Snake oil perfume for horny men and women

An amusing email arrived for me earlier this week:

Hello,
My name is Margot and I’m the webmaster of
www.best-pheromones.com. I wanted to know if you could do a paid UNBIASED review of our product/site. Please let me know if you are interested.
Thank you,

Margot [name and email removed]

I was especially intrigued by the capitalization of “unbiased.” After I got done laughing, I sent back a response:

Dear Margot,
I am an entomologist, and I write about insect pheromones, and the way they are used in agriculture.

I will not be linking to your commercial website, nor accepting cash to write about what I think (here’s my UNBIASED opinion) is a crock of BS.
Human pheromones have little documentation in the scientific literature.

Bug Girl

For the record, Margot sent me a very polite thank-you back. Point to Margot. :)

Now, there are a few human chemicals that do seem to meet the definition of a pheromone. You can read a nice introduction to what is known about human pheromones in this APA article. The pioneer in human pheromone research is Martha McClintock, who first isolated and showed that a pheromone was responsible for synchronizing women’s menstrual cycles.

This is probably not the compound for sale at the commercial website. At least, I hope not–I really don’t think a guy dousing himself in that compound will get the response he wants.

There are some other compounds that do seem to induce changes in human physiology. The compounds that have been studied most are steroid musks (androstenol and related compounds) produced by glands in men’s underarms. Yummy!

However, the physiological changes that have been reported are not the “Do me now!” that is sold by human pheromone companies. I think this bit from a peer-reviewed paper’s abstract is important:

“Although this is additional evidence that androstadienone may be a pheromone, it is yet to be determined whether humans exude concentrations into the air adequate for social communication or process this chemical information within natural social contexts.”

Translation: we can make a chemical, and we can measure that it’s doing something. But we don’t know if this actually happens in day-to-day human life.

I think it’s significant that another peer-reviewed study found a chemical could affect women’s mood, but not their behavior. From the abstract:

“The results showed that exposure to a non-detectable amount of androstadienone modulated women’s psychophysiological arousal and mood in a positive direction but did not change attention performance or rating of facial attractiveness. Moreover, mood effects were only evident when an experimenter of the opposite sex conducted the testing. This suggests that social context is important for mood effects of androstadienone exposure in women. “

Interestingly, the results were the same in a different study when they tested a proposed female pheromone on men–the sex of the interviewer affected the action of the test compound. My inference from this is that as humans, we respond primarily to the person interviewing us, rather than how they smell. Which is pretty logical, given that we are a highly visual and social animal.

I also was intrigued by this study looking at the effects of a proposed human pheromone on marketing–men exposed to a male pheromone felt more manly, but it had no effect on women.

If the results are so mediocre, why are so many researchers working on the issue of human pheromones? Just how much money is being made on human “pheromones,” anyway? One company (traded under stock symbol EROX) reports revenues of 1.2 million bucks. And that’s just one company of the many, many companies in on this snake oil that supposedly gets you laid.

I suspect that most human pheromones sold would fail a chemical test comparing what chemicals are actually in them with what’s claimed to be in the bottle. And, given that the cheapest human pheromone I’ve seen was $25/ounce, that’s a highly profitable ripoff.

Lastly, there is also a larger ethical question in play here.
WTF makes someone pay large sums of money–usually over the internet–to buy a mystery liquid that claims to make them irresistible. If some of the claims of these companies were true, then they are essentially selling a date-rape drug.

Additional reading:

Symposium: On the nature of mammalian and human pheromones
The McClintock paper in Nature, demonstrating menstrual synchrony
The other likely human pheromone: a review of mother-baby physiology and behavior

Bug Girl notes: I posted this at the Bug Blog, but it is definitely Skepchick material. Hope no one minds my cross posting since…well, it’s about sex! :p

Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

16 Comments

  1. They must be spamming through wordpress and such: I got the same request. I’ve seen similar banner ads around though, so this (marketing) technique must work on some level.

    I told them that since I already had paid 200$ for perfume “specifically tailored to my DNA” that I saw no need for any such additional fragrances.

  2. $1.2 million? Like, MILLION? Selling pheromones? You people should really start paying us here at Skepchick before we all turn to the dark side.

  3. If some of the claims of these companies were true, then they are essentially selling a date-rape drug.

    To many people, there’s a qualitative difference there. Pheromones are the old “love potion” fantasy. They leave the person conscious and mostly themselves, only in love with you (or in lust in the case of pheromones). That seems a fair bit different from knocking them out before doing your thing. This way, at least you get a form of consent.

  4. The New York Times recently ran a short note about McClintock’s menstrual-synchronization studies. Their verdict: The jury is still out on whether McClintock’s results are real, or just pure chance. If there’s still legitimate uncertainty over this best-known of all pheromone experiments, then the whole field doesn’t look too robust:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/health/05real.html

  5. “To many people, there’s a qualitative difference there.”

