Don't forget to smell the men
The Mouille Point beachfront in Cape Town is a special place, the haunt of walkers, joggers, dog lovers and tourists. All have a stake in its breathtaking beauty.
On a clear day, inhaling the unmatched ozone in the air is pure joy.
In winter, a white-out fog makes Robben Island an illusion, lurking like a shark underwater.
Those who appreciate this once spurned stepchild of the Cape Town oceanfront are accustomed to the buffeting southeasters that transport pollution to other climes; and even on hot summer days, when the reek of sewage and doggy bins sours the salt, and by night diesel from shipping hangs listless on the horizon, the seafront remains unique.
These odours are well known to me, so it was a surprise on a recent genteel jog to be enveloped in chemistry so powerful and odoriferous that the effect was toxic. The smell burned; it clung in my nostrils and infiltrated my lungs.
This invasive reek emanated from a young man I passed some 20m back. It was of a fragrance counter at an airport, a harsh amalgam of musk and chemicals that made me wonder whether he could smell himself.
What I could smell was the dynamic science of marketing. According to research, sales of men’s fragrances grew faster than women’s in 2014. Market researcher Mintel claims that 55% of men wear cologne. A staff member of a fragrance department says men aged 18 to 34 love to wear expensive perfume, the costlier the better; perfume is essential for male grooming. Gone are the days of buying some pleasant aftershave that disappears (to the wearer) after about 20 minutes.
A pity. A subtle fragrance won’t overpower anyone near you. I’ve always believed that men smelling up a lift, which I find repellent, won’t turn other women on. It turns out I’m right – and wrong.
I spoke to a selection of mostly younger women about male perfumes. “I like a guy to smell of himself,” said Lisa. “My sense of smell is probably my best; every guy I’ve gone out with has smelt different to me.” She prefers her men straight out of the shower, or fresh from a jog. A little sweat, she says, works for her. A guy friend uses very expensive men’s fragrances. “He hugs me whenever we meet; I stink of the stuff for the entire evening. Really not a turn-on.”
Jean finds men who wear fragrances a big turn-on. “My boyfriend uses male fragrances, but I like it best when he uses a dab of my perfume. It smells completely unlike how it smells on me. On me it’s vanilla, on him honey and a touch of cigar. Very sexy!”
The manufacturers of male fragrances know their target market and make much of the fact that men produce more sweat than women, which, they claim, makes them self-conscious. But sweat doesn’t necessarily mean men smell worse, according to David M Pariser, a dermatologist and a founding member of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, a group for people affected by excessive sweating.
The sweat that can be measured, he says, is a watery, heat-induced type that has no smell. Both men and women produce odorous sweat, which is oilier and comes from the apocrine sweat glands, mainly under the breast, in the groin and in the armpits. The reason the odour of this sweat intensifies during hot weather is because of bacteria and yeast that flourish in these areas of the body in muggy conditions.
More illuminating is research on the psychological effects of the use of fragrance on men. Such research suggests that men wearing a commercial fragrance demonstrate increased self-confidence. The effect of this is that women find them more attractive; rather than the fragrance itself, it is this heightened confidence that works for them.
For Unilever and other manufacturers of men’s scent, this is an important discovery. They attribute the increased appreciation on the part of women to the “Lynx effect” (from a deodorant called Lynx), which makes men irresistible to women, and have stepped up their marketing accordingly.
People use fragrances to mask body odours they perceive as bad, but also in the belief that some perfumes contain chemicals that mimic human pheromones – mysterious, and possibly mythical, substances believed by some to play a role in mating. Some use it to fortify natural scent, thereby signalling sexual availability.
Every individual has their own smell. The sexes smell different. Women can glean information about a man’s social status from his smell alone. I spoke to women who believe men wear fragrances to disguise their status like men might drive fancy cars they cannot afford, to impress.
Research on women’s choices of fragrance indicate that women don’t choose the kind of smell they would like on a partner, or one that might mask an unpleasant odour, but rather something to remind them of their own scent. Men who choose to wear overpowering male fragrances in the hope of attracting women might do well to bear this in mind.
Rosemund Handler’s latest novel, Us and Them, is published by Penguin Books