Leonie Schittenhelm

You smell! – Finding the right words to describe body odour

By Leonie Schittenhelm

The days grow longer, the sun gets warmer and Easter is just around the corner – while it is not quite T-shirt weather in the Northeast just yet, it surely can’t be much longer off now? A girl can dream. Then again, there’s surely one thing I don’t miss about the sure to come summer heatwave – sitting in public transport, the air heavy with a mix of more or less unpleasant body odours. But have you ever though how to specifically describe these types of smells?

This is what Dr. Caroline Allen, who works at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University tries to find out. Working together with collaborators from the UK and the Czech Republic, as well as the expert noses of 4 perfumers, she tried to work out how to find the words to correctly describe human body odour. Why is that important? Because odour is made up of a lot of different components, which – if correctly identified – can potentially tell us a lot about the health, fertility and even genetic make-up of the smelly person in question. However, most research on odours so far asked participants to rate odours on simple one trait scales, such as attractiveness of the smell or how likely it is to belong to a woman or a man. While useful, these don’t even come close to describing the complexity of the smell of another human being, which is where Dr. Allens research comes in.

Kind volunteers collected their body odours by wearing a pad under their armpits for 24 hours before trained perfumers and fragrance evaluators got together to agree on a primary lexicon of 15 smells that were commonly included in these samples. Personal highlights hereby included ‘Onion’ and ‘ChipFat’, but also terms such as ‘Milky’, ‘Metallic’ or ‘Vegetable’. They then used this newly built lexicon of smells to describe body odours they hadn’t smelled before, to test the validity of the words chosen. Interestingly, while the perfumers could not distinguish female and male body odour reliably, they used the descriptors ‘Animalic/Spicy’ preferentially for male samples, while female samples were often associated with the descriptors of ‘Milky/Sweet’. Although this lexicon holds exciting opportunities for the odour research community, I would probably still veer away from it in public transport – I’m sure no one would really appreciate you pointing out their ‘Moldy Animalic ChipFat’-type of smell…


If you want to check out this brilliant science story for yourself:
Allen, C., J. Havlíček, K. Williams, and S. C. Roberts. “Perfume experts’ perceptions of body odors: Toward a new lexicon for body odor description.” Journal of Sensory Studies (2018).


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