The #1 Most-Loved Scent in the World, According to New Research

Worlds Favorite Smell is Vanilla

Most people have the same favorite scents, says new research published in Current Biology. They also usually have the same least favorite scents—regardless of where they’re from. Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and the University of Oxford in England discovered that the same scents were preferred and disliked by participants, regardless of their cultural affiliation. This is a diversion from what’s historically been predicted and observed. “Traditionally [smell perception] has been seen as cultural,” said researcher Artin Arshamian in a media release

So what was the most loved scent? 


The second most-loved scent is one called ethyl butyrate, which is used as a flavor additive in food and smells fruity—like pineapple or peaches. Third on the list is linalool—an additive that’s often used in hair care products, body lotions, and household cleaners for its pleasant floral and slightly spicy scent. What was most universally disliked? Isovaleric acid, which has a pungent, cheesy, sweaty odor—much like sweaty feet.

“We wanted to examine if people around the world have the same smell perception and like the same types of odor, or whether this is something that is culturally learned,” said researcher Arshamian

To determine this, researchers asked 235 participants from 10 different communities to smell 10 different scents and rank them in order of preference. Participants represented vastly different lifestyles—from hunter-gatherers to farming and fishing groups. Some of the groups were also from indigenous communities around the world with little access to Western food or household items. 

Arshamian, who is from the Karolinska Institutet's Department of Clinical Neuroscience, said, “Since these groups live in such disparate odiferous environments, like a rainforest, coast, mountain, and city, we capture many different types of ‘odor experiences’.” Interestingly, despite the group’s geographical and cultural differences, they all agreed on their favorite scents. And although the results showed slight variation between individuals, there was a general consensus on the most pleasant and unpleasant scents. 

Researchers determined that this variation can be explained by a combination of molecular structure and personal preference. "Now we know that there's a universal odor perception that is driven by molecular structure and that explains why we like or dislike a certain smell," Arshamian said. "Cultures around the world rank different odors in a similar way no matter where they come from. Personal preference can be due to learning, but could also be a result of our genetic makeup." 

So what’s the takeaway? Even when some groups or cultures have never tasted freshly baked vanilla cupcakes or vanilla bean ice cream, the scent is likely to still appeal to them. Perhaps it’s part of our universal genetic makeup? That said, more research is needed to better understand why many of us love this warm and sweet scent. For now, we can universally agree that vanilla is much more enjoyable than the scent of sweaty feet.

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