See also the history-making article by Martha McClintock, Menstrual Synchrony and Suppression (1971, in Nature magazine), and an abstract (below) of McClintoch's 1998 article (with K. Stern), Pheromones Influence Menstrual Cycles, also in Nature. Read a German announcement of this finding in bild der wissenschaft, republished here with permission, with one reader's personal experience (in German).
See a patent (U.S. 3948254, 1976) for a "vulvar deodorant system"
See also Australian douche ad (ca. 1900) - Fresca douche powder (U.S.A.) (date ?) - Kotique douche liquid ad, 1974 (U.S.A.) - Liasan (1) genital wash ad, 1980s (Germany) - Liasan (2) genital wash ad, 1980s (Germany) - Lysol douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.) - Lysol douche liquid ad, 1948 (U.S.A.) - Marvel douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.) - Midol menstrual pain pill ad, 1938 (U.S.A.) - Midol booklet (selections), 1959 (U.S.A.) - Mum deodorant cream ad, 1926 (U.S.A.) - Myzone menstrual pain pills ad, 1952 (Australia) - Pristeen genital spray ad, 1969 (U.S.A.) - Spalt pain tablets, 1936 (Germany) - Sterizol douche liquid ad, 1926 (U.S.A.) - Vionell genital spray ad, 1970, with Cheryl Tiegs (Germany) - Zonite douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.)
The Perils of Vaginal Douching (essay by Luci Capo Rome)
A patent medicine, Orange Blossom Suppositories: "A deodorant for unpleasant vaginal odors"
CONTRIBUTE to Humor, Words and expressions about menstruation and Would you stop menstruating if you could?
Some MUM site links:

MUM address & What does MUM mean? |
Email the museum |
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Who runs this museum?? |
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Essay directory |
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Miscellaneous |
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Norwegian menstruation exhibit |
Odor |
Olor |
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Patent medicine |
Poetry directory |
Products, some current |
Puberty booklets for girls and parents|
Religion |
Religión y menstruación |
Your remedies for menstrual discomfort |
Menstrual products safety |
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Science |
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Synchrony |
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Early tampons |
Teen ads directory |
Tour of the former museum (video) |
Underpants & panties directory |
Videos, films directory |
Words and expressions about menstruation |
Would you stop menstruating if you could? |
What did women do about menstruation in the past? |
Washable pads |
Read 10 years (1996-2006) of articles and Letters to Your MUM on this site.
Leer la versión en español de los siguientes temas: Anticoncepción y religión, Breve reseña - Olor - Religión y menstruación - Seguridad de productos para la menstruación.

Odor, menstrual cycle, pheromones and otherwise with history
(or in Spanish translation, Olor, traducido por María García)

Among the many things women are asked to worry about, odor emanating from her genitals is a big one. Advertising in American magazines since at least the 1920s has whispered - in huge, frightening ads - that an unwashed vulva and an undouched vagina can end a marriage, even for the woman whose meals are tasty and on time, whose house is orderly and dust free, and whose kids are better than the neighbor's.

And then you menstruate.

Surely, this is a great, but awful truth for most women, these words of Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex:

Menstrual blood . . . represents the essence of femininity.

To have something most women at least dislike, and sometimes hate - read many comments about this - represent their sex, certainly puts them in their place almost everywhere in the world. Men strutted about in decorated codpieces 400-500 years ago in Europe, parading their penises, but when have women flown their menstruous rags? (Actually, some European women seem to have let their menstrual blood flow without any absorbing material, at least in England and Germany, and I suspect elsewhere. Read about this.)

Rachel Sobel, an undergraduate at Harvard, now [July 1998] doing research at MUM about the tampon industry for her senior thesis, mentioned that menstrual odor was once considered seductive in the odor-rich 18th century.

Ads embarrass Americans into being odor free by buying underarm odor killers, menstrual pads with baking soda, tampons with deodorants, etc.

