What are pheromones?

For years there have been many studies done by biology scientists to understand the role chemicals called pheromones have on sexual and reproductive behavior of animals and insects. In recent times the research has extended to humans as behavioral scientists, sexologists and scientists in the cosmetic industry are seeking to understand what role (if any) pheromones may have on how men and women are sexually attracted to a mate.

Pheromones are naturally produced chemicals which are emitted by the body of a fertile animal. Pheromones are volatile and are emitted by the skin. In addition to sweat, urine and genital secretions also contain pheromones. Once the pheromones become airborne it can be detected for long distances by the male of the species and triggers the mating behavior. This primordial instinct response is quite dramatic in some species of animals. It has been observed that even though the fertile female may be miles away she is found by the male whose highly sensitive sense of smell aids in his quest to mate.

What are the differences between pheromones and hormones?

Pheromones are chemical messengers produced in the body but are excreted to be airborne. By this mechanism the pheromones are detected and influence the sexual behavior of the fertile opposite sex. Pheromones do not appear to exert any internal effect on the sexual and reproductive systems in the same way as sex hormones. Pheromones can however trigger hormonal responses in animals in anticipation of mating.

Hormones are also chemical messengers. These are synthesized in the body and secreted from various organs into the blood. Hormones are transported within the body to specific tissues and organ to trigger specific functions. An example of this function is the hormone insulin which is produced and secreted by the pancreas. Insulin acts on the cell membrane to influence the uptake of glucose which is needed for energy. In the case of sex hormones, these act on the sex organs to affect the development and function of the same.

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The role of pheromones in animal mating

So how do pheromones work?

Pheromones play a very important role in the survival of the species as the ability to reproduce is contingent on members of the same species being able to find each other and copulate.

There is a body of research on the role of pheromones on sexual and reproductive behavior of animals and insects. Scientists have established a strong correlation between sex pheromones, the olfactory system and behavior. We now understand that there are different types of pheromones which play distinctive roles in animal behavior and survival. Some of the easily recognizable types of pheromones are:

  1. Alarm pheromones
  2. Territorial pheromones
  3. Trail pheromones
  4. Information pheromones
  5. Sex pheromones

The olfactory system is well developed in mammals. It has been hypothesized that there are two distinct olfactory systems. One has the main function of regular olfactory discernment of conventional odorant molecules in the environment that is regular every day odors. The other system operates in the vomeronasal organ (VNO) performs the function of detecting pheromones and this is referred to as pheromone sensing.

Typically it is believe to be located at the entrance of the nostrils where receptors detect the molecules of the pheromones and transport the chemicals to the hypothalamus which then triggers the behavior. In the case of the sex pheromones the range of behaviors include sexual desire and arousal.

Do pheromones play a role in the courting and mating rituals of humans?

Research scientists are not all agreed that humans have a developed vomeronasal (VNO) organ. It may only be vestigial which means a remnant left from evolutionary transitioning to today’s modern man. The use of perfumes, deodorant and soaps may have interrupted the body’s ability to significantly produce pheromones.

Sexual behavior among humans is far more complex as it engages all the senses (sight, smell, taste, tactile) as well as the unique human cognitive abilities to discern, judge, analyze emotions and responses.

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We do know that it is a part of the human experience to associate memories of odors with certain events and experiences whether pleasant or unpleasant. Replicating pheromone especially the sex pheromones has been studied to try and influence or evoke sexual attraction between the sexes.

There are documented studies which experiment with the sweat of males and females. Sweat contains small amount of sex pheromones. The participating subjects are instructed to refrain from using deodorant for a day or so. The underarm sweat is then collected on blotting paper. In double blind studies males are asked to smell the sweat of women and vice versa. Emotions, feelings and sensations are then documented and analyzed.

Whilst more rigorous research is needed for evidence-based conclusions, there does seem to be some persons who are sexually excited by human sex pheromones.

How has the Cosmetic Industry capitalized on the use of pheromones?

Human androstenone pheromone is an oil-based extract that is being used in cologne and perfume. These products are marketed to be used to increase psychosexual behavior such as attraction and desirability. There are products specific for men and those specific for women.

Scientists have demonstrated that in the sweat of men and women human androstenone is found in small quantities. In the lab they have develop synthetic human androstenone and this is the chemical infused in cologne and perfume.

In the past few months there has been an explosion of pheromone perfumes being sold on the internet. Some of the claims of effectiveness may be exacerbated. There have been claims that applying the pheromone cologne or perfume will result in an irresistible attraction to the person who has used the product. Others claim the product will attract females to males, males to males and females to females. Some marketers also advertise that socially the use of the pheromone cologne will bring more success in business transaction.

Are there scientific research papers to substantiate the claims? Does pheromone perfume work?

As science continue to unravel the association of the effect odors and more so sex pheromones have on our sexual and reproductive behavior, much more studies are needed to understand the claims. It is not always clear whether it is the scent of the cologne or perfume that is the “turn on” more so that any added pheromone. Musk colognes have done very well in the market place. Pheromones are odorless and so it is not at all easy to prove which effect evokes the sexual attraction response in persons. As humans we do not strictly fall into primordial categories of sexual behavioral responses to olfactory stimuli. A nice cologne or perfume may not be enough to make our hearts flutter and make us weak in the knees. We are high evolved thinking beings with the ability to fantasize and impress sexual partners using a variety of romantic gestures. Let us not forget the role played by the powerful visual stimuli of physical attraction.

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Marketers know the effect images and subliminal messages have on influencing how we spend. Many consumers will spend on products that will make (or claim) to make them more attractive and sexually appealing. It is all about the power of suggestion.

Consumers do have the last say with products and services. Especially if the customer feels like that they are using the best pheromone perfume. If the consumer’s expectations are met then he or she will spend to replicate the experience.

Here are a few references for additional reading

  1. Pheromones in sex and reproduction: Do they have a role in humans? Journal of Advanced Research: Taympur, Ghada El Khouly, Ashraf Hassan.

www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2090123211000397 Accessed August 06,2015

  1. Human pheromones and sexual attraction 2005, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology Kari Grammer, Bernhard Fink, Nick Neave
  2. Vomeronasal organ and human pheromones 2011, European Annals of Ortorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Diseases D Trotier
  3. Human Skin Volatiles: A Review 2013, Journal of Chemical Ecology DormontL, Bessiere J.M, Cohuet A

– Written by a third party writer for Khemcorp