Men's Smell More Attractive To Women When It Includes High Levels Of Testosterone, Study Finds

The Smell That Attracts Women Most
Portrait of a young couple relaxing on a sun bed and kissing, outdoors.
Portrait of a young couple relaxing on a sun bed and kissing, outdoors.

By: Tanya Lewis, LiveScience Staff Writer
Published: 04/18/2013 09:25 AM EDT on LiveScience

Women at their peak fertility prefer the smell of men oozing with testosterone, a new study finds.

Ovulation has been shown to impact a woman's mating preferences. For instance, women in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle favor more masculine traits, such as a deep voice or manly face, characteristics associated with the hormone testosterone, studies have found. Other research suggests fertile women are attracted to men with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may be involved in stronger immune systems.

In the new study, researchers tested how women's sexual scent preferences changed depending on men's levels of testosterone and cortisol. Male volunteers were given T-shirts to wear for two consecutive nights, during which time they were prohibited from using scented soaps or detergents; drinking or smoking; or eating garlic, onion, green chiles, strong cheeses and other pungent foods.

Then, female volunteers sniffed the men's shirts and rated the pleasantness, sexiness and intensity of the smells (on scales from 1 to 10). The women also completed a questionnaire about their stage in their menstrual cycles and whether they were using hormonal contraception.

The researchers took saliva samples from the men to measure hormone levels of testosterone and cortisol.

Women who were at the most fertile stage of their menstrual cycles preferred the smell of men with higher testosterone, rating these "manly" shirts as the most pleasant and sexiest, results showed. The women showed no preference for the smells of men with higher cortisol levels. Without taking the women's fertility into account, neither hormone had an influence on how attractive the men smelled.

The link found between testosterone and smell attractiveness contrasts with the findings of a previous study. That study sampled a smaller group of subjects (19 men versus the current study's 46 men), which could weaken the significance of the findings. However, that study tested for testosterone three times throughout the day, making it more sensitive to the hormone's frequent fluctuations.

"This is a controversial research area. Studies are highly inconsistent," psychologist Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience in an email. "Only a few studies have shown that women’s menstrual cycles influence their mate preferences — many more find no effects of menstrual cycles on preferences," Wood added.

The chemical androstenol contributes to the musky smell of body odor. Men produce much more of this chemical than women, and testosterone levels may be linked to production of these molecules, the researchers suggest. If so, the women in the study may be responding to these subtle odor cues.

If the findings can be replicated, scientists could try to identify these odor molecules, and then figure out how they influence human scent preferences.

Whether these chemicals are signals of masculine qualities, or just a byproduct of them, remains unclear.

