Do Pheromone Perfumes Really Work?

  • By: Nathan Cherry
  • Time to read: 7 min.

Let’s talk turkey: pheromone perfumes. 

You might’ve seen them advertised on Instagram or Youtube. With titillating appellations like “Pure Instinct”, “SexyLife”, “AlphaQ”, “RawChemistry”, and “Pherazone”, these products claim that once you wear them, you’ll be practically swatting the women (or men, though mostly women) away like flies. 

But do pheromone perfumes actually work? 

The science is deeply mixed on the matter. Although it is obvious that scents do affect humans in many different ways, scientists have yet to find any conclusive evidence that pheromones play a role in attraction. 

Rather, it is more likely that users of pheromone perfumes are experiencing a placebo effect. 

Let’s take a closer look. 

What are pheromones? 

A pheromone, according to Merriam-Webster, is, “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.” 

These behavioral responses are hardly limited to the realm of sex and attraction. Pheromones can indicate the presence of a food source, sound the alarm of danger, mark territory, leave trails, or call allies together to mount a defense against an aggressive predator. 

They can also, of course, be released in order to attract potential mates. 

Practically every organism, including mammals, insects, reptiles, single celled prokaryotes, and even some plant species, emits and is affected by pheromones. 

So it would stand to reason that humans, who are animals just like any other (lest we forget), also emit and are affected by pheromones. 

Right? 

Unfortunately, the answer is complicated. 

Human Pheromones? 

For the moment, it is unknown whether or not a human pheromone exists.

It is pretty definitive that humans are affected by scent. That much is clear. Infants, for instance, are drawn to the smell of their mothers’ breasts. There is some evidence that the smell of women’s tears can dampen sexual arousal in men.

The McClintock effect, a phenomenon by which women’s menstrual cycles align when living in close proximity to one another, is strongly influenced by unconscious odor signals.

Androstadienone, a molecule found in male sweat, has been reported to boost women’s mood and affect attraction, and androstenone, another component of male sweat, can purportedly increase female libido. 

Problem solved, right? That must mean that humans emit pheromones, and if a man douses himself in androstenone and androstadienone, he’ll have every woman in a 10 mile radius practically chomping at the bit to have a piece of him. 

Not so fast. Though these molecules might have an effect on humans, that does not mean they are human pheromones

The Human Problem

Why not? Why can’t we say that these are human pheromones? 

Pheromones vary wildly from species to species. For instance, a molecule which in pine beetles indicates a food source is a sex pheromone to elephants. A sex pheromone in monkeys might be an alarm pheromone in hyenas. 

The same is true for humans. We might excrete molecules which to other species are sex pheromones, but to us they send an entirely different message. 

Well, you might be thinking, why not just isolate the sex pheromones in humans? 

Unfortunately for scientists, a number of factors confound such attempts. 

The Vomeronasal Organ 

The vomeronasal organ of a human fetus.

One of those factors comes down to a particular organ – namely the vomeronasal organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ.

The vomeronasal organ is the prime sensory organ by which animals take in pheromones. The vomeronasal organ sends chemical signals directly to the amygdala and hypothalamus, the control centers in the brain which influence reproductive and endocrine behaviors. Cats, dogs, rodents, snakes, lizards, pigs, and other animals have it, and guess what? Humans do too! 

However, in humans it is vestigial – meaning it doesn’t work, just like the  tailbone, wisdom teeth, and appendix. 

Humans evolved without relying too heavily on our sense of smell, like other animals. Rather, we put our skill points (to make a video game analogy) into visual acuity. 

“Hardwired” Reactions 

The chemical structure of bombykol, a sex pheromone of female silkworm moths.

Spray a flamingo pool floatie with Calvin Klein’s Obsession For Men and every leopard will go absolutely bonkers, rubbing and licking it with wild abandon. 

Bombykol, a sex pheromone excreted by female moths, will attract every potential male moth mate in the tri-state area. 

Male elephants in musth excrete a thick liquid called temporin, or ichor, containing highly fragrant compounds which causes attraction in female elephants in heat. 

