You know that satisfied feeling you get just after you scratch your balls and sniff your fingers? Yeah, this is something like that. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that smelling a romantic partner’s clothing was associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in women’s blood, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“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 know why,” says lead author Marlise Hofer, a graduate student in the department of psychology. “I was interested in whether there were any benefits to engaging in these behaviors.”
Hofer and her team looked at 96 opposite-sex couples. The men were asked to wear T-shirts for 24 hours, without wearing any deodorant or scented body products, and reminded not to smoke or eat foods that would affect their body scent (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.). After the T-shirts had been worn for a day, they were frozen to preserve their smells.
Because women tend to have a better sense of smell than men, they were chosen to be the “smellers” in the study. They were each given two T-shirts to smell: An unworn T-shirt and one that belonged to either a stranger or her own partner. In both groups, the women weren’t told whether either shirt was worn, or who wore the shirt.
After smelling the two shirts, the women participated in a mock job interview and a mental math task in order to raise their stress levels. Furthermore, the researchers asked the women questions about how much stress they felt and collected saliva samples to measure cortisol levels (which would indicate how much stress they were experiencing).
The results showed that the women who received a T-shirt worn by their partners, rather than strangers, did indeed have lower cortisol levels than those who sniffed T-shirts worn by strangers.
“Prior research indicates that exposure to the physical presence of a romantic partner reduces stress reactions, says Hofer. “We believe that the mere exposure to their partner’s scent serves as a cue to their partner’s presence.”
Smelling a stranger’s T-shirt, in fact, had the opposite effect: It resulted in higher levels of cortisol throughout the stress test, compared with smelling the unworn T-shirt. “From a young age, humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it’s possible that a strange male scent triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response that leads to elevated cortisol,” explains Hofer.
But since most men do use some form of deodorant (and in many cases, cologne), is the effect the same for these couples? Hofer admits that most research in this area has been based on natural body odor, but adds, “One recent study did compare social judgments made of natural body odor to modified body odor (body odor plus normal routine, including normal diet and use of deodorant/cologne etc.) — they found that raters’ social judgments of the two odors were consistent. Based on this, it’s possible that if your partner consistently uses a specific cologne, that cologne may have a positive effect on your stress.”
Next, Hofer would like to look at whether the same can be said for men smelling their female partners’ clothes, as well as the results in same-sex couples. “I believe that scents of a romantic partner would function similarly for men and within homosexual relationships,” says Hofer. “There’s no reason to assume that the effect is limited to this group. In fact, if a follow-up experiment was performed using close friends or roommates, I’d hypothesize a similar stress-reducing effect.”
So next time you’re feeling down-and-out and stressed, try your own smell test with your roommate’s sock — just not the crusty one under the mattress.