Fascinating study concludes that dentists can smell when you’re afraid, making them more likely to make mistakes
07/29/2018 // Zoey Sky // Views

No matter what your age, the thought of going to the dentist might fill you with fear and/or anxiety.

According to a study by a group of researchers who observed dental students, "dentists can smell when a patient is anxious." The smell of fear or anxiety can even affect the performance of dentists, increasing the chance that they might "make mistakes and perform badly."

Valentina Parma, from the International School for Advanced Studies, shared that the study is the first to provide real-world evidence that chemical signals hidden in human body odors can reveal emotions and influence the behavior of other people.

Other lab-based experiments have already determined that the body odors of individuals feeling certain emotions, especially negative ones like anxiety, disgust, and fear, might influence the perception of other people. However, it's still difficult to explain why this happens and the smell can be hard to describe. (Related: Scared of the dentist? Scientists claim fear of dental drilling may be genetic.)

Anxiety and mistakes

For the study, Parma and a team of researchers set out to determine if body odor can signal a person's anxiety. The researchers worked with dental students since dentists often treat patients who may be anxious.

The researchers asked the 24 student volunteers to donate two T-shirts each. The first was worn during a stressful exam while the second was worn during a calm lecture.

The research team then drenched the T-shirts with a chemical that masks body odor. The chemical-laden shirts were presented to a separate group of 24 dental students who reported that they didn't smell any difference between the shirts worn during the stressful or relaxed situations.


In the next part of the study, the donated shirts were worn by mannequins while the second group of students performed dental treatments on them. The students were graded individually on their performance by examiners.

Based on the results of the graded performance, the students "performed significantly worse" when they were treating the mannequins that were dressed in the T-shirts worn by the other stressed participants. Some of the mistakes the students made included "being more likely to damage neighboring teeth."

Parma posited that the scent of anxiety could trigger the same emotions in people who subconsciously smell it.

Pamela Dalton, from the Monell Chemical Senses Centersaid that the results of the study were interesting since it can help them learn how humans "communicate without language."

Parma added that the reaction to fear isn't unique to patients and their dentists. Doctors can also smell a patient's fear, and body odors can also affect your work performance, especially if you're sitting close to your boss.

The findings didn't confirm if fully trained dentists can also be affected by body odors like dental students, but future research will help look into this area of study. If the results reveal that dentists are also vulnerable to the same effect, training can help dentists and medical professionals identify potential biases that will hopefully improve patient care.

Unfortunately for patients, there’s not much to do when it comes to masking the body’s chemical signals. Parma noted, "I don’t think we’ll be able to develop an anti-anxiety deodorant, unless we find the molecule responsible."

She concluded, "A better approach is to make dentists aware of the effect, and help manage their anxiety."

Tips to manage your anxiety when at the dentist's

It's normal to feel scared when you're at the dentist, but these tips can help you calm down:

  1. Create a "dentist" playlist – Music can help you take your mind off of anything, and a playlist for the dentist appointment can help you calm down. Include songs that make you feel relaxed so you don't focus too much on whatever's going on during the procedure.
  2. Count during the procedure – This tip involves counting backwards from 100 slowly. Breathe slowly with each number and visualize the numbers so you forget where you are. Restart your count whenever the dentist begins a new procedure. Like you, dentists need frequent breaks. This tip can also work with kids who aren't too keen on getting their teeth cleaned.
  3. Tell them about your fears – Dentists are aware that some people are afraid of them, but they're also willing to help you feel more comfortable so they can do their jobs properly. Let them know if you have panic attacks or an extreme fear of dental procedures so they can make things easier for both of you.

Learn more tips on how to deal with your dentist appointment without anxiety at Dentistry.news.

Sources include:



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