Hey Honey, Get a Whiff Of This!

A new study out of UBC suggests that sniffing your partner's worn t-shirt could actually be an effective way to reduce stress.

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You can skip the scented candles if you’re looking to de-stress this New Year. According to new research, cozying up with your significant other, or more specifically, their sweaty t-shirt, might be an effective remedy.

The research, led by Dr. Frances Chen at the University of British Columbia, was published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Looking at photos of your significant other or physically interacting with them can be both psychologically and physiologically comforting, particularly in times of stress. But surprisingly, though scents can be powerful in eliciting vivid memories and strong emotions, not a lot of attention has been given to whether or how another person’s smell can impact our thoughts or feelings. This was Chen’s motivation when she set out to determine how a person’s scent, either a romantic partner or a stranger, might impact another person, looking particularly at their stress response.

Chen and her colleagues recruited 96 opposite-sex couples for their study. Each male participant was given a t-shirt to wear for 24 hours, long enough to leave his scent behind. The female participants were later brought into the lab to have a mock job interview and take a pop quiz on arithmetic – the pair of tasks being a psychology lab standard used to induce stress.

The women were given a t-shirt, either worn by their romantic partner, a stranger, or not worn at all, to smell a few times before and after the stress-test. Each female filled out a questionnaire self-reporting their level of stress and had salivary samples taken to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol over the course of their lab visit.

So, how stress-relieving is the smell of a boyfriend’s t-shirt?

The results indicate that, even in the absence of a romantic partner’s physical presence, their scent alone can calm you down. The women who smelled the t-shirt of their partner perceived significantly less stress both before and after the stress-test than those who smelled the t-shirt of a stranger. After the test, the women were asked whether they thought the t-shirt they had smelled was that of their partner, or a stranger.

The reduction in stress was most pronounced, as indicated by both the self-report and a reduction in cortisol, of the women who correctly believed they were smelling their partner’s t-shirt. This indicates that while smelling your partner’s scent, even if you don’t know it’s theirs, is enough to make you feel less stressed, smelling your partner’s scent and knowing it’s theirs not only makes you feel better but also physiologically alters your stress response.

Interestingly, in addition to uncovering a comfort in the smell of your partner, the study revealed a significant response to the scent of a stranger – although in the opposite direction. Women who smelled the t-shirt of a stranger had elevated cortisol levels compared to women smelling their partner’s t-shirt and controls who smelled the unworn t-shirt. Chen and her colleagues speculate that the foreign smell of a stranger may trigger the fight or flight response, explaining that evolution has primed humans to fear strangers, particularly strangers who are male.

Chen and colleagues chose to use women as the smellers based on previous research showing that women tend to have a superior sense of smell compared to men. Still, the researchers recognize that further research is needed to generalize their findings beyond women and heterosexual relationships.

Even if, before this study, there was no empirical evidence for finding comfort in the scent of our partners, the results might come as no surprise. Previous research, independent from the work of Chen, found 80% of women and 50% of men intentionally smell their partner’s clothes. Now, however, if you want to pack your partner’s dirty t-shirt for a trip apart, you have science on your side.

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Steven is a PhD candidate in the department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. He is passionate about CRISPR, computer programming, and science communication. Along with Research2Reality, Steven regularly contributes to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine as a writer for the Expression.