Remember those “Smell Like a Man, Man” Old Spice commercials? The ones featuring a hunky Isaiah Mustafa on a tropical beach, Isaiah Mustafa on a mountaintop, and Isaiah Mustafa lying on a piano? (Okay, you can stop remembering now… Seriously, any time…)
Well, a new study published in Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that for some guys, deodorant really might make them smell manlier.
Researchers from the University of Stirling in Scotland asked a group of about 130 people to rate the masculinity of 20 men and the femininity of 20 women by looking at pictures of their faces. They also asked a separate group of 239 people to rate the men and women by smelling samples of their body odor—both au natural and with deodorant.
The researchers discovered that men who scored low in facial masculinity received a boost in how “manly” they appeared to women when they were wearing deodorant. But men who scored high in facial masculinity didn’t experience a similar improvement when they donned deodorant.
This means that, by using deodorant, some men can “artificially raise their game so to speak, leveling the playing field,” study author Caroline Allen, PhD, explained in a press release. (Just in case you are wondering, the study was not funded by Old Spice or any other brand.)
But what about men who naturally look manly—why don’t they seem even manlier when they wear deodorant?
"The ceiling effect may be because the deodorants are only so masculine," Allen said in an email to Health. And that might be a good thing, she pointed out, since there are negative connotations of being highly masculine, such as being more aggressive, less cooperative, and worse at parenting.
As for women in the study, their fragranced odor samples were consistently rated as more feminine than their natural body odor samples. There doesn’t seem to be any ceiling effect for ladies, and the researchers write that they aren’t aware of any consequences of being “too feminine.”
So why are some odors perceived as more feminine, and others as highly masculine in the first place?
It turns out that’s a question experts can’t answer yet. The explanation might be cultural, biological, or a combination of both, Allen told Health.
But one thing seems clear: Women appear to be better than men at smelling both masculinity and femininity. This ability may be explained by evolution, the study authors write. Since it takes a comparatively longer time for a woman to reproduce than a man, women may have evolved to be pickier when selecting a mate.
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And that's why guys may want to select their scents carefully: “Clearly deodorants are affecting our perceptions of certain traits,” Allen said. “We don’t know how much this would impact upon actual mate choice, as odor isn’t the only factor of relevance, but it may offer more of an advantage to some individuals than others.”