But after reading Alain Corbin's The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986) she writes that

in 18th century France, menses was considered to be 'impregnated with subtle vapors transmitted by the essence of life.' These were particularly seducing, as a woman was 'dispersing seductive effluvia' and 'making an appeal for fertilization.' Thus, societies have celebrated the seductive aroma of menstruation, rather than stifled [it].

And Dr. Richard Lambert, in Sex Facts for Women, says menstrual blood smells like the marigold, a flower - a further connection between menstruation and flowers (another being advertising's likening the Tassette menstrual cup to a tulip).

So what causes the characteristic smell of menstruation? Is it like a marigold?

You're not going to like this.

Bacteria from the anus - oh, I'll just say it: they're from feces, and are the famous Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria - eat the blood, cells and tissue running from the uterus and vagina and produce the characteristic smell of menstruation.


You say you don't have fecal bacteria in your vagina? Oh, ho, ho, yes you DO!

Your basic anus is about an inch (2.54 centimeters) from the entrance to the vagina and it's a snap for bacteria to creep that teensy distance - or ride on a tampon, cup, pad or inside panties (imagine how a thong might do this) or get wiped there with a swipe of toilet paper (a good reason to wipe the anus toward the back, not toward the front of the body, to minimize the number that do make the trip).

Now, for most of the month the acid in the vagina - yes, helpful bacteria there make lactic acid - ties the hands and feet of those little devils by hardly allowing them to reproduce and grow. They and many other disease-causing bacteria cannot thrive in the acid.

But for a few days each month the vagina, and outside, on the vulva, are the perfect places to raise a family! You guessed it: during menstruation! Blood, cells and secretions from the uterus and vagina make the vagina more alkaline and the bacteria feel right at home. Oh, girl! And they gorge gourmet whenever they want!

So what about female folks who don't menstruate, like prepubescent girls and postmenopausal women? Fecal bacteria can live in their vaginas without producing that characteristic smell because the bacterial and hormonal setup is different from that of menstruating women.

O.K., if there are so many bacteria in the vagina during menstruation is it SAFE TO HAVE SEX?

If by sex you mean a penis doing his job, and if both people have no infectious diseases, for example HIV and hepatitis, then it's generally safe.

But there is one huge exception: women who get urinary tract infections. The entrance to the bladder is right above the opening of the vagina and the penis can rub the swarming bacteria right into the tube that leads to the bladder, which is much shorter than a male's, one reason women get UTIs much more often than men.

Douches and deodorants can also change the environment of the vagina and allow dangerous bacteria to grow there. (Read about not douching.)

MUM board member Dr. Philip Tierno Jr.'s book "The Secret Life of Germs" supplied most of the information for my essay, although he wrote with more restraint.

In March 2010 a British biologist wrote me about his ability to detect some women who are menstruating, not all, by "like a sneeze on the way in my nose/nasal area." He was not attracted to those women, quite the contrary. But read his account:

"I was just listening to your interview on the web. Here is something you might consider but may, I think, be too controversial. I assure you I am a professional biologist and I have considered this subject over many years. I have also mentioned it to many girlfriends and proved it to their satisfaction on several occasions. I can detect when some ladies are having a period. I will call it a 'smell' but it isn't - it is not unpleasant but it is distinct - it is a 'feeling' - a tickle - like a sneeze on the way in my nose/nasal area. I have been able to do it all my life (although when I was young I didn't know what it was). I assumed that everybody could do it. The most common time it happens is at the check-out at the supermarket. I can only do it with about 10% or less of females. To give an example - I walked into an office where my girlfriend was working and my nose tickled. Later I said to her "Of course you were all having your period." She was appalled - but I explained my ability and she admitted that all the girls (4) in the office had synchronised their cycles. Although I could not detect hers I could detect one or more of the other ladies. Here is the interesting thing. I have never dated a lady who's period I could detect in this way. I am, somehow, 'put-off' by ladies whose cycle I could detect. Furthermore, I could do it with my mother - "You smell funny!" (no sisters). The possible biological explanation of this is actually quite well established. Many mammals select mates that are 'different' - it is a form of out-breeding (to avoid in-breeding depression). The argument is that breeding with mates that have a very similar immune-systems will detrimental to the off-spring. It is known in several mammals that this outbreeding to avoid similarity in HLA antigens is done by smell. Be assured that I am not talking about incest here - in the population of human females some, by chance, will have similar HLA antigens to me and it would be advantageous if I avoided mating with them. I offer you this as an observation. I wonder if any other males can do it?"

