What are the Basic Smells?


You might think that you are capable of sniffing out thousands of different scents, but scientists say that humans are only capable of detecting ten basic smells. This is according to an article published on the Los Angeles Times website.

In a study of human subjects, participants were asked to rate 144 different odors and to give them a description using a list of 146 words. The researchers wanted to see if they could group the various odors into categories based on the responses of the participants. They were able to analyze the way in which the participants used the words. It was found that some words were regularly used together while others were never grouped together. So words like ‘honey’ and ‘fruity’ were often paired, while the words ‘minty’ and ‘fecal’ never were. The researchers disregarded any words that were rarely used by the participants. After the study, the scientists came up with these 10 basic smells:

  • Citrus – examples of this include citrus fruits such as grapefruit, lemons, limes, and oranges.
  • Fruity – examples include non-citrus fruits such as pineapple, apple, mango, and banana.
  • Fragrant – examples of this include floral smells such as cut flowers and perfumes.
  • Sweet – examples include caramel, vanilla, and chocolate.
  • Minty – examples include tea tree, eucalyptus, and camphor.
  • Woody – examples include natural scents such as fresh cut grass, pine, smoky, burnt, musty, and mold.
  • Toasted or nutty – examples include things like peanut or almond butter, popcorn, and toasted bread.
  • Chemical – examples include gasoline, bleach, ammonia, paint, and varnish.
  • Pungent – examples include strong unpleasant smells like feces, fish, body odor, smelly shoes, and cigarette or cigar smoke. 
  • Decayed – examples of this include rotten eggs, dead animals, raw sewage, and sour milk.

The Importance of Basic Smells

You might not realize it, but being able to detect all the basic smells is particularly important. While most of us quite like the smell of citrus fruits or a floral perfume, we might not feel the same about raw sewage or household gas, for example.

But our sense of smell is vital to our survival. Animals in particular depend on their sense of smell to find food and alert them to the presence of danger. We too need our sense of smell to alert us to problems. Take rotten meat or sour milk for example. You would not want to have to taste either of these things to know that they are off. Your sense of smell would give you the heads up that there was something not quite right.

Even something as simple as smelly shoes will alert you to the fact that they need to be cleaned. The experts at ShoeFresh shoe deoderant say that the foul smell that you might get in your shoes from time to time is caused by a buildup of bacteria. You can avoid this smell by cleaning your shoes regularly, alternating them, and spraying them with a shoe deodorizer spray.

You might not also realize that your smell is directly linked to your sense of taste. In fact, our tastebuds can actually only detect four different types of taste: sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. Everything else you taste comes from your sense of smell. Think about how tasteless food often becomes when you have a blocked nose.


Researchers have discovered that humans can detect 10 basic smells, which include fruity, fragrant, woody, pungent, and decayed. And despite the fact that most of us would rather not smell the more pungent or decayed smells, they are actually very important when it comes to alerting us to problems, or even danger.

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