Remember when you and your friends hatched a plan to steal some priceless diamonds from a ruthless casino owner, and part of the plan involved wearing a specialized scent that made Ellen Barkin instantly lust after you?
Oh that’s right, that wasn’t you. It was Matt Damon’s character in Ocean’s Thirteen.
But if you’ve seen the movie, you might have wondered how realistic that sequence actually was – and whether or not it’s possible to induce romantic feelings in someone, using nothing but scent. A.K.A. …
What’s the deal with pheromones anyway?
What are pheromones anyway?
Pheromones are chemical secretions made by one animal that can influence the behavior of other animals who breathe it in. They are what’s known as “signaling molecules” and can be transmitted via sweat, urine, breath, etc.
Pheromones are well documented in certain animals, particularly insects (sexy, right?). For example, male moths in the silkworm family are known to detect female pheromones in the air, and follow the scent from up to 30 miles away to find a mate. And queen bees in honeybee colonies secrete a chemical that literally keeps the worker bees on task.
Do humans secrete pheromones too?
Though, maybe… yes? It’s kinda unclear, actually.
In the strictest sense, humans don’t emit chemicals that elicit specific behaviors from other nearby humans. Or, at least no study has been able to pinpoint any human pheromones yet.
What we do know is that humans give off scents from several parts of our bodies, including armpits, genitals, and nipples. (Insert very mature giggles here.)
And we each tend to have our own distinct smell. In fact, babies are genetically wired to recognize the unique scent of their biological parents. So on some level, we have the biological ability to use scent to determine one person from another. But beyond wanting to be near their mom or dad, there’s no evidence that their parents’ smell actually influences babies’ behavior.
Some argue, however, that the chemical androstenedione, which is found in higher levels in male sweat than female sweat, might act as a pheromone. In one study, women who had androstenedione put onto their upper lip reported elevated mood, better focus, and increased sexual arousal. But the researchers pointed out that it was “situationally dependent.” In other words: androstenedione might play a small role in altering females’ mood/behavior … as long as several other factors are present, such as having a male administer the test.
OK but what about all those pheromone products?
At one time or another, you might have stumbled across an ad for “pheromone sprays” that claim to make you more attractive to potential sexual partners. (And now that you’ve read this blog post, you’ll probably be served a lot of those. Thanks Google!)
These products usually feature a variety of synthesized chemicals that are meant to mimic natural chemicals like androstenedione. Also: they often contain “artificial versions of musk from animals like civet cats, beavers, pigs, and musk deer.” Sweet.
However, since scientists have been unable to identify any natural human pheromones – and have been unable to find any human behavior that's meaningfully affected in the same way insects' and other animals' are – … it's pretty safe to say these sprays are a waste of money.
That being said, some researchers believe that certain scents could make us feel desire indirectly; for example, certain odors “may elicit a pleasant emotional response which, in turn, may increase sexual feelings.” (But please don’t let that trick you into buying Axe Body Spray. Nobody needs to smell like Hot Fever or Anarchy, both real Axe scents you can purchase – but shouldn’t.)
So none of it’s real?
Well, we can't rule out the possibility that the placebo effect might be at work. For example: if someone wears a “pheromone spray” and expects it to make them more attractive, they might act more confident, flirtatious, etc. This, as one writer from Thrillist found out, could ultimately make them more appealing to potential mates — regardless of smell.
And even though the science about human pheromones is still inconclusive, the olfactory sense is still pretty important to human interaction. So we can’t emphasize this enough: please try your best to smell nice when in public.