The writer referred me to a 2007 article and study about lap dancers that concluded

While ovulating - and therefore the most fertile - strippers made an average of $30 per hour more than menstruating women and $15 per hour more than women elsewhere in their cycles. Women on the pill - who typically don't ovulate - made significantly less than naturally cycling women overall and had no "estrus earning peak." (Rebecca Skloot, Lap-Dance Science, 9 December 2007, New York Times)

That seems to agree with the finding (somewhere) that ovulating women feel sexier and are attracted to more masculine-looking men.

And again, somewhat on the subject, Sally Price, the Dittman Professor of American Studies at the College of William and Mary, sent this museum her essay "The Curse's Blessing," (from Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, volume XIV, No. 2) which calls into question the popular idea that menstrual huts provided relief from male restrictions and maybe even a chance to have a little "fun" on the side, if you get what I mean.

Professor Price, who spent many menstrual periods in menstrual huts in Suriname, felt the isolation and discomfort women have experienced for hundreds - thousands? - of years in similar situations. (See a Hawaiian menstrual hut.)

By the way, she writes in Co-wives and Calabashes (second edition 1993, University of Michigan, available at $16.95) that her using menstrual huts, as required of the indigenous people she lived with, endeared her more to the people she was observing and living with than even learning their language. Taboos are powerful.

Scientific treatments of odor and menstruation

(See also Martha McClintock's history-making article in Nature magazine in 1971, Menstrual synchrony and suppression. Professor McClintock, now at the University of Chicago, spoke at the conference of The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research in June 1997; see my report and photo of her.)

Menstrual Cycles and Odors, below, by Anne Kitchell, is from the Internet, and covers many topics.

My excuse for reproducing this item below, rather than forcing you to visit the site itself, is that I was afraid the site may be dropped eventually, and it's too valuable to lose. You can still visit by clicking on the title.

What role do odors play in the human menstrual cycle?

Do human menstrual odors act as attractant?

Blood-Scented Perfume

[I dropped the first two paragraphs, except for the two lines just below; read them in the original by clicking Menstrual Cycles and Odors]

. . . . Sound scientific documentation supporting such anecdotal, gender-biased malarkey [that animals are attracted to menstrual odor, etc.] is hard to find; actually one is more likely to run across studies concluding quite the opposite.

UnBEARable . . .

Such a study was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 1991 in answer to concerns regarding black bears' attraction to menstrual odors [Finley added the red] and subsequent attacks on female hikers. The death of two menstruating women attacked by grizzlies in Glacier National Park in 1967 apparently prompted the government to print brochures warning women to avoid bear country during periods of active menstruation. However, the examination of factors surrounding hundreds of grizzly and black bear attacks produced neither evidence that supported a causal relation between human menstruation and attacks nor revealed any published records concerning black bear responses to menstrual blood. The U.S. Forest Service conducted a series of experiments (Rogers et al., 1991) which tested the responses of both male and female black bears to human menstrual odors. The first experiment involved the spin-cast introduction of 15 used tampons (in clusters of 5) to adult male black bears foraging in a garbage dump. Each presentation, therefore, gave the bears a choice between the garbage and tampons. If the bears ate (like they did the garbage), closely sniffed, or rolled on the tampons, then they were considered to have paid attention to the tampons. Of 22 presentations, the bears ignored the used tampons 20 times (twice casual sniffs were observed), effectively preferring the garbage in every instance. In a second experiment, seven bears feeding on piles of corn were offered groups of six used tampons. Six of the bears sniffed the tampons and then returned to their piles of corn. A yearling male tasted one of the tampons, quickly dropped it and returned to the corn.

