Do Pheromones Work?

Can a perfume or cologne with pheromones turn you into a love magnet? The prevailing wisdom is that you should hold on tightly to your purse for now.

Pheromones are defined as chemicals secreted by an individual that produces a change in the sexual or social behavior of another individual of the same species. There are different types of pheromones, including the ones that get the most attention--sex pheromones, or sexual attractants.

Some cosmetic companies have been pushing products that contain human pheromones, which they claim induce a feeling of acceptance and warmth in the opposite sex. But do pheromones really work? While the research behind pheromones and attraction is well-documented in animals such as silk worms, moths and beetles, when it comes to humans, the science is conflicting.

Women, Pheromones and Attraction

Some studies suggest that both women and men can be lured or repelled by body odor. Researchers at Prague University found that women preferred the smell of men who rated highly on a questionnaire-based psychological dominance scale. However, this effect was seen only in non-single women who were fertile at the time, not in single women at any phase during their menstrual cycle.

Do Pheromones Work on Men?

One of the researchers in that study, Dr. Jan Havlicek, also led another study on body odor--this time for the opposite sex. Men were asked to rate the smell of women's underarms from cotton pads the women wore for 24 hours. They had to give up perfumes, deodorants, antiperspirants, shower gel, alcohol, sex, recreational drugs, and eating foods containing garlic, onion, chili, pepper, vinegar, blue cheese, cabbage, radish, fermented milk products and marinated fish.

In the end, men found the odors most pleasant and attractive during the women's follicular phase, or when they're most likely to conceive. The smells were least attractive during menstruation. The results suggest that body odor can be used by men as a cue to the fertile period in current or prospective sexual partners.

Is It Love or Simple Biology?

The findings shouldn't make any love-seeker giddy with the hope that's sold along with pheromone perfumes. While these studies suggest some sort of connection between human pheromones and attraction, it's the nature of that connection that's in question.

According to the Swedish Research Council, an earlier study led by Mats Olsson of the Department of Psychology at Uppsala University in Sweden suggests that human pheromones may be more likely to cause reaction than attraction. When exposed to a steroid called androstadienone, which is found in male sweat, women were more positive and focused than women in a control group. They also experienced changes in heart rate and skin temperature.

However, the reactions occurred only when the substance was worn by a heterosexual male study leader, not a female study leader. Olsson interpreted these results to mean that people are more contextual beings who are not driven by individual stimuli, but by the situations they're in.

So maybe the question isn't "do pheromones work?" but "how do pheromones work?" These studies reveal that fertile women are more likely to be influenced by male body odors and men find women's scents more attractive when they're fertile. It's possible that pheromones and the basic need to reproduce is a stronger link than pheromones and romantic attraction or a better chance of finding love.

Study References:

Journal: Ethology, Vol. 112 Issue 1, pp. 81 - 90

Study Date: 2006

Study Name: Non-Advertized does not Mean Concealed: Body Odour Changes across the Human Menstrual Cycle


Authors: Jan Havlíček, Radka Dvořáková, Luděk Bartoš, and Jaroslav Flegr

Journal: Biology Letters, Vol. 1, No. 3 pp. 256-259

Study Date: 2005

Study Name: Women's preference for dominant male odour: effects of menstrual cycle and relationship status


Authors: Jan Havlicek, S. Craig Roberts, Jaroslav Flegr