Do people have “odorprints”?

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© Michael Haegele/Corbis

© Michael Haegele/Corbis

It’s no surprise that people have unique scents—from your seventh grade teacher’s combination of pungent perfume and chalk dust, to your mom’s familiar aroma of Gardenia and soap. But, are our particular smells unique enough for everyone to have a distinct “odorprint”? According to an article from Chemical & Engineering News, there is a growing group of scientists who think so.

Dogs have long been recruited for investigations, introduced to the scent of a particular person—or the stench of a decomposing body in some situations—and then deployed to help track the person (or corpse’s) whereabouts. And, apparently their sniffing skills are pretty specific—when given “sniffs of clothing from each one of a set of triplets,” writes reporter Ivan Amato, “veteran trailing dogs were able to distinguish between the otherwise carbon-copy babies.”

Yet researchers are now eager to move beyond canine capabilities, and are in the process of designing sophisticated scientific techniques for distinguishing, and even cataloging individual odor profiles, or “odorprints.” Armed with these tools, they could potentially keep track of people’s odorprints in the same way fingerprints are now stored in databases, and even eventually use tools like the air-puff booths at airports to sniff out the stench of specifically targeted stinkers—like criminals or terrorists.

Scientists are also working on the ability to sniff out the smell of fear, perhaps adding to lie detection techniques employed by government agencies and the police. But the potential for “odorprints” isn’t limited to law enforcement or national security. By determining which particular odor profiles are emitted by people suffering from different diseases—diabetes or lung cancer, for example—eventually tools could be developed to aid doctors in diagnosing these conditions, and even determining what might be the best course of treatment.

Of course, for all of the enthusiasm and possibility surrounding the science of stench, at the moment, these big ideas are many steps away from becoming realities. But perhaps in the meantime, knowing that someday our individual aromas may be classified as unique personal identifiers could at least inspire an increased dedication to hygiene—starting with changing those stinky socks.