The Olfactory Report 2: Armpits, Ribaldry, and Animalic Perfumes for Your Valentine, too! * Catherine Haley Epstein

Filthy, Stinky, Sexy

Sex hormones come out of our armpits. These apocrine sweat glands do what is called emotional sweating. These hormones affect our behavior and physiology. We know the armpit sex hormone begins after puberty (when we actually begin to emit a smell from our armpits), and they are also located in the areola and nipples of the breast, ear canal, eyelids, wings of the nostril, perianal region, and some parts of the external genitalia.  All, one could argue, are erogenous zones. I’ve also written recently about how our nose and our genitals share olfactory receptive tissue, which perhaps explains why some of us are attuned to animalic fragrances.

Once upon a time, emotional sweating was rad: the olfactory emo gesture of the 1570’s. Supposedly women put apple slices in their armpits in Elizabethan England to then share with their lovers. Traditional Balkan dancing had men stuffing handkerchiefs in their armpits, dancing mightily, then waving the handkerchiefs under the ladies’ noses. Pan years later to Brooklyn, New York, where an artist and weary online dater Judith Prays took to the armpits and body odor angle to find a mate. Even after we attempted to “cover” up our act with squeaky clean fragrance, between 2010-14 Judith’s “Pheromone Parties” were booming. At the party people would bring a t-shirt they had worn for three days, put it in a numbered, plastic bag and share it with a group of strangers to see who might pick their bag after smelling it. British evolutionary biologist Tristam Wyatt warns that the scented t-shirts at these parties were likely not pheromones, instead the attractions may have been via “individual odours and possible genetic compatibility.” Wyatt continues to remind us in his report from 2015 that the only pheromone that has been proven in the act of attraction for humans, is that between a baby and their nursing mother’s areola.

There was a short-lived and deceiving piece of research popular between 1991-2000, that exclaimed there were two synthetically created pheromones that could attract men and women. The reality though was that the “human pheromones” androstanol and estratetraenol were chemicals developed and shared by a big name university, and embraced by industry. No research team of scientists has been able to recreate their experiments: in lay terms it sadly makes the findings bupkis.

A recent research study from the University of British Columbia shows that scent effects how we view someone’s facial features as attractive or not. Somehow this seems obvious – if you show the same face, one with geranial and a man’s fragrance (assume cologne), versus one with rubber and body odor, the one with the geranial is chosen as more attractive. I would consider doing the experiment again with geranial and body odor, then rubber and cologne. There is something about the organic quality of body odor, coupled with a genderless floral I feel intuitively people would be attracted to.

Another recent study shows the calming effects of smelling your loved one’s scent. Scientists at the University of British Columbia have studied cortisol levels of people who are given a t-shirt worn by their partner/lover, and one by a stranger. The calming effect ensued when blindly smelling their suitor’s shirt, while cortisol went up when inhaling the stranger’s t-shirt indicating a “stranger danger” effect.

We currently have pages, hours, and millions of dollars of research about the extraordinary details of the olfactory components of the sex lives of the following: ants, rusty crayfish, grey seals, wax moth, tree shrews, the bronze bug, eastern spruce budworm, tobacco budworm, pine sawfly, red-sided garter snake, drosophila, Collembola, newts, forest cockchafers, giant pandas, goats, ascidian species and many more. So why not more information on the human side of things? Why not have more top-notch emotion-odor research for us large and vulnerable bipedalists? The aforementioned studies were likely funded by major agricultural companies who are in the business of stopping insect copulation in order to have crops stay safe. That’s my giant guess. I’m sure there are other interesting reasons to know a newt’s olfactory profile when having sex, or why the scent of bourgeonal might inspire the ascidian species sperm to swim faster, I’d simply like to know more about our species – more olfactory sex studies needed!

So, while we don’t know how to scientifically identify and replicate pheromones for sexual attraction, we can rummage through a pile of t-shirts and identify which is our lovers. I believe that the soup of organic human scent intermingling with the environment, scented or otherwise, is the ultimate invitation for attraction and coupling. While we are in denial wearing and washing with “green”, “floral” and “clean scents, I believe we are most humanly cozy the more we smell like animals. There’s warmth in the smell of animals, and when we lift the embarrassment that we are indeed animals, we might start exploring brave new aspects of scent. Some more mature and adventurous fragrance lovers have embraced the animalic scents of castoreum and civet, while most of us prefer to play safely with the warm notes of an amber or vanilla.


Animalic & Apple-Scented Perfumes for Your Valentine

In case you are not ready for t-shirt sniffing or apple-and-armpit soaking, I’ve asked a couple of sophisticated fragrance people for their recommendations on animalic and apple-scented fragrances. Perhaps you can combine them playfully on your own this Valentine’s day and beyond? Suzy is a UK-based writer and all around fabulous fumehead, and Tracy is the owner of the beautifully curated niche fragrance shop Fumerie. If you have additional suggestions, please email me so I can keep a ready list of such scents:

From Tracy of Fumerie (@fumerie) in Portland, Oregon:

Regarding animalic fragrances, there are several that have a particular funk about them ….”Bull’s Blood” by Imaginary Authors has a body odor effect as well as “Wazamba” by Parfum d’Empire. For capturing apples…”Or de Serail” by Naomi Goodsir, “Mandrake” by Quartana and “Daisies” by Moth & Rabbit.

From Suzy Nightingale (@FragrantMaven) in the United Kingdom:

BeauFort London “Rake & Ruin” is a fragrance that feels very animalic for me. There’s oodles of civet-y sweatiness, but it’s draped in a once expensive, now slightly faded velvet suit. There’s a fascinating almost crisp celery juiciness that’s very surprising amidst all the filth (of the very best kind), and a swooning sauciness…..In other words: a night on the town (or in someone else’s bed) has drifted into the next day, there has been no time or inclination for a wash, and so scented products have been sought to cover up the stench of ‘sin’.

Another along the same lines is Sarah Baker Parfums, “Bascule”. It’s a more romantic animalistic experience, a sense of being gently nuzzled by a horse this time, and then a hazy dream sequence of fuzzy ripe peaches. Warm hay drying in the sun and a hint of the barnyard beyond. Also, Skandinavisk – “Kapitel 4” is apple-centric, though its crab apple here. Bracing, fresh, a silvery sensation of sitting in a boat and running your fingers in the cold water of a lake, with ripples of damp moss and foraged herbs.


—About the Author—

The Olfactory Report V. 2: pink card with brown fur photo.CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!

Read Catherine’s first Olfactory Report HERE!

*Note on the image: This is an artwork by Michelangelo Pistoletto titled “Venus of the Rags”. While this sculpture from 1967/74 was a piece stemming from the Arte Povera movement, where artists took poor materials and clashed them with classical or traditional arts to make a sociological and philosophical comment, for purposes of this article, I would like us to imagine the marble classical statue of Venus sniffing through a colorful pile of t-shirts in search of her lover’s animalic scent. (Image courtesy the artist, and Tate Museum.)