The following is only anecdotal evidence, but in my experience it's very consistent.

When products have added fragrance (cosmetics, soap, air freshner, candles, etc), women often seem to enjoy the fragrance whereas men's reaction is normally something from indifference to outright revulsion.

I've tried googling this but the results are all about sexual attraction, which I'm not asking about.

One could speculate that this pattern is because the folks in marketing have worked out that adding fragrances will make women buy things and that as far as men are put off by fragrances, that doesn't have a net negative sales impact. But such theories don't answer the underlying question:

Why is there a difference in experience between men and women reacting to the same fragrances in the first place? Is there a "hard science" explanation for this phenomenon?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure this isn't individual or cultural, rather than biological? I'm male, and while I don't use many products with added fragrance, I do fill my garden with fragrant plants. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 2, 2019 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ I am a woman and I also find most of added fragrances revulting. Among the small set of my female friends it seems they usually try many different products before finding the one with smell they like. Our personal tastes are mostly incompatible between each other. I haven't seen my male friends spending time to try and sniff multiple products in order to select the preferable ones. I have seen some go for the first one fitting all requirements as written on bottle without even sniffing it once before buy. $\endgroup$
    – BagiM
    Jun 3, 2019 at 6:44

1 Answer 1


The idea that males and females react differentially to various smells in the context of “hard science” alludes to the concept of sexual dimorphism in olfactory signaling, which has been investigated:

Stowers & Logan. Sexual dimorphism in olfactory signaling. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 2010. 20,770-775.

What makes males and females behave differently? Although genetic master-regulators commonly underlie physical differences, sexually dimorphic behavior is additionally influenced by sensory input such as olfactory cues. Olfaction requires both ligands for signaling and sensory neural circuits for detection. Specialized subsets of each interact to generate gender-dimorphic behavior. It has long been accepted that males and females emit sex-specific odor compounds that function as pheromones to promote stereotypic behavior. Significant advances have now been made in purifying and isolating several of these sex-specific olfactory ligands. In contrast, the neural mechanisms that enable a gender- dimorphic response to these odors remain largely unknown. However, first progress has been made in identifying components of sexually dimorphic olfactory circuits in both Drosophila and the mouse.

You’re right that most research in humans (like this paper) on this subject includes elements relating to sexual orientation or sexual selection, but I did find one article that is more relevant to your question:

Lindqvist. Preference and Gender Associations of Perfumes Applied on Human Skin. Journal of Sensory Studies. 2012. 27,490-497.


The perception of fragrances has been a growing field of interest, where perfumes classified as either typically feminine or typically masculine primarily have been used as stimuli. The current study explored gender associations and preferences of more “unisex” perfumes found in the middle of a gender continuum of fragrances, both when the fragrances were applied on humans, and when they were presented in glass bottles. Blindfolded participants indicated if they wanted to use the fragrances themselves, if they wanted their partner to use the perfumes, scaled gender associations (femininity and masculinity) for each perfume and tried to guess the gender of the person each perfume was applied on when not presented in a bottle. Results show that the gender of the person that the perfume was applied on did not affect the participants' preference or their gender scaling. Moreover, the preference did not differ between female and male participants, indicating that the commercial gender categorization is less important to the perfume consumers.

Practical Implications

On the commercial market, most perfumes are classified as either feminine or masculine, although the odor quality of feminine and masculine odors are overlapping and constitute a continuum rather than two separate clusters of odors. Earlier research has shown that participants tend to prefer perfumes positioned in the middle of this gender continuum. The current study investigates gender associations and preferences of perfumes from the middle of the gender continuum while these are applied on humans. When blindfolded participants evaluated their perception of the perfumes in this study, it became clear that neither the gender of the humans that the perfumes were applied on, nor the commercial gender labeling of the perfumes were important to their perception. Consequently, the commercial gender categorization does not seem to be sufficient for all perfumes. Instead, the classification of perfumes could be according to other aspects, e.g., according to odor quality.


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