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17 January 2005

The whiff of seduction

The next time you and your partner snuggle up in bed, give a thought to the messages being sent out by an oft-neglected part of your body – your armpit.

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The next time you and your partner snuggle up in bed, give a thought to the messages being sent out by an oft-neglected part of your body – your armpit. It may decide whether she wants to have your kids.

We’re not referring to the three-day body odour that stuns a buffalo at 40 paces. That’s quite simply a no-no. New studies suggest that underarm sweat contains a complex array of odourless pheromones that have a powerful subconscious effect on the female psyche.

When body odour of the gym-sock variety is present, it’s easy enough to gauge women’s reactions. They tend to wrinkle their noses, open windows or leave the room. But scientists are more interested in what they call psychologically active hormones. To get an idea of its effect, they monitored luteinizing hormone, which controls women’s menstrual cycle.

The brain controls the release of luteinizing hormone into the body, and the intervals at which its released shrink as a woman approaches ovulation. In tests the women subjects were exposed to pheromones from the male armpit for about six hours. Some people really will do anything for money.

Hormone relaxes women
It was found that the exposure to the pheromone from the male armpit accelerated the release of the luteinizing hormone. What’s more, the female test subjects said they felt increasingly relaxed as they sniffed the hormone. As we mentioned, it’s odourless.

Researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, believe the finding may one day lead to the development of a formidable new generation of fertility drugs. They’ve also speculated that men’s fragrances may one day contain male pheromones, which would presumably be irresistible to any woman.

There’s also some evidence to suggest that pheromones discourage inbreeding, through part of the human genome called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which plays a role in sexual attraction as well as combating disease. It seems women are able to subconsciously tell when a man’s MHC smells significantly different to their own, and will be drawn to them.

The same system has been found to work with female stickleback fish, enabling them to seek out the fittest fish with the best genes. Other animals use MHC to find mates with the best ability to ward off parasites. The more marked the difference between the two mates’ MHCs, the better their offspring’s immune systems will be.

Every person has unique MHC composition
Everyone’s MHC composition is as unique as their own genetic makeup. Researchers in Bern, Switzerland now say it seems humans’ taste in perfume (whether it’s called after shave, eau de cologne or eau de toilette) might subconciously be guided by what accentuates their MHC and projects it best to prospective mates.

It means that rather than going for cologne because you like the girl in the advertisement, you should make up your own, or at least go with your gut. That way you might subconsciously be choosing the scent that makes you seem the healthiest, rather than the one that simply masks your body odour.

Remember that for all the fancy packaging, stratospheric prices and nuanced advertising, many of the basic ingredients of perfume have remained unchanged since the time of the Egyptians.

Until the early 20th century, many well-heeled folk had secret recipes that perfumeries would make up for them, much like the bespoke tailors that made their clothes. Perhaps one day you’ll be able to get a perfumer to analyse your genome when concocting a scent as individual as you are. - (William Smook)

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