Does aromatherapy really boost your sex life?

The used panty marketplace

The right scent is one hell of a drug. Aromas trigger memories of ex-lovers, or suddenly snap us back to a street we haven’t visited in decades. This sense of ours is so powerful that authors and filmmakers try time and again to convey the strength of its intoxicating allure. Some cinemas have taken that dedication to the next level, even incorporating smells into your movie theater experience (that 5D smell-o-vision guaranteed I’ll never forget The Hobbit).

Anecdotes throughout history lay it down as fact: the right scent does more than just freshen a room. It leaves us comforted, happy, peaceful, nostalgic – and sometimes, downright horny. For me, the power of the nose has never been up for question. In my experience, a good smell can transport us (or at least turn a regular outfit into a thirst trap). I took that mentality to heart when the love of my life and I broke up in 2011. To move on, make him regret it, and win him back all at the same time, I invested in a bottle of ylang ylang oil to use as perfume, and I wore it every day – especially when I knew I might run into my ex.

On top of being a little desperate of me, I know aromatherapy for your sex life seems too woo-woo for most people. A magic oil you can dab under your ears to send the cuties a’runnin’ to your front door? It sounds just a little too good to be true. But it turns out that ylang ylang purchase of mine may have been onto something. So hold onto your perfume and keep that candle you love close. They may just hold the keys to your lusty kingdom.

Aromatherapy through the ages

To really understand aromatherapy and sexuality, we have to start at the beginning – and I mean the very beginning. Ashok Kumar Panda, a senior researcher at the Ayurveda Regional Institute in Gangtok, India says that the first aphrodisiac known to humankind was our sweet body odor itself. The smell of a potential suitor is enough to drive us wild – so much so, it makes you wonder why we shroud ourselves in perfume in the first place.

It’s not that every human’s smell is intoxicating. The press of strangers in an elevator is enough to make that clear. But the ones we’re attracted to? Those little curlicues of heaven are enough to make you dizzy. I feel like I’m always burying my face in my husband’s pits, and one of my longest-standing loves always laughs aloud after I steal a whiff of them whenever we’re together. I know I’m not the only one that loves that eau de lover. The booming used panty market exists for a reason. 

We all are thrilled by the smell of a mate – even if that love’s a fantasy, or just for the night – and our obsession with tying smells to sexuality only grew from that first kernel of carnal desire thousands of years back. 

In the ancient cultures that shaped modern-day South America, Western Europe, and North Africa, certain spices, flowers, and foods were thought to awaken desire. From chocolate to jasmine to saffron, we all had a special recipe whose aroma could bring our lovers to their knees.

Still, not all history is filled with abundant and ripe sexuality. There’s always a killjoy in the books looking to ruin everything – and in this case, it’s Europe in the Middle Ages in Europe. Back then, sexuality was an ultimate sin, so the powers that be banned basil, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper, saffron, and vanilla because they were all thought to invoke your animal side. Basically, they took away every good spice worth having. Nothing like the dark ages to ruin a good time.These same people also believed that having a mole, birthmark, or third nipple was a dead giveaway that you were a witch, so thankfully, their bad judgment couldn’t last. The spices associated with our sexiest selves have come back into the limelight where they deserve, and since then, they’ve landed in candles, incense, perfumes, and sensual massage oils that grace bedrooms around the globe.

We know the history – but what about the science?

But you’re not here just to nod your heads along with the wisdom of a bunch of people from a thousand years ago. You want the facts. Is there a real benefit to incorporating aromatherapy in the bedroom, or is all just a bunch of flimflam?

Anecdotes throughout time are one thing. Proving them is another. After all, our ancestors may have been wise in many ways, but they also thought cucumbers, sea cucumbers, and oysters were aphrodisiacs purely because of their suggestive shapes. 

As it turns out, our elders may have known what they were talking about (except for the witch thing). Different studies have been run on different scents over the years, and many of them point to surprising results. Scientists and researchers have found that certain smells can soothe anxiety, curb nausea, and yes, even arouse us sexually.But even with all that good news, aromatherapy isn’t some catch-all miracle. It may prime our headspace for makin’ that sweet love, but it doesn’t change our health. There’s absolutely no evidence supporting claims of aromatherapy curing illnesses. The right blend won’t reverse dementia, prevent strokes, or cure coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless. A good oil relaxes you, opens you up, and can even prime you for an unforgettable night.

In the name of science, which scents are best?

The best thing about all this aromatherapy jazz is that there you’re not pigeonholed into one aroma profile for pleasure. If you love something sweet and fruity, or deep and woodsy, there’s a scent with scientific backing ready to help you set the stage for pleasure. 

There isn’t objective data on which smells are better than others, but there are scents that are proven to boost the mood in some measurable way – and they all fall under one of three main categories: foods, spices, and floral or woodsy tones.

