Science of Sex: Pheromones

Welcome to the sixth installment in a new feature on Of Sex and Love: Science of Sex. In this feature, I plan to discuss the science of sexuality in an easy-to-digest format that’s accessible to the casual reader. I will also follow up with some extended reading material for people who want to know more about the subject of each post.


science of sex pheromones

You probably think of pheromones as sex chemicals. Many animals produce pheromones, chemicals that help attract mates among other things. But plants and bacteria also produce pheromones that serve various purposes. These chemicals are emitted through sweat, saliva, and other glands.

Human infants, for example, may detect pheromones that lead them to their mothers’ breasts, which is necessary for nursing. One type of moth releases a pheromone-filled mucus cocktail to attract potential suitors. Pheromones may signal whether another member of the same species is healthy and thus a good potential mate. Queen bees attract drones with pheromones (and unappealing pheromones may even serve as a pest repellant). Nature has plenty of examples of pheromones.

It’s the nose that detects pheromones in animals like humans and mice, but detection of these chemicals is unconscious. You wouldn’t realize when pheromones are at play, and animals certainly don’t.

Scientists believe pheromones in a man’s sweat can attract a woman to a man, even if the idea of smelling someone’s sweat isn’t appealing. Since the 1970s, researchers have found ties between body odor and attraction. You may already be familiar with the experiment in which women were asked to smell t-shirts covered in a man’s sweat and rate attractiveness. More recently, a study has shown that a man’s testosterone may rise when in the presence of pheromones of menstruating women.

Even exposure to pheromones from the same gender can elicit an effect as is the case with women and their menstrual cycles (and sweat from any gender can impact the menstrual cycle when applied near the nose). However, the case for pheromones in humans isn’t a strong one, and no specific chemicals have been extracted to reproduce that effect artificially.

Researchers once thought that the vomeronasal organ (VNO) is the pheromone receptor in animals. But humans have a particularly small VNO — and some have none at all. The genes that turn on the VNO aren’t active in every person, either. The VNO may be only part of the picture, too. One study showed that pigs could still detect pheromones even when the VNO duct was plugged, leading scientists to suggest that more than the VNO is necessary to detect pheromones.

The terminal nerve in the brain has been proposed as a pheromone detection, and hamsters with terminal nerve damage do not reproduce. This all makes it hard to make a solid case for human pheromones.

That doesn’t stop companies from promising you can attract a mate and make them obsessed with you with a little help from pheromones. But it does mean that the chemicals, if any, contained in these products are not human pheromones. They come from other animals, usually pigs, and there isn’t proof that they will work for you, a human person.

Even if researchers could prove that human pheromones exist and identify those chemical compounds, a true human pheromone product may not improve your sex life as much as you’d hope. For starters, you’d still produce your own pheromones. Pheromones also have to battle with all the bath and body products we use on a daily basis, which is one reason why researchers haven’t found a strong connection between pheromones and attraction in humans. Finally, humans have a host of other senses that come into play when it comes to attraction.

There’s enough evidence of pheromones in humans to warrant further investigation, but we cannot make a conclusive case for human pheromones.. yet.

Further Reading

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Dandi Lucas

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