Pheromones-Natural Aphrodisiac Or Marketing Myth?

Wondering what role pheromones play in attraction? We’ve got the truth about these mysterious chemicals, including whether some so-called “love potions” work — straight from the experts themselves.

By Mark Amundsen

ou may have seen advertisements for websites that sell pheromone-based products whose sales pitch purports that pheromones are airborne hormone particles that attract the opposite sex. Pheromones supposedly attract members of the opposite sex on a visceral, almost evolutionarily primitive level, overpowering the social and sexual mores humans have built upon over millennia to make oneself seem irresistible — and deems that the subsequent sex
Pheromones are supposed to work by smell, not as pharmacological agents.
will be outstanding. They make it sound like the physiochemical equivalent of whacking your date over the head with a club and dragging him or her off to the cave! With promises like this one, some companies make it sound like their pheromone-based products will do everything for you but the dishes.

What are pheromones, exactly?
There’s some question about this, but the generally accepted answer is: pheromones are chemicals secreted by an organism that makes another organism of the same species respond in a particular way. For a hypothetical illustration, suppose that the female slug emits a chemical that causes a male slug to exhibit a predictable behavior — say, it causes him to tend the garden. As long as this chemical doesn’t have the same effect on ants, aphids, the kid who cuts the lawn, and so on, it can be considered a pheromone.

Pheromones are supposed to work by smell, not as pharmacological agents — it is the scent of the pheromone that causes the reaction, not a chemical action caused by its composition. Sort of like the difference between getting a whiff of a bus station men’s room or a blast of pepper spray — the first repels you because of the unpleasant scent; the second does the same thing, because it causes physical irritation. Pheromones are like the bathroom example (except, of course, with a positive effect).

Over time, this broad definition has focused on a single, unproven concept: that pheromones emitted by human beings create sexual desire in other human beings. But the bulk of the studies about pheromones primarily concern creatures that fall a bit lower on the food chain than us humans. For example, pheromones are used by some fungi and algae as attractants; they cause a direct reaction in complementary species for reproduction. Insects use them, too, and not just to attract mates: for example, ants use pheromone trails to lead other ants to the picnic food you’ve laid out. In 2010, researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that worker ants become infertile in the presence of a pheromone emitted from their ant queen. It’s all pretty exciting stuff, to be sure — but claims that pheromones work in humans as a sort of remote control that lights up potential sexual partners are still far less certain.

A violation of common scents
The number of studies that have shown smells do produce physiological effects on humans would seem to indicate that smelling someone else’s pheromones would cause a predictable reaction in others (that is, beyond wondering when that person last showered). But some scientists maintain that humans (or even other mammals) do not produce pheromones — or that if they do, they’re ineffective, because humans long ago lost the ability to detect them.

“I’ve basically told a very large group of people that their life’s work is nonsense,” says Richard L. Doty, Ph.D., director of the Smell & Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and author of The Great Pheromone Myth (Johns Hopkins University Press). As the title implies, Doty’s book is devoted to destroying false claims about what pheromones are and what they can actually do. In his research, Doty looks at some well-known studies associated with evidence of mammalian pheromones and leaves them all worse for wear. For example, in one famous study concerning rhesus monkeys, female monkeys who were initially believed to have attracted males by emitting pheromones was later proved incorrect; in reality, the males’ behavior toward the female test subjects was the result of behavioral conditioning instead. (That didn’t stop the study’s researcher from subsequently patenting and selling his own pheromone product.) Another study showing a similar reaction between male and female boars was also exposed to be false, with its initial pheromone-positive results later attributed to behavioral conditioning amongst the animals.

The nose knows…
Researchers made waves in the 1980s when they claimed to have discovered a vomeronasal organ (VNO) inside the human nose capable of detecting pheromones, much like VNOs do in other species. “Using high-tech microscope probes that were unavailable to VNO hunters earlier in the century, a team led by Luis Monti-Bloch of the University of Utah found a tiny pair of pits — one in each nostril — snuggled up against the septum an inch inside the nose,” reported Psychology Today. But, as Doty explains, “We do have vestigial openings in the nose, but the sacs behind them are only rudiments of the vomeronasal organs and lack the full complement of cells to be functional.
Anything that causes smell can affect cortisol levels.
Moreover, this rudimentary VNO, if you will, lacks a nerve that ordinarily would project to the accessory olfactory bulb (which we also lack). Hence, it is non-functional.”

