Use of pleasantly scented products such as facial creams and perfumes may have an influence on how attractive others find you.
Much of our perception of the world is based on our sense of smell and there is a wealth of scientific information about how aroma stimulates different emotional responses.
For this reason, perfumes and scented products have been used for centuries as a way to enhance not just our own sense of well-being but our overall personal appearance. Previous studies have shown that odour affects the way our minds work and also that it can impact perception of facial attractiveness could be influenced when using unpleasant versus pleasant odours.
However, it was not known whether odours influence the actual visual perception of facial features or alternatively, how faces are emotionally evaluated by the brain.
The new study from Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia was designed to explore the long-held belief that that judging attractiveness and age involve two distinct perceptual processing methods: attractiveness is regarded as an emotional process while judgements of age are believed to be cognitive, or rationally-based.
What it found was that, in the presence of odours these pathways can merge.
“Odour pleasantness and facial attractiveness integrate into one joint emotional evaluation,” said lead author Janina Seubert, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist who was a post-doctoral fellow at Monell at the time the research was conducted.
“This may indicate a common site of neural processing in the brain.”
In the study, which was part sponsored by Unilever and published in the journal PLOS ONE, 18 young adults, two thirds of whom were female, were asked to rate the attractiveness and age of eight female faces, presented as photographs. The images varied in terms of natural ageing features.
Rose oil good, fish oil bad
While evaluating the images, one of five odours was simultaneously released. These were a blend of fish oil (unpleasant) and rose oil (pleasant) that ranged from predominantly fish oil to predominantly rose oil. The subjects were asked to rate the age of the face in the photograph, the attractiveness of the face and the pleasantness of the odour.
The scientists found that odour pleasantness directly influenced ratings of facial attractiveness. This suggests that both olfactory and visual cues independently influenced the participants’ judgements of facial attractiveness.
With regard to the cognitive task of age evaluation, visual signs of ageing (more wrinkles and blemishes) were linked more strongly to older age perception.
However, odour also had a small and somewhat contrary effect here. Visual age cues strongly influenced age perception during pleasant odour stimulation, making older faces look older and younger faces look younger. This effect was weakened in the presence of unpleasant odours, so that younger and older faces were perceived to be more similar in age.
Jean-Marc Dessirier, Lead Scientist at Unilever and a co-author on the study said: “These findings have fascinating implications in terms of how pleasant smells may help enhance natural appearance within social settings. The next step will be to see if the findings extend to evaluation of male facial attractiveness.”
Some research has already been done in this area. A small study in 2007 found that male faces were more attractive in the presence of pleasant aromas.
More interesting, would be to know whether different pleasant aromas had a greater or lesser influence on our perception of beauty.