Describing how a man smells

Musk deer

One thing I hate to read about is a musky man – partly because it’s become hackneyed, and partly because the word conjures its original use. The musky scent in colognes used to come from a glandular secretion from near the musk deer’s rectum. According to Wikipedia, the word ‘musk’ originates from the Sanskrit for ‘testicle’.

Mmmm, picture that next time you cuddle up with your musky historical romance hero. He smells like deer butt.

There are so many more interesting scents for a man, and if you do a bit of research you can make your hero sound intriguing and sexy.

1. Do you want him to smell natural or synthetic?

You might not want your hero to reek of cologne, but I can’t think of many pleasant descriptions of men’s natural scents. (Maybe you can help me out by leaving a comment.) It seems much easier to describe the scent of a villain than a hero.

There are a few factors that can affect the way people smell. Men can pick up different smells depending on their job. For example, a cowboy or rancher may come home smelling of horse sweat and leather, while a high-flying lawyer is unlikely to smell that way unless he’s been to a fetish shop.

People can smell differently depending on the type of food they eat. Citrus fruits apparently make you smell like oranges and lemons. Strong spices like cardamom and cloves can change the way you smell (according to an article on ehow, they “perfume the mouth and other orifices”. *shudders* The less said about that, the better.).

The same ehow article says that, as a vegan, I might find my armpits smell of chocolate chip cookies – cruelly, a delicacy I can’t eat precisely because I’m vegan. I’m pretty sure my husband would disagree about my pits smelling of baked goods.

Foods can also change the way you smell during moments of extreme emotion. For my grandpa’s 80th birthday, I took him out to lunch and a movie. He ate fish and we saw the uber-crap Pearl Harbor (Grandpa’s choice, not mine). Grandpa still sleeps with the radio on, otherwise he has nightmares of his time in the Philippines. He sat completely still during the whole movie, but during the most intense battle scenes the smell of fish was really intense, and it dissipated as soon as the action calmed down again. Use this knowledge to increase the sensory details in some of your most emotional scenes (but try to avoid the fishy smells during intimate moments, please).

On a side note, apparently the foods men eat can also affect the taste of their seminal fluid. Go entertain yourself with this letter to AskMen, and keep it in mind when describing the meal your hero cooks for your heroine before they do the dirty.

2. Learn about colognes in general.

There are some good websites that can help you understand colognes better. A good starting point is the article ‘Tips on Selecting Your Own Men’s Cologne’ on Life123.

It explains how the difference between cologne and perfume isn’t that one’s for boys and one’s for girls, but that the essential oils in cologne are more diluted than in perfume, so it’s not as strong.

It also explains that there are three notes in fragrances – the top note, middle note and base note. The top note is the strongest when you first spray it, and the base note only starts to make itself known about three hours later.

The article says: “Consider scent bases before you choose cologne. Most fragrances are made up of certain scent bases: floral, chypre, woody, citrus, fougere, leather and oriental. Men’s fragrances commonly rely on two of these bases, fougere, which has a mossy scent, and leather.”

AskMen is even more descriptive about fougere, saying: “Many men’s colognes fall into the fougere category, meaning they are created around a base of lavender, coumarin and oak moss to create heady woody and herbaceous scents.”

3. Research specific colognes.

Now that you have an idea of how fragrances work, find colognes you like the smell of (or, if you’re like me and you’re allergic to lots of colognes, read about them and pick some scents you like the sound of).

Visit fragrance review sites like Basenotes and read about men’s fragrances. Much like a website for vintners, they use specialist language, but you can pick up a lot of scents you’ve probably never thought of before. For example, they say that Bleu de Chanel “contains top notes of pink pepper, citrus accord, vetiver; heart notes of grapefruit, dry cedar and labdanum. The dry down consists of Frankincense, ginger and sandalwood.”

And there you go – loads of new ways of describing how a man smells.

What are some pleasant ways of describing men’s natural odors? Do you have favorite scents, or odors you hate to read about?


  1. OMG. I hate the “musky” thing too–another favorite is: He smelled of MAN. That just can’t be good. I’m interested in the food thing now, and feel the need to go back and make my heroes eat less seafood. Because I’m getting this icky feeling….Great post!

    1. Smelled of man? I can’t even imagine what that’s supposed to mean. It’s probably pretty difficult to make a Southern hero eat less meat and seafood, but DJ will thank you for it!

  2. On a couple occasions, I have scented mustard from a nearby, obviously hard-working man. The first time was late afternoon in a doctor’s office; a farmer sitting nearby. I kept smelling mustard, of all things, and finally figured out that it was him. If you like spicy mustard, that could be a pleasant scent.

    A man who does not use cologne, but does use scented (like Irish Spring) soap, may smell earthy; not quite like the earth just after it rained, but similar.

    1. Sewicked, those scents you mention are so evocative that I’m not sure I’ll be able to smell mustard again without thinking about the man you saw in the doctor’s office. It must be one of those scents like fish that’s so strong it comes out of the pores.

      I do like the smell of Irish Spring. Not sure why. Just do.

    1. Thanks for coming by. Yes, smell is so closely linked with memory. I have the opposite experience with a scented product – a certain popular cologne reminds me of a guy who encouraged my feelings for him and then told me he wasn’t interested. Now that cologne brings back not only memories but really strong emotions. You might be interesting in my post about how smell can help writers with backstory.