Doty does believe in the power of good scents… just not necessarily in the power of natural human scents. “What does happen with odors is that they — as with music, or dim lights — can affect people’s moods. A lot of odors affect cortisol levels.” (Cortisol is the so-called fight-or-flight hormone in humans, which rises in response to stress.) “Anything that causes smell can affect cortisol levels; irritating smells, even nice smells. Grapefruit, for example.”

Before you get any funny ideas, it’s the scent of the grapefruit that causes the reaction, not some grapefruit pheromone. Purveyors of pheromone products sometimes blame modern hygiene for killing natural pheromone reactions amongst humans — underarm deodorant being a major offender. Doty suggests that if that were the case, deodorant would probably have never caught on. In his book, he quotes Gaius Valerius Catullus — writing in A.D. 87 about a friend’s gag-worthy body odor — to show that B.O. was never a beloved trait (“Deep in a valley, thy arms, such evil story maligns thee…”).

We’re people, not ants
It’s true that some creatures attract mates by using pheromones. We also know that some ants leave a trail by emitting pheromones. That doesn’t mean that if you get to a friend’s house just after he left there, you’ll be able to follow his pheromone trail to the mall with your nose. Men are not ants, but con artists have profited for years off of people’s ignorance when it comes to humans and pheromones. Even Psychology Today noted that such so-called love potions are still a myth: “scientists have found that, despite some extravagant industry promises, the attraction value in perfumes resides strictly in their pleasantness, not their sexiness. So far, at least, store-bought scent is more decoration than mood manager or love potion. A subtle ‘look this way’ nudge to the nose, inspiring a stranger’s curiosity, or at most a smile, is all perfume advertisers can in good conscience claim for their products — not overwhelming and immediate infatuation.”

But, of course, not all advertisers have good consciences.

Isn’t making false claims illegal?
A common misconception about products like these — much like dietary supplements or diet products — is that laws prohibit manufacturers from making claims that have no basis in fact. In truth, anyone can make such claims, just as long as the manufacturers do not say that the product treats or cures any diseases — and being unable to attract someone is hardly a disease. Otherwise, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration won’t endorse any manufacturers’ claims, nor does it dispute them.

“Periodically, the FDA learns of manufacturers or marketers of fragrance products that supposedly contain ‘pheromones,’ for which various ‘personal attractiveness’ enhancement claims are made,” says Siobhan DeLancey of the FDA’s Office of Public Affairs. “Some of the substances that have been considered pheromone candidates include such steroidal substances as androstenone, androsterone, androstanone, alpha-androsterol, androstadienol, copulins, and estratetraenol, among others. In general, these products claim only to subliminally increase general attractiveness to members of the opposite sex. In order to determine whether or not a product is making illegal claims, the FDA would need to undertake a full product review, including its formulation ingredients, product package labeling, collateral promotional literature, and any website or mass media representations.”

Since the only harm in buying and using these pheromone products appears to be restricted to one’s wallet, no calls to have the products banned have been successful. One of the ironies of our age is that modern snake-oil salesmen can make all kinds of baseless and even preposterous claims about worthless products, while companies that make effective prescription drugs have to be extremely careful about saying what the drugs can do, and offer disclaimers and warnings regarding any claims they do make. If you’ve ever seen an ad for a drug and you have no idea what it does, you can be sure it’s a real drug; however, the company didn’t want to include its myriad disclaimers, caveats, warnings, explanations, and the rest of the fine print.

People using pheromone products may feel some kind of placebo effect, thereby causing them to have more confidence and thus be perceived as more attractive when using them — but wearing a favorite dress or lucky tie should be equally effective.

So spend some time making your overall self more appealing rather than spending money on dodgy pheromone-based perfumes if you’re looking to boost your attraction quotient. Develop a positive attitude! Get in shape, splurge on a couple of nice outfits and maybe even a pleasant perfume or cologne, if scent’s your thing. There’s always an element of good fortune involved in finding a good love match, sure; but you can increase your odds, and not just by relying on some chemical of questionable derivation. After all, there’s more to falling in love than smelling good!

Mark Amundsen is a writer and editor in New York.

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