Foods

Sure, the ancient Aztecs ate chocolate in order to prime that pump, but what about the power of a potent smell? Like a cartoon character following the scent of a pie in the window, the right aroma can be enticing – and sometimes, downright sexy. Whether you eat these foods regularly or not is up to you, but the verdict is in: a whiff of these treasures can work a small miracle between the sheets. 

Orange

As a California-born, Florida-raised sex writer, you can bet I was stoked to see this beloved citrus on the list of arousing scents. The brightness of an orange perks you right up, upping response time and banishing negative emotions – the right recipe for getting frisky on a beautiful day. Maybe it’s that an orange symbolizes summer and beaches. It could just be that we love things that smell like mimosa. Whatever the reason, try some orange essential oil or fresh-squeezed juice next time you get frisky.

Pumpkin pie

You may want to dust off that pumpkin pie recipe more often. It could be due to the delicious spices in pumpkin pie (more on that later), but in one study, researchers from the Smell and Taste Treatment Research Foundation found that pumpkin pie increased bloodflow down south in 40% of the cisgender men in their study when mixed with lavender, making it the most arousing odor out of the litany of smells they tested in 2014. You know, for science.

As cisgender men were the only people they studied, it’s hard to say whether the smell applies to turning us all on, but hey. I love pumpkin pie. You love pumpkin pie. I’m not quite sure if that translates to turning me on, but I know I’m never sorry that scent is wafting through the home.

Black licorice and doughnut

When I saw this one, my mouth definitely twisted in confusion. I love me a good doughnut with all my little heart, but really? Mixing them with black licorice? The same people that brought us the pumpkin pie study found that nearly a third of test subjects responded sexily to this unique combination of aromas. Maybe the earthy notes of licorice highlight the round sweetness of a fluffy doughnut. For all I know, it could just be that such a shocking combination surprises and invigorates us.

Whatever it is, doughnut makers, look alive. There’s a new flavor in town, one that apparently deserves a spot in your Valentine’s Day rotation.

Strawberries

There are few things more heavenly than a ripe strawberry, warmed from the sun. Apparently, their aroma may have something to do with that appeal. In one study, people experienced physical arousal to the scent of strawberries...when they were told it would turn them on. 

Although I wanted to write it off as little more than a placebo effect, the rest of the study is a compelling case for the draw of strawberries. When researchers said the same thing about other fruits, their subjects didn’t have the same arousal response. This suggests that there’s something unique to strawberries that make them oh, so alluring.

Regardless, you can’t go wrong with a little strawberry bubblegum.

Spices

Food isn’t the only thing that gets us going though – and that pumpkin pie flavor doesn’t just come from crust and pumpkin. The spices are what makes it. If folks in medieval Europe thought certain flavors were so arousing they had to be banned, it just makes me want to try them even more.

But not all spices pack a punch – some set the table for an evening of passion you won’t forget.

Ginger

Goodness, warmth, and a little bit of fire, it’s no wonder ginger made its way to the list of foods that make good aphrodisiacs. The warming qualities of ginger put a little oomph in your blood, making you ready for some fun. Because eating it improves our circulation, blood rushes to certain vital regions quickly – making this root not only a great pleasure giver, but one that can potentially help with erectile dysfunction, too.

Vanilla

So sweet, so earthy, and actually a beautiful orchid, it’s no surprise that vanilla has long been considered an aphrodisiac. Don’t we all snatch an extra whiff of vanilla while we bake? In that pumpkin pie study I can’t get enough of, vanilla was touted as another winner for the bedroom. 

That claim is old news. Vanilla has long been touted as an aphrodisiac – Casanova even used it while seducing some beauties. And while I’m pretty sure Casanova wasn’t as hunky as Heath Ledger, I’m sure the fine smell of vanilla helped his case. 

Cinnamon

I won’t lie, even listing these spice ingredients is making me feel a little excited – the vanilla, the ginger, and now warming cinnamon? Maybe I just want a cinnamon roll. This beautiful spice shares a similar profile to ginger and vanilla, occupying a warming and comforting space that relaxes as it brings enticing flavors.

Since they all couple so well together, it’s no big shocker that they work in harmony to boost that libido. And nobody knows that better than aging, male rats. Seriously. In one study, cinnamon was shown to help them with erectile dysfunction – and increased blood flow bodes well for all of us looking to get it on.

Toss some snickerdoodles in the oven before your partner heads over – the cookies will please them in more ways than one.

Bergamot

Perhaps best known as the starring note in a nice cup of earl grey, there’s a lot to love about this sour citrus fruit from Italy. More than a great addition to tea, jams, and cookies, it may just spice the bedroom up next time you want to get in the mood. 

Bergamot is interesting because it does more than soothe or stimulate – it actually increases amino acids in the brain, which can trigger certain sex hormones and up your libido. The fun doesn’t end there. It also has a brimming capacity to relax us and ease our anxiety. When our brains are functioning at their peak and we’re calm at the same time, we’re poised for pleasure and fun. 

