Are humans constantly but subconsciously smelling themselves?

Ofer Perl, Eva Mishor, Aharon Ravia, Inbal Ravreby, Noam Sobel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


All primates, including humans, engage in self-face-touching at very high frequency. The functional purpose or antecedents of this behaviour remain unclear. In this hybrid review, we put forth the hypothesis that self-face-touching subserves self-smelling. We first review data implying that humans touch their faces at very high frequency. We then detail evidence from the one study that implicated an olfactory origin for this behaviour: This evidence consists of significantly increased nasal inhalation concurrent with self-face-touching, and predictable increases or decreases in self-face-touching as a function of subliminal odourant tainting. Although we speculate that self-smelling through self-face-touching is largely an unconscious act, we note that in addition, humans also consciously smell themselves at high frequency. To verify this added statement, we administered an online self-report questionnaire. Upon being asked, approximately 94% of approximately 400 respondents acknowledged engaging in smelling themselves. Paradoxically, we observe that although this very prevalent behaviour of self-smelling is of concern to individuals, especially to parents of children overtly exhibiting self-smelling, the behaviour has nearly no traction in the medical or psychological literature. We suggest psychological and cultural explanations for this paradox, and end in suggesting that human self-smelling become a formal topic of investigation in the study of human social olfaction. This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue 'Olfactory communication in humans'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20190372
Number of pages13
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1800
Early online date20 Apr 2020
StatePublished - 8 Jun 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry,Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Are humans constantly but subconsciously smelling themselves?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this