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Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

Posted February 13, 2023 7:44 AM by dstrohl
Pathfinder Tags: gasoline petrol

You’re driving on the highway as the fuel gauge dips dangerously close to “E.” Taking the first exit that advertises petrol, you pull up to the pump and open the door, letting in the full sounds of traffic followed by a breeze carrying whiffs of the surrounding trees, hot pavement, and fast-food eateries. With a squeeze of the pump’s lever, the desire to indulge in undeniably addictive processed foods is washed away by a scent even more tantalizing. Mmmm, gasoline.

How can something so toxic, containing around 150 chemicals including the cancer-causing benzene, smell so enticing that you find yourself fighting the urge to inhale it deeply into your lungs? As it turns out, if you are one of the people who relates to this sensory overload, you’re not crazy. Well, not because of your attraction to fuel vapors, anyway.

The affinity for the smell of inflammable, noxious chemicals floating from the fuel pumps is actually quite normal, and could be caused by one of two things, the first being obvious. Gasoline is an inhalant that contains hydrocarbons that suppress the central nervous system and activate the mesolimbic or ‘reward’ pathway. When someone takes a whiff of fuel vapor, it releases a quick dose of dopamine to the brain. But don’t let your brain trick you; that temporary feeling of euphoria doesn’t mean you should take a deep breath near the fuel pump.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse (NDA), gasoline is in the same realm of toxicity as household cleaners, glues, paints and markers. Of course, inhaling gasoline or similar chemicals is dangerous and could result in addiction or worse; distorted speech, lack of control of body movement, and permanent damage to our lungs and nervous systems, potentially inducing a coma or causing cancer or death. Consider this our disclaimer. Don’t sniff the stuff.

Out of the long laundry list of chemicals that gasoline is made of, benzene is the main culprit for the fuely smell we all know, and that some of us love. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) states that the irresistibly sweet smell of benzene is so potent, a human’s nose can begin to detect it at a miniscule .25 parts of gasoline per million parts of air.

This affinity for benzene isn’t new news. The chemical was reportedly used in the 1800s to add the addictive scent to aftershaves, perfumes and other personal care products until scientists discovered just how harmful to health the chemical is. Clearly, some folks have a fondness for the smell, which brings us to the second reason for why you might enjoy standing near the pumps despite high gas prices: nostalgia.

The human’s sense of smell has a unique connection to memory and, when triggered by a particular scent, it can evoke vivid recollections of past times. Do you ever find yourself reflecting on memories like family road trips, car shows, weekend boat rides, time spent with relatives or friends at the racetrack while you’re at the pump? If so, benzene is likely your “memory drug.” When this happens, it’s usually involuntary. The brain works in mysterious ways. While wondering why the smell of fuel is so, so good, many people don’t think to link their emotions and memories to their trigger scent. It can go the other way around, too. If someone loathes a smell, it could be linked to negative memories.

Do you love the smell of gasoline fresh from the pumps? What about race gas? Tell us which automotive scents tickle your senses in the comments below, or better yet, share what favorite past time triggers your fondness for fuel.

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#1

Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/13/2023 1:47 PM

I remember as a child that the gasoline vapors smelled attractive, but even at a young age, I had the inherent sense not to be stupid about it even without adults or the government telling me not to do it. Fifty years later though, it is not an attractive smell to me any more. I don't know if the gas changed or it was me?

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Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/15/2023 7:33 PM

Maybe you miss the bouquet of Tetra Ethyl Lead (Pb(C2H5)4) ...

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Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/16/2023 12:09 PM

Could be ??

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Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/13/2023 11:00 PM

I guess that's why these - benzene, toulene, and other phenyl groups - are collectively known as 'aromatic hydrocarbons'...

I remember acquaintances - and a fair few friends - from my teenage years, who used whatever spare coins they could collect, to buy pint-bottles of Mobil-Lite or Shell-Lite from the corner store (throughout the 70s these were easily available) for the sole purpose of sniffing and getting - they say - some kind of 'high'

Never did feel the attraction, and I'll be forever glad that I didn't!

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Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/14/2023 5:02 AM

On the farm, I didn’t mind gassing (fueling) up the equipment. But I could not stand getting the smell on my hands or cloths.

now diesel is different. That you wanted to get fueling over asap.

and btw,… benzene is a carcinogen

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Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/14/2023 4:11 AM

The smell of Castrol R used in 2 stroke racing engines, just the slightest whiff evokes good memories.

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Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/14/2023 11:39 AM

Yes, a distinctive smell, like no other. Sweet, in a strange way. I can't really describe it, but I know it instantly when I do smell it. Not many RZ350's on the roads these days. Either have been thoroughly thrashed and crashed at the race tracks or the collectors just aren't riding them anymore.

Wished I had bought one back in the eighties when they were plentiful.

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Re: Why Does Gasoline Smell So Good? Here’s What Science Says

02/14/2023 12:02 PM

I think we have all owned bikes or cars that we wish we had kept, we don't realise at the time. I wonder if in 20 years someone will be pining for their Prius?

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