    2. My grandpa was one of the few men who could wear Old Spice and smell good in it.

      My Dad hardly ever wore aftershave, but when he did, it was a fragrance that Avon doesn’t market anymore: Russian Leather. This smells different from English Leather (which he hated, and I wasn’t fond of, either).

      Avon describes their fragrances as woody, citrus, and different flowers. I like the idea of describing a guy smell as plant-like in nature. Or leather. Some guys definitely smell like leather. Or earthy. Or how about like the smell of burning wood or a bayberry candle?
      There is a word for that smell after the rains: petrichor. It’s a great word. It’s another one to use.

      Does your man (character) smell like smoked cheese? A bit of Limburger (like dirty socks)? Cardamom and turmeric can greatly change your smell to a strong body smell.

      How about a coffee smell? I took high school Latin with one teacher, and I would always smell a weird smell in the portable that we would have class in. It took me quite a while to realize it was the coffee he brought in his thermos. It was the weirdest coffee smell that I’ve ever smelled, and he smelled of it. To me, coffee smells better than it tastes. It’s very attractive to me. The better the quality, the more I’m attracted. (I still loved my teacher.)

      Cedar is my favorite smell in wood. Thistle is my favorite flower. Basil is my favorite herb smell, and spices all have their attractions. I like cinnamon and allspice, but opening the door to someone’s spice cabinet and getting a whiff of all the spices mixed together is kind of a rush of enjoyment.

  3. You left out onions and garlic. I stopped taking the elevator in an office building with a lot of foreign business owners. Nice people but they perfumed the elevator cabs for quite a while after their ride. And if they were arguing, it lasted even longer.

    1. *gags* There should be sinks with mouthwash and breathmints outside elevator doors, MonaKarel. In fact, outside of any enclosed space. Perhaps cans of deodorant, too.

  4. Enjoyed your post! And OMG on the deer butt smell, had no idea that was the origin of musk!

    I have my hero reminding her of “woods after a thunderstorm — clean and elemental”

      1. Such a unique way to describe the hero’s scent – ‘woods after a thunderstorm’. You’ve inspired me to be more creative : )

    1. Oh, it’s not the smell I object to, Betsu. It’s the word “musky”. I think there are more interesting and creative ways of describing how a man smells. That’s all.

  5. I might be the only one, but I have to refrain from putting my nose ‘into’ a man that had a day of office work (or similar) done. It’s a bit of sweat and a bit of wearing the same clothes all day, so natural scent gets into it. Some men just smell fantastic by themselves… (with help of a little deodorant, don’t need to push it 😉

    Now that scent is the one I am trying to describe, but just can’t reach. Does anyone have a suggestion?

  6. I’m vegan as well and I have to admit I smelled my armpits after reading this! It left me feeling a little like the leading role of Superstar. I love your candid and humorous style! Your writing both inspired and informed me. I needed to know how the leading man in my latest novel smells. 🙂 I chose synthetic over natural. Call me crazy. Thanks for the post! Very useful!

  7. Great article. I like the “woody” smell you mentioned in the colognes, conjures up sexual images as well for me too, lol. But have to make sure it’s not too “punny”, the wording would be key. I also liked “leather” and “sandlewood.”

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  9. I hate when I read, “His scent was a rich masculine scent that instantly reminded me of orgasm.” No lie, I read that phrase and I just stopped reading. Is there a difference between a rich masculine to a poor masculine? Is there an in-between masculine? Are they talking about the actual act of an orgasm or the bodily fluid of orgasm? LOL.

  10. I’m on the fence about the musk thing. I ended up here specifically because I was looking for ways to describe a mans scent since I always tend to go the musky route. But its getting kinda old. However,that said, my guy only wears a fragrance called Egyptian musk, has been wearing it since we were teenagers. It triggers memories, arousals, and I swear its like an invisible tether. It just reels me in. I can’t resist him. Not even the thought of a deer’s butt deters me…lol. I love musk!

    1. I imagine a werewolf would smell earthy, like wood and rain and over all very… elemental, something fierce, maybe even like spices or a specific spice, exotic and interesting and probably intoxicating (depending on the type of werewolf, say if he’s the type to eat people or lure prey in, maybe his attractive scent helps). Like a midnight breeze of a storm on a night with a full moon (may be cheesy, but hey, that’s me).

  11. makes a heroine’s nose cilia and chemoreceptors jump to attention? Can you recall any memorable scent-descriptions from your romance reading? Is there a difference between how heroes and heroines’ scents are described? *Wedekind, C, et al. (1995) “MHC-dependent preferences in humans.”

  12. Not sure what the proper words would be to describe it, but to me, there is nothing nicer than the smell of freshly washed man…clean soap smell, water, shave cream, and blended with all of it their own unique smell that is just MAN (probably some kind of natural chemical/pheromone). Gets me every time.

  13. It’s a refreshing take on the often clichéd descriptions of men’s scents. Sexual allure isn’t just about looks; the scent plays a huge part too, steering clear of the typical ‘musky’ clichés to more nuanced fragrances could indeed add depth to male characters. Would love to explore more unique scents that contribute to a man’s sexual charisma without resorting to the typical.

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