What’s the Deal with Pheromones?

January 24, 2017

We’re all familiar with the power of scent: its ability to transport us to another moment in time by bringing back a memory, its potential power over our moods, and yes, its capacity to make us feel a sense of attraction to another person. I know I’m really into a guy if I love the way he smells, and I’m not in the minority. I’ve gone so far as to burrow my face into a borrowed shirt or two like a stable person. But could it very well be I’m really into the guy because of the way he smells? Either way, it’s important. Psychologist Rachel Herz, author of The Scent of Desire, has been quoted saying, “One of the most common things women tell marriage counselors is, ‘I can’t stand his smell.’” Did you know, as determined by a 2012 study at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the scent of a woman’s tears actually reduces sexual arousal, as well as testosterone levels in men?

Enter the concept of pheromones, subconscious odor signals formally defined as “a chemical substance that is usually produced by an animal and serves especially as a stimulus to other individuals of the same species for one or more behavioral responses,” namely communication and attraction. A pheromone isn’t a love potion, but it may very well possess a kind of innate magic. According to the Smithsonian, scientists say pheromones, also known as your airborne compounds, “send signals about your moods, your sexual orientation, and even your genetic makeup.” It was less than 30 years ago that a study was first conducted to prove the existence of pheromones in humans. In 1986, Dr. Winnifred Cutler, who founded the almost comically titled Athena Institute for Women’s Wellness, determined, to quote from an article in The Washington Post that same year, “the human body produces pheromones, special aromatic chemical compounds discharged by one individual that affect the sexual physiology of another.” Some people will argue that they’re more in tune to the pheromones of others when they’ve consumed cannabis; if it heightens your senses, it stands to reason acuteness of smell would be the most noticeable enhanced.

About a century prior in Paris, the stench of body odor grew so strong it was nicknamed “The Great Stink of 1880.” Apparently, a lot could be discerned about a person upon first impression, and with the dawn of modern-day perfume, deodorant and regular showers, our ability to determine our attraction levels to others depreciated greatly. But we still have a handle on what we like in another person’s aroma. A 2005 study in which gay men were given anonymous sweat samples to sniff, showed they preferred the scent of other gay men. Similarly, a well-known Swiss study in 2008 asked women to rate the odors of T-shirts worn by various men. They selected men whose DNA was distinctly different from theirs (so if they bred, their child would have a healthy immune system); the smell of the shirts they most preferred also reminded them of past and current boyfriends. And a 2007 study in New Mexico reported that a group of strippers earned $150 less per shift when they were menstruating, as opposed to when they were ovulating, as in at their most fertile. In short, the nose knows.

Why do we feel what we like to call “chemistry” with one person and not another? The same goes for love, or lust, as it’s determined to be in many cases, at first sight. It could be argued—as a matter of fact, a number of researchers do argue—that scent, not looks, comprises the very root of sexual attraction. To quote from TIME’s February ’15 article “What Pheromones Really Reveal About Your Love Life,” “Beauty may not be in the eye of the beholder after all. It may actually lie just south, in the nose.” It’s a pretty enticing idea that a specific fragrance can make someone feel quite taken with you (or another can momentarily transport you to the scenic beach when your window overlooks a construction site). Similarly, fashion designer Christian Dior remarked, “A woman’s perfume tells more about her than her handwriting,” while the iconic Coco Chanel is known for remarking, “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.” 

Does that mean you should try something like Athena Pheromone 10X, an unscented aftershave additive for men? Designed to make you more attractive to women by Dr. Cutler, of the previously mentioned Athena Institute, this stuff came out in 1995 and currently costs $99.50 for a one-sixth-of-an-ounce vial. Its effectiveness is questionable; just recently, a VICE writer tried it in hopes of becoming a “sex god” to no success. However, even if it functions as just a placebo, it could potentially make you more confident and therefore more attractive to women. Potentially. But the reality of pheromones is that they’re natural, not produced. Just like you can’t make someone like you, you can’t make someone like your smell.

But there are plenty of scents people generally like more than others, most of which could involve a stop in your local pastry shop. According to yet another study, the smell of pumpkin pie, doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, vanilla or lavender tend to produce more male erections than any other aromas. Something about them increases blood flow to the penis. Pink grapefruit also works, specifically for its alleged youth-ifying effect; it’s been reported that when women smell like it, they’re perceived to be five years younger than their actual age.

While many women will say they don’t want their man to smell like anything—as in, not some desperate cologne—new sweat (not to be confused with stale sweat, which apparently won’t get anyone laid) is the winner, since chicks are turned on by testosterone, plain and simple. Citrus, banana nut bread, almonds and black licorice, like old Good & Plenty candy, are also known to entice, while peppermint is said to increase the possibility of multiple orgasms. Emphasis on possibility because really, who can say for sure?

Also, political views matter. A study conducted at Brown University found that if you happen to like the way someone smells, it’s likely you have the same political preferences. “People could not predict the political ideology of others by smell if you asked them, but they differentially found the smell of those who aligned with them more attractive,” reported Dr. Rose McDermott. “So I believe smell conveys important information about long-term affinity in political ideology that becomes incorporated into a key component of subconscious attraction.” Perhaps the upside to our nation being more apparently divided than ever is the fact that it will be even easier to weed out the people you don’t want to date. 

Photo credit: Ioana Casapu

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