Whiff of a partner calms women's anxiety‚ study finds

Young couple hugging.
Young couple hugging.
Image: 123RF/Mark Adams

Women feel calmer after smelling the scent of a romantic partner on a T-shirt‚ a study in Canada shows.

Researchers found women who had inhaled a partner’s scent had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol before and after stressful experiences.

But the women who sniffed a stranger’s scent had the opposite reaction and felt more tense.

Lead author Marlise Hofer‚ from the University of British Columbia psychology department‚ said: “Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when their partner is away‚ but may not realise why they engage in these behaviours.

“Our findings suggest that a partner’s scent alone‚ even without their physical presence‚ can be a powerful tool to help reduce stress.”

In South Africa‚ anxiety is the most common psychological disorder among adults (16%)‚ followed by substance abuse (13%) and depression (10%). The stress study involved 96 heterosexual couples. Women were chosen as the “smellers” because they tend to have a superior sense of smell to men.

The men were told not to use deodorants or scented products‚ smoke or eat certain foods and then given a clean T-shirt to wear for 24 hours. The T-shirts were frozen “to preserve the scent”.

The women were instructed to smell a T-shirt that was worn by a partner‚ a stranger or unworn for the research.

Then they had a mock job interview‚ a mental maths test‚ answered questions about their stress levels and provided saliva to measure their cortisol levels.

Those with the lowest levels of cortisol were the women who recognised the scent as their partner’s after smelling the T-shirts.

Senior author Professor Frances Chen said the results could help people to cope when separated from their loved ones.

“With globalisation‚ people are increasingly travelling for work and moving to new cities‚” said Chen.

“Our research suggests that something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels when you're far from home.”

Perhaps the reduced showering routines in Cape Town will have an unexpected spin-off for couples: less washing = stronger (calming) scents to cope with water shortages?