Sexual pheromones: myth or truth?

Neon love by BSchwehn
Neon love by BSchwehn

Love changes everything, people say. Valentine’s Day is the day of love. Especially on that day, pheromones are advertised and sold as cologne or perfume in order to stimulate attraction between people. However, the question is: do sexual pheromones really exist, and how good are they?

Pheromones are chemosignals transmitting gender-specific information. The most widely studied human pheromone is AND (Δ4,16-androstadien-3-one) which is secreted by axillary sweat. There are higher concentrations of AND in male than in female axillary sweat. These findings led some researchers to the idea that AND is involved especially in human attraction. Support for this hypothesis comes fromSaxton and colleagues, who found in 2008 that young females, when exposed to AND, rate males at a speed dating event significantly more attractive, than females exposed to the control substance. Despite this evidence, many scientists such as the olfaction expert Richard Doty in his book The Great Pheromone Myth,  claim that, unlike insects, mammals do not have pheromones and that these chemosignals don’t play a role in mammalian behavior and reproductive processes.

Other scientists, such as Tristram D. Wyatt, say that mammals are likely to use pheromones; however, so far no pheromones have been conclusively identified, despite stories in the mass media.

What is clear to me from my direct experience, working with my students Laura Steenbergen and Annelies de Haan on a project investigating the effect of AND on attention, is that pheromones are “tricky” chemosignals that are effective only in particular groups of people, or when specific conditions are met:

  • The person should not be aware of the pheromones. 10% of the population can be aware of them in terms of reporting a “bad/animal/sweat-like smell”.
  • Women should not be suffering from a cold or allergy symptoms, and not be using oral contraceptives. These women are particularly sensitive to pheromones in the late follicular phase of their menstrual cycle (which corresponds to the fertile period in women).
  • Gay men are more affected by pheromones than heterosexual men.
  • Visual attractiveness plays a key role. AND is effective in average good looking men but not in men with unpleasant look.

Pheromones are NOT really effective:

  • In heterosexual men
  • In homosexual women
  • In women who are using oral contraceptives

In sum, getting back to the question: yes, pheromones may exist, but they are good only under very restricted circumstances. For sure, pheromones are not miracle perfumes. So, for Valentine’s Day, until more information will be available on pheromones, is better to stick to the traditional red roses and heart-shaped chocolates.

This blog was also published in Dutch in de Volkskrant on 09-02-2013 under the title of ‘Romantiek met een vleugje zweetspray’.

(previously posted and commented here)

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