A third experiment placed four used tampons, an unused tampon, a tampon soaked in non-menstrual human blood, and a tampon containing rendered beef fat in the middle of a heavily traveled bear path with the used tampons interspersed among the others. Ten out of ten bears ate only the tampons soaked in beef fat. In a fourth experiment, women on different days of their period accompanied and contacted bears who were accustomed to human interaction and were known to investigate attractive odors. Eleven encounters involved women wearing tampons and one crazy woman wearing clothing through which her menstrual blood was soaking. Of the twelve encounters with the women, the ten bears did not pay any attention to the lower torsos of the women. Another woman wearing external pads during two of her menstrual cycles hand-fed four female bears and walked within two meters of adult male bears during bear mating season and did not receive any attention. Rogers et al. (1991) concluded that the lack of interest of the bears to menstrual odors does not prove that such odors are never attractive to bears (similar experiments resulted in tampon feasts by polar bears lacking attractive buffets) [Finley added the red]; however, menstrual odors essentially were ignored.


Rogers, L L., G.A. Wilker, and S.S. Scott. 1991. Reactions of black bears to human menstrual odors. J. Wildl. Manage. 55(4):632-634.

See also:

Cushing, B. 1983. Responses of polar bears to human menstrual odors. Int. Conf. Bear Res. and Manage. 5:270-274.

Herrero, S. 1974. Conflicts between man and grizzly bears in the national parks of North America. Int. Conf. Bear Res. and Manage. 3:121-145.

-------. 1985. Bear attacks. Nick Lyons Books, New York, N.Y. 287pp.

Darwin's Sexy Nose [Vaginal Odors Change During the Menstrual Cycle and Vary in Their Appeal to Males]

Bear attacks, among other less-desired responses to a woman's menstrual perfume, do not seem to be frequent consequences of the olfactory influences involving human menstruation. Many scientific journals suggest that human males, on the other hand, respond to vaginal cyclic scents. Doty et al. (1975) described a study which concluded that "the odors of human vaginal secretions vary in both intensity and pleasantness across the stages of the menstrual cycle." Men were asked to rate both the intensity and pleasantness of odors arising from used tampons from consecutive phases of the menstrual cycle. It was found that even though there was considerable variation across cycles from the same donor, men claimed secretions from pre-ovulatory and ovulatory stages were less intense and more pleasant than during the other phases [Finley added the red]. Data fell short of providing substantial support to the idea that particular staged menstrual odors were "attractive" to men, and due to heterogeneity of results it "is unlikely that humans can use vaginal odors reliably to determine the general time of ovulation."

"Unlikely" does not mean impossible, and the logical jump made (before or after) with studies such as the aforementioned is to attempt to bridge some evolutionary gap between man and ape, providing a reasonable explanation as to the importance of menstrual olfactory cues in communicating courtship rituals and defining timed mating behaviors in early man. In the December 1974 edition of Science, scientists from Emory University School of Medicine published the volatile fatty acid content as determined by gas chromatography of 682 vaginal samples from human females. They noted that fatty acid content increased during the late follicular phase of the menstrual cycle and declined progressively during the late luteal phase. The same volatile aliphatic acids found in the human samples (i.e. acetic, propanoic, methylpropanoic, butanoic, methylbutanoic, and methylpentanoic) have been found ubiquitously in the vaginal secretions of many primate species such as the rhesus monkey, anubis baboon, patas monkey, pigtail monkey, crab-eating monkey, and squirrel monkey. Although scant information is available on the importance of these compounds in humans, say Michael et al. (1974), "The same substances possess sex-attractant properties in other primates." Interestingly, it was noted that similar attraction reactions resulted when human vaginal secretions were exposed to rhesus monkeys, and that women on oral contraceptives had lower acid amounts and showed no rhythmic changes during their cycle. There is evidence to suggest in rhesus monkeys that other odorous, non-aliphatic compounds present in vaginal secretions serve as distinct cues to males during the preovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle (Goldfoot, 1981).