Unfortunately for all you lonely guys and gals out there, there is no such compound which humans excrete that can cause such intense reactions. We do not possess any molecule that is emitted during an ordained season which will attract potential mates. 

While scientists have found that certain molecules, such as androstadienone and androstenone, have an effect on some individuals, the major confounding issue is that no molecule has been found to have a reliable, hardwired effect on all individuals

Though some studies have shown that androstenone increases libido in some women, others have shown that some women had absolutely no reaction to it, and even concluded that androstenone is not a human pheromone at all. In fact, it is a sex pheromone excreted by male pigs, which does indeed cause a reliable sexual reaction in female pigs. 

In humans, perhaps unlike any other animal, olfaction is subjective. 

While some might be driven to carnal ecstasy by the scent of musk and androstenone, key ingredients in these pheromone perfumes, others might not have any reaction whatsoever, or even think that the smell is entirely unpleasant. 

The lack of a molecule which causes a reliable, consistent response in humans is just part of the reason why discovering whether or not we have pheromones is a difficult prospect. 

It is clear that we react to smells, and that smell probably plays a larger role in our social and sexual behaviors than we realize. But does that mean we excrete and are affected by pheromones? 

That remains to be seen. Some scientists have argued that if human pheromones are ever discovered, it’s likely that their effects are far subtler than in other animals. 

Pheromone Perfumes and the Placebo Effect

In my view, pheromone perfumes are nothing but snake oil. 

Sure, maybe they have some small effect, on some individuals, in some instances. 

But just think: if pheromones really were a totally effective, foolproof way to attract a partner, would the pheromone perfume market not be a billion-dollar industry?  

The fact that it’s not should tell you all you need to know. 

Users of pheromone perfumes are most likely under the influence of the placebo effect. 

I’ll defer to Merriam-Webster once more: a placebo is, “a usually pharmacologically inert preparation prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on a disorder,” (italics mine) or, “something tending to soothe”. 

Effectively, pheromone perfumes are sugar pills for the single, in the same vein as perfumes which are touted as “panty/boxer droppers”. They are love potions for the modern age. 

Can I be frank? 

There is no magic pill that will increase your attractiveness. There is no perfume which will enhance your sex appeal and make you irresistible to the opposite (or same) sex. 

Why look to external solutions to a problem that can only be solved from within? Because what is lacking is not some secret formula that will boost your attractiveness, but confidence in yourself. 

A man or woman can be attractive without wearing any perfume at all. In fact, I would wager that the vast majority of people couldn’t give a fig about perfume. And for most people, the scent of their lover, whatever it is, will attract them. 

Wearing a pheromone perfume will not “hack” someone’s physiology and turn them into a wild beast. 

If wearing a pheromone perfume gives you confidence, then so be it. Wearing perfume gives me confidence, too. 

But don’t imagine that it will solve all your problems, or get you that girl or boy you’ve been jonesing for. A nice outfit, a clean body, a good haircut, and a confident bearing will do far more for you than 100 sprays of SexyLife. 

The Final Word

So, to recap: 

The science is inconclusive on the subject of pheromones in humans. Though we are clearly influenced by smell, there is no definitive proof that pheromones affect attraction to any significant degree. If there are human pheromones, it is likely that the role they play in physiological behavior is far subtler than in other animals. 

Furthermore, humans’ vomeronasal organ, the way by which most animals are influenced by pheromones, is vestigial, i.e. non-functional. 

So, do pheromone perfumes work? In my view, no, at least, not enough that you need to go out and buy them. Though they might have some marginal effect, it is more likely that users of pheromone perfumes are simply experiencing a confidence boost, rather than actually subliminally influencing the behaviors of potential mates. 

My advice is this: go to the gym, eat healthy, be clean, invest in some new clothes, get a nice haircut, make sure you brush and mouthwash your teeth twice a day, stand up straight, smile, and be yourself. If you like, spray a nice perfume on before you go out, though it’s not necessary. Oh, and don’t forget to wear deodorant. 

Doing these things, and being confident in yourself, will do you more good when it comes to finding a potential mate than any pheromone perfume could.