After a particularly stressful day at work, there’s nothing better than coming home, changing into pajamas, and curling up on the couch with your partner. There’s just something about pushing my face into my boyfriend’s neck and taking a big whiff—seriously, if I could bottle his scent and market it to people who struggle with anxiety, I’m sure I’d make so much money.
Apparently, there’s actually something to that. Researchers out of the University of British Columbia say that smelling your partner’s scent can help lower stress levels. Their study, which included a wonderful experiment involving smelly T-shirts, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in January.
The study’s authors hypothesized that the smell of a lover “may be more than just psychologically comforting; it may also have effects on physiological responses to stress.” To test their theory, they recruited 96 heterosexual couples—the guys acted as “scent donors” while the women (who generally have a better sense of smell anyway) served as smellers whose stress levels were monitored during a test.
To capture “natural body odor,” the men were given a clean white T-shirt to wear for 24 hours; in order to maximize, as the French say, odeur naturelle, they were instructed not to wear deodorant and to shower with unscented soap. After the smell saturation period was over, they turned their shirts in to researchers, who stored them in below freezing temperatures to preserve the scent until the women came into the lab to do the experiment. (They were asked to track their menstrual cycle so they could participate when their cortisol—the stress hormone—levels would be the most pronounced.)
The women were randomly assigned to one of three shirts: their partner’s, a stranger’s (ew!), or one that hadn’t been worn. They were told that the likelihood of getting a shirt worn by someone they knew was minimal, and asked to sniff the clothing for a full minute on six occasions. To track perceived stress, the researchers subjected the women to a mock job interview that included, to everyone’s horror, a surprise math test, and had them answer a questionnaire measuring anxiety and physical discomfort. Researchers also took several saliva samples throughout the experiment to measure cortisol levels.
The results revealed that both before and after a stressful experience, the women who were lucky enough to be exposed to their partner’s scent reported significantly less perceived stress than those who had to put nose to a stranger’s shirt. The study’s authors also found that cortisol levels were significantly higher in women who smelled a stranger’s shirt; they called this phenomenon a “stranger danger effect.”
“From a young age,” Marlise Hofer, the study's lead author, said in a statement, “humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it is possible that a strange male scent triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response that leads to elevated cortisol. This could happen without us being fully aware of it.”
Frances Chen, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and senior author on the study, also pointed out the obvious practical implications of their work: Because of globalization and the increasing number of people having to travel for work, she said, “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.”
In other words, the best part of this research is that it basically gives us a pass for stealing our partner’s shirts all the time. It just makes us feel better—science confirms it.