Your nose isn’t the only part of your body capable of taking a whiff.
In the past decade, scientists have discovered olfactory receptors lingering in strange places—in sperm, in the spine, and even in the kidneys. Now researchers in Hanns Hatt’s lab at Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum have identified scent receptors somewhere much more accessible: the skin. What’s more, these receptors appear to be involved in healing.
Here’s Bob Roeher, writing for New Scientist:
They found that Sandalore—a synthetic sandalwood oil used in aromatherapy, perfumes and skin care products—bound to an olfactory receptor in skin called OR2AT4. Rather than sending a message to the brain, as nose receptors do, the receptor triggered cells to divide and migrate, important processes in repairing damaged skin.
Cell proliferation increased by 32 per cent and cell migration by nearly half when keratinocytes [skin cells] in a test tube and in culture were mixed for five days with Sandalore.
In other words, your skin has the ability to smell, just not in the way we normally think of. Instead, certain odorants target “smelling” receptors in the skin, which prompt the healing process. Of course, just as one nose is different from another, so are the scent receptors in our skin. One person’s genetics might predispose them to greater olfactory sensitivity than another’s.
This discovery is another example of our skin’s unexpected abilities. This week, NOVA Next contributor Sujata Gupta reported on the skin’s ability to “hear” sound. And new findings about our sense of touch, too, have illuminated a possible sensory-social dimension of autism. In the future, we might see a growing number of treatments channeled through the skin, whether they are topical solutions or otherwise.