A pleasant scent emanating from a potential romantic partner is, of course, a plus — we are biologically wired to be drawn more strongly to people whose natural chemicals, or pheromones, trigger reactions in us.

Perhaps that’s why perfumes exist: smelling nice can lead to a higher perception of overall appearance. It can signify cleanliness, and can add to our “odorprint,” something that is uniquely ours, sort of like our fingerprints. But can perfume or positive smells have an impact on how our actual physical appearance, and facial features, are perceived?

A small study out of the Monell Chemical Senses Center wanted to answer this question, and the researchers found that an association with nice smells did actually boost perceptions of physical attractiveness. They tested 18 young adult participants by showing them images of female faces (all at different ages) while simultaneously releasing one of five different odors — the worst being a mix of fish oil, and the most pleasant being rose oil, with the ones in-between being a spectrum of both.

The participants’ ratings on the female faces were indeed influenced by what they were smelling when they looked at them. Smelling rose oil made the participants perceive older faces as younger, and younger faces as even younger than they already were. Bad smells, meanwhile, made older and younger faces seem more similar in age.

This doesn’t mean to go out and buy a bunch of perfume; too much artificial scent might be counter-productive. This information is really probably more about our odorprints, which are a mixture of the perfume we wear along with various bodily emissions, all emanating from different parts of our bodies — armpits, hair, saliva. Animals and humans communicate on a chemical level, and often smells aren’t just a sign of romantic or sexual attraction, but lots of other things, as well. “We’ve just started to understand that there is communication below the level of consciousness,” Bettina Pause, a psychologist at Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf, told Scientific American. “My guess is that a lot of our communication is influenced by chemosignals.”

And while one small study has shown that pleasant odors improve your physical attractiveness, the chemistry of human interaction is probably far more complex than that. As Adam Hadhazy writes on Scientific American:

"Because scores, if not hundreds, of unidentified odorants comprise an odorprint, [University of Oxford’s Tristam Wyatt] has argued that it cannot be considered a pheromone in the classic sense. Evidently, the complex cloud of aromas we emit needs a lot more parsing before science closes the book on pheromones. The olfactory cues of many insects remain better understood than our possible covert realm of social and sexual chemistry."

 

Source: Seubert J, Gregory KM, Chamberland J, Dessirier J-M, Lundström JN. “Odor Valence Linearly Modulates Attractiveness, but Not Age Assessment, of Invariant Facial Features in a Memory-Based Rating Task.” PLoS One. 2014.