    It really gets into the very messy issue of who a person is. It’s one thing to force a person to do something against their will.

    But changing them in such a way that they want to do a particular something is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

    Things like alcohol and date rape drugs are easy to deal with philosophically and legally because they are just temporary ways of clouding someone’s judgment, values, or memory.

    But what if there was a hypothetical drug that could actually alter someone’s desires, period?

    The strange thing is that that is something that happens naturally all the time: people go through experiences that change them, make them think differently about things, and so on.

    We could say that the difference here is that in those cases, no one is consciously determining the outcome, but changing a person with a particular deliberate intent.

    But why is your mind being changed by random contingency different than being manipulated by someone ultimately directing it?

    The outcome is still a new person that freely chooses to do something that someone else wants them to do: and their choice is as freely made as anyone else chooses anything, period.

    Someday in the future, will we start seeing mental manipulation crimes like “personality murder?”

  6. Y’know, I once gave myself a dose of roofies so I could have my way with myself. Fortunately, I miscalculated the dose, so I awoke in time to fight myself off.

    I took out a restraining order against myself, requiring me to keep at least fifty yards away from me.

    I was actually found in violation of the order, but I was only given eighteen months. The prosecution tried to make out that I was in some way partially responsible for being assaulted.

    No one at the Philly Inquirer wants to hear my side of the story, though.

  7. While it was good natured of them to thank you, I wonder if it would have made any difference if, rather than just saying “crock of BS” you had explained in a little more detail (with actual science!) *why* it was a crock of BS. Nothing like spreading that science around.

  8. Zoltan, I didn’t think it would make any difference, frankly.

    And I still think chemically coercing someone–without their knowledge–to want to have sex with you is pretty darn close to rape.

    Fortunately, it’s all a moot point.

  9. Fortunately, it’s all a moot point.

    Indeed it is, for now at least. But to entertain the hypothetical…

    What’s the difference between chemically altering a person’s desires and altering them the traditional way, via flirting, wooing, etc.? Same net effect, really.

    But, to argue with myself, I think the difference is that the former is far too easy. If this were allowed, things would descend into chaos. With the traditional way of things, we have our own limits. The prospect of anybody being able to chemically change your mind at any time would just lead to chaos with everyone fighting over everyone else until we have a frightening version of 1984 on our hands.

  10. The difference is when you flirt, woo etc you’re not altering someones desiresn, you’re (hopefully) fullfilling their pre-existing desires. I suppose you could argue that some people fudge/falsify details about themselves to appear more atractive but, while not nefarious, it’s still dishonest (and by that I don’t mean little things like “Oh yeah, I’m totally into yoga too”)

  11. When you flirt, I KNOW you’re flirting. And I can choose not to participate by walking away.

    If you have a majik chemical that automatically makes me want to jump your bones….that takes away my consent.

    Yeah, it is a scary prospect.

  12. While human pheremones are clearly a bunch of crap (at least as far as the current understanding of science — which is what’s at issue when people claim to be bottling and selling them), scent is a very powerful thing.

    I still recall an incident while I was still living in the dorms at BU when I entered an elevator immediately after a girl from my floor got off. It’s a good thing I was alone in the elevator, because I immediately went completely weak-kneed from the smell of her perfume that suffused the air of the elevator. I’d smell it again every time I passed her room on the way to mine, and things got to the point where I had to stop her and ask what her perfume was called.

    Naturally, it turned out to be some random-ass Gap fragrance.

    What can I say? I’m a cheap date. ;)

  13. Those microvilar ‘brush-border’ cells that line the upper respiratory surfaces are pheromone sensing cells. The goo on the end of your nose contains 700+ butterfly-pheromone-like chemicals, it’s a pheromone passed in kissing. Masculine adult face grease, 150 mg p.o. cures delinquency AND drug addiction (sadly not alcoholism). Some people are skeptical because they’re simpletons.

  14. There’s also the point that humans will certainly vary widely in both their sensitivity and response to any pheromones. (Not to mention production!)

    Remember, most of our instincts have been seriously disrupted by the development of intelligence — they’ve become much more variable and uncertain. Besides the variablity, many former instincts have been “demoted” to imprinting, prepared learning, or even cultural constraints.

  15. Masculine adult face grease, 150 mg p.o. cures delinquency AND drug addiction (sadly not alcoholism). Some people are skeptical because they’re simpletons.

    LOL!
    I’m really hoping that this is a joke, but I suspect not.

  16. What’s not to like about cross posting sex… topics. Knowing that some of your research involves messing with bugs and their sex drives with chemicals, how effective is our ability to manipulate insects and how likely do you think real effective chemical/hormone or pheromone manipulation of primates is?

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