So did man at one time in his early development use scent, like today's primates, as an important reproductive communicator? Acceptance of the argument further implies that somewhere along the evolutionary line of man, menstrual olfactory cues became obsolete [?]. The subsequent weakening of human's conscious attraction to vaginal odors resulted in the degeneration of sense of smell found in humans today. Of course, whether one makes the leap connecting primate olfactory cues to early man's equally intrinsic ability to detect estrous of Cro-magnon Jane or not, it must be accepted that supportive, documented science just does not exist in a less correlative form.


Doty, R.L., M. Ford, G. Preti, and G.R. Huggins. 1975. Changes in the intensity and pleasantness of human vaginal odors during the menstrual cycle. Science 190: 1316- 1317.

Goldfoot, D.A. 1981. Olfaction, sexual behavior, and the pheromone hypothesis in rhesus monkeys: A critique. Am. Zool. 21(1): 153-164.

Michael, R.P., R.W. Bonsall, and P. Warner. 1974. Human vaginal secretions: Volatile fatty acid content. Science 186: 1217-1219.

See also:

Bieber, I. 1959. Am. J. Psychother. 13: 851.

Michael, R.P. 1972. Acta. Endocrinol. Suppl. 166: 322.

Michael, R.P., E.B. Keverne, and R.W. Bonsall, 1971. Science 172: 964.

Rogers, J. and G. Beauchamp, in Mammalian Olfaction, Reproductive Processes and Behavior, R.L. Doty, Ed. (Academic Press, New York, 1974).

Stinkin' Synchin' [this title is Anne Kitchell's, not the MUM director's]

The menstrual cycle not only produces odors, rumored to serve as attractive cues, but reacts to external odors as well. One often hears of females living in close proximity undergoing the synchronization of their menstruation onset times. In an article published by Russell et al. (1980), it was stated that "menstrual synchrony is not due to changes in food, awareness of menstrual timing or lunar cycles, and [it is] suggested that the only significant factors seem to be the amount of time the women spend together and the lengths of their cycles." They conducted a really cool experiment in an attempt to demonstrate if the olfactory cues of one very "regular" woman could influence the timing of menstrual onset in other women.

Eleven women, whose mean age was 28.5 years, none of whom were lesbians or were taking oral contraceptives, volunteered to have an odor placed on their upper lip three times a week during a four month period. The odor was extracted from the axillary region (the armpit!) of a female donor with a history of a very regular menstrual cycle. She did not use underarm deodorant or perfumed soap, nor was she allowed to wash under her arms during the odor gathering period. Odor collection involved having the donor wear 4X4 cotton pads under her arms for 24 hours. The subjects had the pads rubbed on their upper lips and asked not to wash their faces for six hours. The group of control subjects received the same treatment, with the exception that they did not receive the odor. Test subjects and control subjects had no knowledge as to which group they belonged.

The results indicated with statistical significance of p < 0.01 that odors from one woman can influence the the menstrual cycle of another. The mean difference in days between the menstrual onset of tested subjects and the donor at the beginning of the experiment was 9.2 days. This average decreased to 3.4 days by the end of the experiment with four of the five subjects synchronizing to within one day of the donor's onset. The control group averaged 8.0 days from the donor's onset in the pre-treatment month and 9.2 days in the post-treatment month.

The possibility was noted that "the mechanism of [odor] transfer did not involve the nose at all, but diffusion of chemical compounds through the skin which may occur when the sample was placed on the subject's upper lip." If compounds placed under the nose were volatile and the subject unaware of their presence, then can one properly use the term "odor" anyway?

The olfactory influences on the menstrual cycle of crab-eating monkeys (Macaca fascicularis) have been studied along the same lines as human synch experiments. Wallis et al. (1986) placed twelve female monkeys in adjacent cages allowing for the occurrence of physical contact. Only one of the females had a history of regularly-timed menstruation. A control set was established in the same manner with the exception that cages were situated far enough apart so no physical contact was possible. Within the course of the six-month study, the experimental subjects with irregular flow tended to normalize, although cycle synchronization was not observed as a trend. In the control group, irregular subjects continued to experience abnormally long cycles. The authors suggested, "Close physical contact may serve to transmit chemical and/or hormonal cues that can normalize the menstrual cycle of crab-eating monkeys."


