Chemical structure of 'fearful sweat’ uncovered

The fact that people can smell fear has been known for some time. Utrecht University researchers working together with scientists from Unilever R&D discovered that ‘fearful sweat’ has a different chemical composition than the sweat that accompanies other emotions. Their findings have been published in the leading scientific journal Metabolites.​


Research leader and professor of Psychology Monique Smeets and her colleagues tested 24 male subjects. In the laboratory, they showed these participants horror films and subsequently collected the sweat from their armpits. Later, the men were shown funny scenes from films in order to collect the sweat released under happy conditions. Lastly, the men relaxed while watching programmes including ‘Rail Away', a TV show filmed from a train travelling through meditative landscapes, in order to get the most neutral possible armpit sweat.

Chemical fingerprint

The researchers analysed the different types of sweat and have now concluded that the chemical composition of ‘fearful sweat’ looks very different than the chemical composition of sweat released when people experience either happiness or a neutral emotion. The researchers have now taken the first step towards uncovering the chemical fingerprint of different body odours.

humans are capable of communicating with body odour, just like animals.

Not only animals

As far as Smeets and her colleague Jasper de Groot and former colleague Gün Semin are able to determine, this is the first study to investigate the relationship between emotions and the corresponding body odours. Smeets: "Thanks to a multidisciplinary approach, in which chemists from Unilever R&D worked together with psychologists at the university, we were able to show that humans are capable of communicating with body odour, just like animals."

Smell lab

Utrecht University has created a special laboratory: the smell lab. Scientists conduct all sorts of smell-related research here.
Smeets: "In our lab, we are studying how odours influence behaviour, and in particular how 'social' smells (body odours) communicate information from a transmitter to a recipient, guiding and regulating adaptive behaviour in the process. We are also investigating the role of odours in the communication of emotions and in the bond between parent and child."