Still not sold? Smelling bergamot can even lower blood pressure, taking away any final barriers to pleasure you may have. With a little bergamot-scented help, you and your partner will be rolling in the sheets in no time.

Flowers and woodsy smells

Maybe I’m a little biased here, but this is the best category of them all. There’s nothing like the smell of a wild bouquet or a brisk forest walk. Once, the smell of fresh nature overtook me so thoroughly, I even had sex inside a redwood tree. Well now, I have science backing up my natural excursions – starting with my favorite aphrodisiac of them all.

Ylang Ylang

Remember how earlier I said I wore ylang ylang to woo an ex? I have to come clean – that heartbreaker is now none other than my husband. I know a few other things like communication, vulnerability, and compatibility came into play, but sometimes I think this flower paved the way for our marriage. 

This beauty is a miracle worker in many ways, and the smell is so intoxicating that people claim it induces a powerful euphoria that is its own kind of ”high.” The data is there to back that up, at least in part. Research has shown its aroma is relaxing and soothing, among many other things. If you’ve never hopped on board the ylang ylang train, this is one smell you can’t afford to miss.

Lavender

Remember that pumpkin pie study I mentioned? Part of the appeal of pumpkin pie skyrocketed when partnered with lavender. While I wouldn’t exactly throw lavender into my next pie, the smell of lavender is one that everyone loves. 

It’s commonly accepted as soothing, and just like bergamot, studies link it to measurably increased calm and relaxation. 

Just the smell of this flower can help you unwind, set anxieties aside, and focus on the fun at hand. While it’s not a euphoria-inducer or blood warmer like ylang ylang or ginger, there’s something to be said about feeling soothed before you have sex. If your mind is elsewhere, it’s hard to surrender to the moment. But with a little lavender, you can set the mood yourself.

Jasmine

Sometimes, an aphrodisiac is tricky. If it’s one we’ve societally agreed is a sexy smell, why does it matter if it is objectively or not? Collectively, we love the smell, and it may just remind us of a lover or a date night. That’s because the most common scent in both cologne and perfume was a blend featuring jasmine. When you smell fresh jasmine that carries across the yard on a breeze, you know exactly why this flower has captured so many of our libidos.

Sandalwood

Maybe I’m just a crusty hippie who’s smelled a few too many sticks of incense, but sandalwood is one of my favorite scents. That earthy richness fills your nostrils and gets the vibe going. 

Researchers agree. A 2006 study shows that smelling sandalwood oil boosts arousal, ups your heart rate, and increases overall feelings of alertness – a prime recipe for feeling sexy, perky, and ready to go.

Musk

For being so universally arousing, this scent stirs up a lot of controversy. Musk straight up smells like sex, and is supposed to increase your sex drive by triggering thoughts of sex, or having your body respond to the musky smell.

The issue here is that musk is mostly taken by removing certain animals' anal glands. While that doesn’t sound appetizing in the first place, it’s not just that this is a weird practice. The animals themselves, most notably the musk deer, are endangered because people have sought out this scent so much.In this day and age though, there’s always an alternative. And as per usual, plants can provide everything we need. Three plants that offer a similar, sexy smell are the muskflower, muskwood, and musk okra. While you won’t necessarily dab musk on you just as is (apparently it can smell terrible in large quantities), you can find incense and plenty of perfumes featuring a dollop of this overwhelming addition

The power of placebo effect

A lot of the studies conducted on arousal and aromatherapy are limited. Some of them had thirty test subjects or less – hardly a good sample size for definitive answers. But something worth considering is this: even if the appeal isn’t real, and it’s all placebo effect, who cares?

Clearly, science matters when it comes to health. But when you’re on the quest to have an amazing sex life, it doesn’t matter if something only works because you think it does. Sex is about confidence. It’s about believing in yourself enough to let loose and go wild. If the smell of lavender, pumpkin pie, or even black licorice does the job for you – then that’s all you need to get the ball rolling.

Feeling sexy is everything in the bedroom. So if ylang ylang gets your confidence up, go for it. And if vanilla smells so good you’re inspired to lean over and nibble a lover’s earlobe – have at it.

Spice things up a bit

Smells aren’t essential to a good time – everyone who’s ever had sex in a public bathroom can attest to that – but mood and ambiance reign supreme when it comes to having a truly memorable night.

Your bedroom should be a sanctuary if you hope to have a ripe sex life. It’s more than taking dirty clothes off the bedroom floor. Whip out the candles, invest in an oil burner, or even just flick some essential oil into the four corners of your room. Ylang ylang may not transform you into Casanova, but it helps.

Smell transports us. So if you’re tired of getting it on in the same room every night, try something new. As you dim the lights and put on a little mood music, remember to factor in that sweet smell of passion.