Why Do Smelly Things Bother Women More Than Men?

If there's a woman in your life, trust her judgment on the state of your socks — from their smell to their style quotient. pixfly/Shutterstock

There’s an old adage about certain human-generated odors: Whoever smelt it, dealt it.

But as it turns out, women have been getting a bad hand all along, a fact that often has led to bitter debates on the state of everything from towels to body odor.

One partner might, for example, condemn the other’s socks for their foul stench. The other might simply shrug: "I don’t smell anything." According to Leonard Sax, an American psychologist and physician, it’s usually the women who do the smelling and men who do the whatevering.

As Sax points out in the New York Times, there may be a profound difference in the abilities of men and women to process smell.

"It’s entirely plausible that a woman could perceive an odor which is — for the woman — overpoweringly awful, while a man doesn’t smell anything," he writes.

Science seems to back up that claim. The body’s central smell processor — the olfactory bulb — is decked out with glial cells and neurons tasked with sniffing out the world around us. It turns out, the total cells women have at their olfactory disposal vastly outnumber those of men. We’re talking 16.2 million versus 9.2 million, according to a University of São Paulo study published in PLOS One in 2014.

Diagram showing olfactory bulb
The olfactory bulb processes scent with help from millions of glial cells and neurons. gritsalak karalak/Shutterstock

It isn’t the only study that points to a gaping gender divide in scent detection. A previous study conducted by the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia came to a similar conclusion after having both men and women sniff sweat droplets mixed with various fragrances.

Men, the study noted, had a hard time differentiating the sweat from the perfume it was blended with. Women, on the other hand, detected sweat in 30 out of 32 tainted fragrances. Men managed to catch a whiff in just 13.

"It is quite difficult to block a woman’s awareness of body odor. In contrast, it seems rather easy to do so in men," the study’s lead author, Charles J. Wysocki, noted.

If you happen to be in possession of a male nose, you may be able to draw a few important life lessons from the science.

For instance, as the latter study shows, drenching yourself in cologne will not mask your sweaty misdeeds from the superior nose of your spouse. And certainly, when she says your socks smell like a manure cart, you may want to take that under serious advisement. She does, after all, have a nose for that sort of thing.