Perfume's power is primitive and primary. Smell was the first sense. It guided single-celled organisms through the earliest sea, billions of years ago.
We respond to odours emotionally rather than intellectually. Smell receptors high in the nostrils are directly linked to the limbic system, which is responsible for a great range of emotions, as well as regulating reproductive cycles and sex drive. Some of the olfactory nerves that transmit smell signals pass through the limbic system, so certain smells stimulate intense memories and recreate experiences – good and bad.
It's been said that the Russians provided their astronauts with phials of essential oils to remind them of Earth, and to overcome the emotional deprivation of scentless space. Smells can warn, frighten or arouse us. The Victorians were very afraid of the sexual power of smell. Under no circumstances were perfumes to be worn on the skin. Scented hankies, mittens and slippers were used. Only very diluted eau de toilettes were considered acceptable for use on the bare skin. Preferably 'innocent' scents such as plantain, bean and strawberry waters were chosen.
Scent messages produced by one sex for the purpose of being detected by another are known as pheromones. They can carry messages about our emotional state and, more importantly, they convey information about sexual attractiveness and availability. Their chief aim is to enhance a mood that will lead to mating. American research into sensory disorders suggests that about a quarter of people with smell disorders also found their sex drive diminished. Sometimes the scent of a pheromone is detected subliminally, without the recipient even being aware of it. The scent emitted from the apocrine glands is a mixture of pheromones and other body chemicals, which in the right doses smell appealing or exciting. However, in the wrong combination or concentration we then perceive them as unpleasant or even repulsive.
The main human pheromone is androstenone which, with the related steroid androstenol, is what gives humans their muskiness. It drives the libido in both sexes. It's because these musky steroids are a major part of sexual attraction in humans that we find perfumes that contain musk or ambergris so sexy. It seems that we wear perfume, not to disguise our smell, but to enhance it.
The base notes of many modern perfumes are often in the musk, amber, sandlewood range – similar to human pheromones. The mid notes are often more flowery – jasmine, tuberose, orange blossom but the top notes are often citrusy or rose – essence of post-coital bliss. A light and flowery scent like apple blossom might be chosen when we only want to hint at attraction while a more suggestive scent like patchouli might be worn when we want to deepen our sexual aura.
Interestingly, like rose water, chocolate contains phenylethylamine – the chemical of post-coital bliss - so perhaps in some cases chocolate really is 'better than sex' ....or at least as good!