Who Needs Ice Cream When You Have Dirty Laundry?

Meditation. Nail biting. Eating a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s. We have a lot of different ways to manage stress and let’s face it, not all of them are great. But so long as a stress-free life remains a pipe dream, we’ll keep looking for ways to reduce the tension. And not all of these efforts are done intentionally — sometimes, our instincts take over as we search for simple ways to get through a tough day.

Here’s a new one to try: smell your partner. Not directly, though — just take a sniff of his or her dirty laundry.

That’s what Marlise Hofer, a graduate student in psychology at the University of British Columbia, was thinking about at least. In January of 2018, she and a team of others investigated the stress-relieving power of familiar smells left behind by a romantic partner. Hofer summarized their efforts in a news release posted by the university: “Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when their partner is away, but may not realize why they engage in these behaviors.” Hofer wondered, why do we do that? And she posited that maybe, the reason was to help us manage our stress levels. The full paper can be found here, but let’s summarize it below.

The study involved a lot of women sniffing the dirty t-shirts of various men. (As Time explains, “Men were chosen to provide clothing samples because they tend to produce more scent” and “women, meanwhile, have a naturally better sense of smell.”) The men were asked to wear the same t-shirt for 24 hours straight and refrain from using deodorant or smoking (or do anything else which would add unnatural smells) during the time period. Then, the women in the study were randomly assigned a shirt — some got the tees of their partners, some got the tees from random dudes — and were asked to take a big whiff. Then came the stress test — the women were put through a fake job interview and told to do some math problems.

With the trials complete, now came the data gathering. The women were asked a battery of questions to measure their stress levels, and to add an objective measure to the study, the researchers also took a saliva sample from the test subjects and measured how much cortisol, a stress hormone, was present. The results suggested that the scent of your partner’s day-worn shirt can make a difference. Per the news release, “women who had smelled their partner’s shirt felt less stressed both before and after the stress test. Those who both smelled their partner’s shirt and also correctly identified the scent also had lower levels of cortisol, suggesting that the stress-reducing benefits of a partner’s scent are strongest when women know what they’re smelling.”

So give a sniff. It has fewer calories than the ice cream, anyway.

Bonus fact: If you’re convinced by the above and keep your partners’ dirty t-shirt at the ready, waiting for a bad day, well, that’s tricky — how do you store as smell? Just do what the researchers did: put it next to that pint of Ben and Jerry’s. As the Harvard Gazette explained, the men had to return the shirts within five hours after taking them off, after which “the T-shirts were frozen to preserve the scent and thawed two hours before the stress test experiment began.” The Gazette continues: “Freezing an item of clothing will preserve the wearer’s scent for up to two years, according to the researchers.”​

From the Archives: Smell Ya Later: The main story is about our sense of smell. The bonus fact is about Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.