These are the Only 10 Smells Humans Can Detect?

We all know there are four kinds of tastes (well, five, if you count the Japanese umami). According to a new study, there are precisely ten basic kinds of smells that humans can detect.

That might seem a paltry number considering how many things there are out there in the world to smell. Jason Castro of Bates College and Chakra Chennubhotla of the University of Pittsburgh used computerized techniques to analyze 144 smells and came up with ten basic scents, some (popcorn?) rather unexpected.

Says Castro to the BBC, ”You have these 10 basic categories because they reflect important attributes about the world — danger, food and so on. If you know these basic categories, then you can start to think about building smells.”

Any natural scent is a blend of the ten basic categories, Castro explains.

He and Chennubhotla say their findings could be useful in developing new sorts of perfumes or to otherwise manufacture scents.

If it is the case that we only sense a total of ten smells, we should feel quite a bit humbled vis-a-vis other animals. Dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than ours, the result of their having up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses; we have a mere six million. “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well,” James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, explains.

Dogs’ noses also have a different anatomical structure from ours that makes it possible for them to detect a teaspoon of sugar in the equivalent of two Olympic-size pools (that’s 2 million gallons) and to sniff out bombs. While we smell and breathe through the sane airways when we inhale, dogs have a fold of tissue inside their noses that keeps those two functions separate.

Other animals whose sense of smell is just as or even more amazing than that of dogs are albatrosses, moles, moths and sharks.

Here’s a full list of what we humans can smell.

1. Fragrant

Think flowers first of all and other pleasant scents.

2. Woody/resinous

Nothing like the, well, woodsy smell of a forest or of pine trees.

3. Fruity (non-citrus)

Apparently we humans can pick up fruity smells but not vegetable-like ones. Is there anyone who prefers the smell of a zucchini to an apple?

4. Chemical

This smell is, it goes without saying, very likely not something you’d want made into a perfume.

5. Minty/peppermint

It’s a smell many of us associate with words like “clean” and “refreshing” for good reason.

6. Sweet

No wonder manufacturers put sugar into just about every food: it’s a smell we know too well.

7. Popcorn

Popcorn has been called a superfood. Perhaps its being one of the basic smells we detect is a reason for its appeal.

8. Lemon

“Lemon” is, it seems, to be distinguished from a “fruity” smell. You might say that it is “fruity with a sharp (but not too sharp) twist.”

9. Pungent

This would be anything with an overly intensely  heady aroma like this Chinese fermented bean curd.

10. Decayed

This last of Castro’s and Chennubhotla’s ten basic smells is one that we quickly learn to avoid and for good reason!

Photos from Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobetz3 years ago


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago


d b
wiz w3 years ago

thanks for the info

LMj Sunshine
James Merit3 years ago


LMj Sunshine
James Merit3 years ago


Valerie A.
Valerie A3 years ago


d b.
aa b3 years ago

smell good but I can not smell it coming though this computer x

Razzbarry F.
Razzbarry F3 years ago


Alison A.
Alison A3 years ago

Thanks for posting.