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Human Body Odour,

Symmetry, and Attractiveness

Anja Rikowski and Karl Grammer

Rikowski A., Grammer K. (1999): Human Body Odour, Symmetry and Attractiveness, Proc. of the Royal Society London B, 266, pp. 869-874



Several investigations on human body odour revealed the relevance of olfactory communication in humans and it's implications for sexual behaviour (for review see: Schaal & Porter, 1991). Human body odour has been reported to influence female mate choice in order to find a partner that posseses fitting immune system components (Wedekind et al., 1995). In this study we focussed on the question whether smell could signal general mate quality like other cues in sexual selection. Two well known mate choice criteria gave the possibility to investigate the suspected role of body odour in mate selection: physical attractiveness and low levels of fluctuating asymmetry. Morphological symmetry as well as physical attractiveness are presumed to signal individual developmental stability, i.e. heritable mate qualities (Gangestad et al., 1994; Grammer & Thornhill, 1994).

We compared ratings of attractiveness and measurements of bodily asymmetry with the evaluated quality of body odour from 16 male and 19 female subjects (mean age: 23.5 years). Each subject wore a T-shirt on three consecutive nights under controlled conditions, e.g. without using deodorants or parfumes. Immediately after use the T-shirts were deep frozen and heated up to 37 degree Celsius just before the evaluation of odour. Fifteen non smoking subjects of the opposite sex rated the smell of each T-shirt on intensity, pleasantness and sexiness on a seven point scale.
Another 22 men and women evaluated portraits of the subjects on attractiveness. For assessment of bodily asymmetry we measured seven bilateral traits of each subject's body. Only three of these characters showed real fluctuating asymmetry. Individual asymmetry was calculated as the mean of the relative differences between left and right side of these traits. We calculated indices of corpulence as possible confounding factor for symmetry and attractiveness ratings.

The results showed significant positive correlations between facial attractiveness and sexiness of body odour for female subjects (Fig. 1). When effects of corpulence were kept constant bodily asymmetry correlated negatively with sexiness of body odour for female subjects, although this was not significant (rP=-.44, df=16,n.s.). That means, the more symmetric the body of a women, the more sexy her smell.


Fig. 1: Relation between sexual attractiveness of the face and sexiness of body odour for female subjects.
Men rated the smell of women as more erotic, the more attractive their faces have been evaluated (PEARSON r = 0.70; df=17; p<.001, twotailed).

We only found positive relations between body odour and attractiveness (r = .48, df = 14, n.s.) and negative ones between smell and bodily asymmetry (r = -.50, p<.05, twotailed) for males, if female odour raters have been in their most fertile phase of menstrual cycle (day 5 to 16). In other words, these women tend to prefer the odour of physically attractive and symmetric men.

In conclusion, this study supports the hypothesis that human body odour reveals information about general mate quality. However, this signal seems to have a different significance for both sexes, probably depending on different reproductive strategies.


Gangestad, S.W., Thornhill, R., & Yeo, R.A. (1994): Facial attractiveness, developmental stability, and fluctuating asymmetry. Ethology and Sociobiology, 15, 73-85.

Grammer, K., & Thornhill, R. (1994): Human (Homo sapiens ) facial attractiveness and sexual selection: the role of symmetry and averageness. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108, 233-242.

Schaal, B., & Porter, R.H. (1991): "Microsmatic humans" revisited: The generation and perception of chemical signals. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 20, 474-482.

Wedekind, C., Seebeck, T., Bettens, F., & Paepke, A.J. (1995): MHC-dependent mate preferences in humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London : B, 260, 245-249.


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