Olfaction differences between the sexes

Can women detect smells better than men? The short answer is yes, but only for specific types of odorants, according researchers who reviewed most of the studies on the topic.*

Women detect certain types of odors better than men

The compounds that women seem to detect better than men include some surprises:

  • acetone (nail polish remover),
  • butanol (“gas” smell in sharpie markers),
  • citral (citrus scent in cologne and perfume),
  • ethanol (vodka),
  • 1-hexanol (auto fuel system cleaners),
  • hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas),
  • phenyl ethanol (found in essential oils),
  • pyridine (dyeing agent for textiles),
  • m-xylene (ingredient in plastic soft drink bottles),
  • and 3-mercapto-butanol (“roasted” food flavoring commonly added to coffee).

Cross-cultural studies in Germany, Italy and Japan suggest that it’s a broad phenomenon.

Further, studies suggest that better detection of these compounds is not entirely dependent ton sex hormones because pre-pubescent female children also detect certain types of odors better than male children. This idea is supported by tests in non-human primates.

This is not to say that sex hormones don’t figure into sense of smell. They do. Women typically report a heightened sense of smell mid-menstrual cycle, when estrogen levels are at their highest. Studies suggest that women better detect at mid-cycle the urinoid smelling odorants, such as musks, citral and some hormones. This may have biological importance.

Sex hormones also influence a woman’s sense of smell during the first trimester of pregnancy. About 67% of pregnant women in one study reported heightened olfaction. In another study, pregnant women with the lowest levels of estrogen prior to becoming pregnant experience little or no change in their sense of smell, suggesting that estrogen is the culprit. But many other changes happen in the body during pregnancy that could account for shifts in olfaction, such as a spike in HCG and psychological changes.

Taken together, these data suggests is that sex hormones can increase a woman’s sense of smell compared to a man’s, but there is more to the story.

*Source: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.02.032

ABOUT THIS COLUMN: This weekly feature, the Science of Smell, appears on Fridays and endeavors to answer basic questions about this ancestral sense.

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