum notes, nuts, cocoa).

Romantic Walk or Picnic: because you’re outside without being confined, your scent won’t build up, so again you can go for it and wear a bit more. Green scents with fruity or floral notes are lovely here especially as they synergise beautifully with any garden or park-like settings.

Restaurant: perfume and food can be tricky. You don’t want anything so strong it’s competing with the food. Go for something less powerful in terms of projection, and think about styles that will complement the food you’re eating. Something subtle, musky, woody or ambery is a safer bet than a very loud floral. Or if you’re eating lighter food a citrus would be nice.

Cinema: You’re sitting in the same place for a while and cinemas can smell strongly anyway of popcorn and sweets. Again perhaps nothing too crazy loud given the confined environment, but something gourmand with a bit of vanilla can be fun in this environment.

Escape Room: You’ll be too adrenalised to think about perfume.


Look - you probably smell great. This isn’t the place to talk to you about showering more often or wearing deodorant. But: there are some really fascinating studies that have variously looked at the effects of food, diet and emotions on the way your body smells. If you want to change your scent, some tips are:

Sync With Your Cycle

We know that womens’ faces subtly change to be more attractive when ovulation approaches. Similarly, body odour will alter throughout the menstrual cycle, to become more noticeable and attractive shortly before ovulation. These odours have even been found to increase testosterone and decrease the stress hormone cortisol in men who’ve smelt samples, compared to women at other stages in their cycle.

Eat Garlic

In a study from Stirling University and Charles University in Prague, men were invited to eat substantial amounts of garlic. Swabs of their body odour were collected, and a group of women were invited to smell them. Out of the sweat samples, women rated the garlic-eaters as much more attractive than the men who hadn’t eaten garlic. The sweat didn’t smell of garlic, rather it altered their scent. The catch: the effect was only noticeable after about four cloves had been eaten, so one slice of garlic bread probably won’t cut it.

Be Vegetarian

According to one study, men who eat a largely vegetarian diet with lots of vegetables may have more pleasant smelling body odour than heavy carnivores. This could be related to our bodies advertising that we have access to high-quality food sources. So instead of ordering the rare steak on your date, you could go for a vegetable curry.

Be Single

Single men have stronger body odour than partnered men. This is thought to be because they have higher levels of testosterone, which then affects many things including body odour. In one study, their aroma was received as more attractive as well as more noticeable. So it could be that men in a couple are reducing their signalling that they’re after someone to get together with.

What About Pheromones - Do They Exist?

Pheromones is a term that gets thrown around a lot in relation to scent and attraction. This word’s been misused. Pheromones refer to signals that have evolved very specifically, with a particular benefit for the sender and receiver. There are other ‘chemo-signals’ that aren’t pheromones, but which we definitely do give off, but these might serve a few purposes. Our sweat might attract insects, but that doesn’t mean our sweat has been designed specifically as a ‘bait.’

However, we definitely give off odours that have an effect on how we are perceived, and that can affect the state of mind of the person smelling us. The social role of smell is absolutely fascinating and new research is coming out all the time telling us more about how we are interpreting and interacting with other people, through their scent.


Yes! We all think body language is the way our body sends our unconscious signals to those around us revealing who we’re attracted to. But actually, we’re talking and listening through scent ALL the time, we just don’t realise it.

Smelling an attractive partner could be part of the picture of why we need a sense of smell to survive.

We constantly share chemo-sensory communication. Essentially this means chemical and relating to the senses. Smells - including natural odours- are essentially chemicals that evaporate and reach your nose. And odours carry lots of information about us, whether our hormones, our immune systems, our genes or our health.

And we are using smell all the time as a signal.

Everyone has a personal body odour which comes from our immune system. This is then shaped by other things like what we eat and our environment (two twins with different lifestyles could have a very different scent).

Each one of us is attracted to some odour types. Others we find disgusting. A lot of us are making judgments about odour constantly throughout the day - and we don’t even know it. It’s not conscious.

There’s a potential link between people whose smell we love and their immune system. Two people who find each other’s scent attractive are likely to have very different immunotypes. This is because this diversity results in a stronger immune system in any offspring. A lot of us are making judgements about someone’s odour and we don’t even know it.

This suggests that having a shower just before a date might not be needed. OK let’s not go out dripping in sweat after a HIIT workout. But if you wash your odour away, you’re reducing your ability to signal to your date.


Ever wondered if your choice in perfume is totally arbitrary? Well, we may well be choosing perfumes unconsciously that enhance our natural scent. This research isn’t conclusive but research at Charles University, Prague, found correlations between body smell and choice in perfume. When test subjects smelled a person’s body odour mingled with a perfume the other person had chosen themselves, the samples were rated more highly than a perfume chosen at random.

This suggests it’s better to let someone choose their own perfume rather than guessing what they’d like. Because even if it’s unconscious, they may be drawn to the scents that best complement their body odour.

We still don’t know exactly what’s informing this choice, or which types of molecules synergise with odours produced by our skin.


You’ve just met someone for a first date. Everything’s going well, until you catch their scent and it’s exactly the same as an ex. Disaster! Or you’re walking along the street, smell a fragrance randomly on a stranger and feel totally thrown back to an old relationship.

We know that smell is powerful for triggering emotional associations. Often we get the feeling before we can even name what the smell is, which can leave us feeling ambushed and confused: we know something’s making us feel like we’re 16 again without remembering what it’s even called. This is because the brain pathways to the emotional response are faster than those that support language processing.

Smelling their scent on the street might trip you back to that person and can feel dissociative, especially if conflicting emotions associated with them (for example amazing relationship plus awful break-up).

So what do we do about it? Well one answer is to avoid wearing a perfume that everyone’s wearing. Having your own distinct fragrance which isn’t everywhere in the shops means you’re probably the only person around with your olfactory fingerprint.

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