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Our body odors are not subliminal mating signals

Pheromone attraction has become a very profitable marketing ploy, but the science behind the idea is a myth, writes Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein.
Creative Commons/Deborah Austin
Pheromone attraction has become a very profitable marketing ploy, but the science behind the idea is a myth, writes Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein.

Writing in the online magazine Slate last week, Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein shatters yet another pervasive media myth about human biology: the idea that our bodies excrete odors — pheromones — that work as chemically charged mating signals.

“If only it were so,” writes Epstein.

Pheromones, in scientific parlance, are aromatic chemicals emitted by one member of a species that affect another member of the same species, either by altering its hormones or by compelling it to change its behavior. When they work, they are truly bewitching. For instance, when a female silkworm moth wants to get her guy, she sprays a chemical called bombykol from her abdominal gland and her targeted male transforms into a sex slave, trailing the scent until he mounts her. It’s an enviable feat. Still, it’s a big leap to extrapolate from bugs to people — or even to lab mice, for that matter. No scientific study has ever proven conclusively that mammals have pheromones.
“The whole pheromone thing got picked up by the mass media,” says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Research Center and author of The Great Pheromone Myth. It feeds into our need to believe, he said, that there “is all this subliminal stuff going on that is affecting us — who we mate with, who we want to be with. It’s this mythical perspective.” And marketers, like women’s magazines, are only too happy to exploit that myth. That’s how a whole junk-science industry of pheromone-perfumes, pheromone-soaps, and pheromone cosmetics managed to spring up from a strange menagerie of misconstrued mammal studies.

One company promises, for example, that the “biologically active” pheromones in its products will “act as a love potion, attracting the man to a woman — even if the man might not have otherwise been interested in the woman on the basis of her looks or the sound of her voice.”

Sadly, women fall for such sales pitches. But men do, too.  As Epstein points out, Dial sells an androstenedione body wash that claims to attract women.

Debunked studies
The history behind the start of scientific and medical myths is always interesting. The pheromone myth began, reports Epstein, half a century ago when an English psychiatrist and primate researcher, Richard Michaels, believed he had found vaginal chemicals in rhesus monkeys that attracted males of the species. He dubbed these chemicals copulins, from “copulate.” (The term “pheromone” was coined in 1959 by two German scientists to describe what was going on in insects.) Subsequent research by Michaels and others showed that copulins did not have this attraction effect in humans or other primates, but by then the myth that pheromones offered a subliminal way of making individuals more appealing to the opposite sex had taken hold.

It had also become a big and profitable marketing ploy.

“A true human pheromone would have universal appeal across the species,” writes Epstein. “But the latest research on olfaction hints that our smell systems are much more individualized than we ever imagined.”

“This shift in thinking is really quite liberating,” she adds. “It means, for one thing, that we may have more complicated relationships with our men than a female silkworm moth has with hers.”

You can read Epstein’s article on Slate’s website.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Paul Scott on 08/25/2011 - 11:54 am.

    I love this topic. I haven’t read the Slate article, but for a contrary view I thoroughly recommend The Scented Ape, by Michael Stoddart, an Oxford educated zoologist and chair of zoology at the University of Tasmania. (That’s an interesting post.) He points out that if we aren’t supposed to respond to scent, then why do we emit so much of it? We have spots all over our body that do nothing but emit and retain scent. Moreover, we retain a vestigial veromonasal organ atop the roof of our mouths that connects scent to the brain below the level of awareness.

  2. Submitted by Ross Nicholson on 08/26/2011 - 01:30 am.

    Doty never noticed all the brush border cells that line most of the upper respiratory system. It’s a case of willful omission, perhaps driven by religious fanaticism. A broad-spectrum  medical treatment for thrill-seeking (crime, drug addiction, unwanted perversions) now exists: a human pheromone, the healthy adult male facial skin surface lipid ‘kissing daddy’s face’ pheromone.  Perhaps due to differing metabolic/neuronal pathways, alcoholism is unaffected by pheromone treatment.  One dose of 150-250 mg provides permanent relief of even the most obdurate cases.  

    Nicholson, B. 1984;  Does kissing aid human bonding by semiochemical  addiction?   British Journal  of  Dermatology  111(5):623-627.

    Nicholson, B. 2011:  Of Love 2nd Edition  Textbook of medical science:  exocrinology.  http://www.amazon.com/dp/1456564889

    Nicholson, B. 2011: Exocrinology The Science of Love 2nd Edition Human Pheromones in Criminology, Psychiatry, and Medicine.

    BBC-TV interview
    typical anecdote

  3. Submitted by James V. Kohl on 08/26/2011 - 07:52 pm.

    Human pheromones, epigenetics, physiology, and the development of animal behavior is the title of the poster presentation of results that show a mixture of androstenol and androsterone increased women’s flirtatious behavior and self-reported level of attraction.

    See for yourself:

    Our results combine the known effects of androstenol on LH and on mood with a likely behavioral affect of androsterone. They also address contrarian opinions and extend to human females a eusocial insect model for the epigenetic effects of diet and of pheromones on hormone-mediated gene expression during behavioral development. Our mixture characterizes species-specific human pheromones, their epigenetic effects on physiology, and their affect on behavior. Our results are consistent with a validated, unaltered, decades-old, across-species concept of pheromones.

  4. Submitted by Leilani Maeva on 02/20/2017 - 11:03 pm.

    Very few legitimate studies on this topic

    I read about about a study on the effects of androstenol many years ago, but I felt that at the time it was primarily pseudo-scientists who were trying to exploit

    pheromones as a way to sell perfumes and other products associated with this topic. However, I did find a study that looked into the effects of putative chemosignals

    that affect women’s attributions of male attractiveness:

    With that said, there does seem to be a little skepticism surrounding the topic, because there is still debate about whether the vomeronasal organ (VNO), or Jacobson’s organ, is actually still a part of functioning human anatomy. Animals still rely on their sense of smell to gather food, ward off prey, find mates. Over the

    last 1000 or so years, I can’t imagine this being a vital survival mechanism, so perhaps this is why there is disagreement among scientists about macro-evolution of the olfactory system.

    There was also a study done on how this putative pheromone can affect cortisol levels, as well as studies on various pheromones that are part of the -androstene chain:

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