Russell, M.J., G.M. Switz, and K. Thompson. 1980. Olfactory influences on the human menstrual cycle. Pharmacol, Biochem., & Behav. 13: 737-738.

Wallis, J. 1986. The effect of female proximity and social interaction on the menstrual cycle of crab-eating monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). Primates 27(1): 83-94.

Doty, R.L. 1981. Olfactory communication in humans. Chem. Senses 6(4): 351-376.

McClintock, M.K. 1971. Menstrual synchrony and suppression. Nature 229: 244-245.

New Evidence Shows That Pheromones Influence Menstrual Cycles (March 1998)

The scientist who first published the observation that women living together sometimes menstruate together has now told us why.

Martha McClintock, a professor at the University of Chicago, wrote in the British journal Nature [392, 177(1998)], which published her initial finding 27 years ago (Menstrual synchrony and suppression. Nature 229: 244-245, 1971), that odorless chemical signals given off by women - pheromones - can change other women's menstrual cycles. (See an earlier discussion of a similar experiment on this page above.) And see also the photo I took of her at the conference of The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, June 1997.

The authors (McClintock and K. Stern) summarize it in the journal:

They found that odourless compounds from the armpits of women in the late follicular phase of their menstrual cycles accelerated the preovulatory surge of luteinizing hormone of recipient women and shortened their menstrual cycles. Axillary (underarm) compounds from the same donors which were collected later in the menstrual cycle (at ovulation) had the opposite effect: they delayed the luteinizing-hormone surge of the recipients and lengthened their menstrual cycles. By showing in a fully controlled experiment that the timing of ovulation can be manipulated, this study provides definitive evidence of human pheromones.

They regard this as definitive proof that human pheromones exist.

It will be interesting to find out what organ perceives these pheromones.

Are Sharks Attracted to Menstrual Blood?

The next item I took from an Internet page by Samuel Shelanski, M.D. called Diving and Menstruation, copyright 1994-1996 Rodale Press. There's much more on that page worth reading, including potential health problems caused by diving during menstruation.

Over the course of their periods, most women lose between 50 to 150 ml (one-quarter to three-quarters cup) of blood and tissue. While this is not a physiologically significant amount, many women fear that this discharge may attract sharks. The truth is that women divers are attacked by sharks less often than men are. In his book Diving and Subaquatic Medicine, Dr. Carl Edmonds suggests that this may in part be due to a repellent effect of some component of the menstrual blood that is released. While this has not been formally tested, it is fair to say that the danger of shark attack from diving during one's period is substantially less than what results from other activities, such as spear fishing.

See also the history-making article by Martha McClintock, Menstrual synchrony and suppression (1971, in Nature).
See a patent (U.S. 3948254, 1976) for a "vulvar deodorant system"

See also Australian douche ad (ca. 1900) - Fresca douche powder (U.S.A.) (date ?) - Kotique douche liquid ad, 1974 (U.S.A.) - Liasan (1) genital wash ad, 1980s (Germany) - Liasan (2) genital wash ad, 1980s (Germany) - Lysol douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.) - Lysol douche liquid ad, 1948 (U.S.A.) - Marvel douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.) - Midol menstrual pain pill ad, 1938 (U.S.A.) - Midol booklet (selections), 1959 (U.S.A.) - Mum deodorant cream ad, 1926 (U.S.A.) - Myzone menstrual pain pills ad, 1952 (Australia) - Pristeen genital spray ad, 1969 (U.S.A.) - Spalt pain tablets, 1936 (Germany) - Sterizol douche liquid ad, 1926 (U.S.A.) - Vionell genital spray ad, 1970, with Cheryl Tiegs (Germany) - Zonite douche liquid ad, 1928 (U.S.A.)
The Perils of Vaginal Douching (essay by Luci Capo Rome)
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