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Before You Go

Your Parents' Ages Influence It
A person born to a couple in their thirties grows up to find older faces more attractive than does one with younger parents, finds a study at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. That is, college-aged women with “older” parents were likelier to find wrinkled, weathered faces attractive for either a fling or a marriage. The same was found for young men when considering a woman for a long-term relationship. (Take note: only a man’s mother’s age, not his father’s, influenced his attraction to older women.)
Your Limbal Rings Are Riveting
The eye’s limbal ring falls into the category of something that's overlooked but not unseen. It’s the dark circle around the iris that enhances the whiteness and brightness of the sclera (the whites of the eyes). Researchers at the University of California at Irvine asked people to rate sets of faces that were identical except for the eyes -- one had dark and distinct limbal rings and the other had none. The outcome? Whether male or female, the faces with prominent limbal rings were considered more attractive. The likely reason is that a dark, well-defined ring is a signal of youth and health -- qualities that people seek in mates. It’s thickest and most prominent through the early 20s and fades -- often becoming nonexistent -- with age and medical conditions.
Women Use Pick-Up Lines, Too
Women are pickier than men, right? Not true, says a speed-dating study at Northwestern University. When men remained seated and women rotated around the room, approaching a new man at every table, the women acted more like guys -- that is, they appeared to have lower standards. Regardless of gender, whoever makes the first move is less picky than the people they target, the researchers found. When we invest an effort, we’re more “into” the people we hit on than we’d be if they approached us first.
Love -- Or Something -- Was In The Air
When women breathe in androstadienone, an often-odorless testosterone derivative in male sweat, they give men higher attractiveness ratings than they would otherwise. After about 15 minutes of exposure, the chemical makes a woman subtly more attentive, aroused and even happier, with effects continuing for up to an hour, finds a study led by Claire Wyart at the University of California at Berkeley. (In case you’re wondering, men vary in their androstadienone levels -- and no, the chemical doesn’t brainwash women into having sex or falling in love. It’s much more subtle than that.)
Hunger Affects Your Preferences
How curvy a man prefers his date to be may depend on his situation at any given moment, find researchers Martin Tovee and Viren Swami. In one study, the duo stopped men at a campus dining hall and asked them to rate the body shapes of several dozen women. While all guys preferred figures that represented a normal weight, hungry men were more attracted to women on the heavier side of the range than those who had already eaten (with a body mass index ~23 vs. 21). The same thing happened in a follow-up study when guys were in a stressful situation: Compared to their mellow peers, they chose curvier, more rotund (actually, overweight) figures as their womanly ideal. The upshot: If a man feels hungry, threatened or uncertain, he tends to prefer more robust-looking female figures -- which may subconsciously remind him of strength, control, nurture and independence.
Your Body Said Something Irresistible
In an hour at a singles bar, average-looking women could be approached by up to four men, found Monica Moore in her study at the University of Missouri. What were these sirens doing? Making more than 35 body-language gestures -- smiles with eyebrows raised; short, darting glances; arm flexes; hair flicks; neck caresses and other “displays.” Meanwhile, Moore found that a beauty who sits there doing nothing is unlikely to be approached at all. Only when a woman’s body language expresses some interest do men feel comfortable making a move.
You Wore Crimson And Rose
Like moths to a flame -- that’s how attracted we all are to the color red. Wearing red increases a woman’s chances of being asked out -- and to have her date splurge on her -- finds a study at the University of Rochester. The simple explanation: Ladies in red are perceived as more sexually receptive due to the color’s associations with fertility. Sure enough, the researchers found that single women who posted photos of themselves in online dating sites -- wearing crimson, scarlet, fuchsia and other reddish hues, even on just a T-shirt -- were more than two times likelier to be interested in casual sex than those wearing other any other color of the rainbow. For men, the color red has association of high status, which may be why women give guys -- wearing, say, red ties -- higher attractiveness ratings. Simply wearing the color may trigger a virtuous cycle: It encourages us to act sexier because we expect others to think we’re hotter (women) or more confident and powerful (men).
You Chose The Perfect Perfume
Your signature scent -- whether it’s Chanel, Shalimar, or patchouli -- becomes you. Literally. Fragrances may amplify and advertise your unique genetic makeup to potential partners, finds a study at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. People who share the same variants of immune system (MHC) genes often preferred the same scents (rose oil, musk, or vanilla, for instance). This suggests that particular scents work best with particular body chemistries -- and that we know intuitively what fragrances smell best on us. Indeed, a recent Czech study found that when volunteers’ sweat was mixed was their preferred perfume (versus a random one), impartial noses gave the resulting mélange much higher ratings.
You Ate Garlic Bread On Your First Date
Here’s another olfactory surprise: Garlic may make you smell more attractive. Researchers in the Czech Republic asked people to eat garlic cream cheese (the equivalent of two to four cloves) every day for one week, while wearing scent-trapping pads in their armpits. The next week, the same volunteers ate their bread with plain cream cheese. Which sweat smelled more attractive, more pleasant, and less intense to female judges -- garlic or plain? Garlic, naturally, but why? Garlic contains antioxidants and improve metabolic functioning, the researchers say, which may improve your body odor. Plus, garlic’s antibacterial properties help to kill the real culprit: foul-smelling underarm microorganisms.
You Had Chemistry On Top Of Chemistry
We all know oral contraceptives are useful -- for reducing flow, cramps, and preventing unplanned pregnancies. The surprise is that the Pill may also lead to unintended romantic quandaries. A U.K. study found that women who were on oral contraceptives when they met their partners were, years later, likelier than non-users to be turned-off, sexually dissatisfied, and eager to fantasize about an affair. But here’s the interesting part: They were also generally more satisfied with their partner’s (non-sexual) contributions, and therefore less likely to separate. The researchers explain: Under Pill-driven conditions of high-progesterone and low fertility, women go for relationship-worthy qualities such as wealth and intelligence more than high-testosterone traits (biceps and block jaws) that are associated with flings. Oral contraceptives may also lead women to reverse their usual preferences in male body odor. Once a woman goes off the Pill, her other instincts complicate the relationship.
Betty Boop Came Out At 'Hi'
Whether she’s aware of it or not, the pitch of a woman’s voice increases a notch (becoming higher but not shrill) when she’s flirting, finds a study at McMaster University in Canada. Conveniently, men much prefer these high-pitched dulcet tones over deeper ones. A woman can strike her highest chords around ovulation, when she’s likeliest to conceive. Another coincidence: This happens to be the time of month that men give female voices the highest attractiveness ratings.

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