What Are Pheromones And Do They Impact Sexual Desire?

Sometimes, we’re attracted to people for a reason we can’t put our finger on. Perhaps, it’s the way they smell.

What Are Pheromones And Do They Impact Sexual Desire?

What Are Pheromones And Do They Impact Sexual Desire?

Published on
December 3, 2021
Updated on
— What's changed?
Medically Reviewed by
3 minutes

Have you ever been attracted to someone because of how they smell — or been turned off for a reason you can’t put your finger on, even if you find them physically attractive? If you’ve ever wondered what you’re sensing, or why your nose seems to know you’re sexually attracted to someone before your heart or your brain does, it may have something to do with pheromones. But do humans even have pheromones? And if so, do they really play a role in desire and attraction?

What pheromones are 

Pheromones are chemicals made by glands, parts of the body that make and release hormones. Researchers think pheromones contain scent signals that others can sense without even realizing it. When an animal picks up the pheromones of another animal of the same species, it can influence the way they react to that animal — whether they want to protect it, fight with it, or mate with it, for example. Pheromones also play a role in how some animals find food and sense danger. 

In animals, pheromones are picked up by the same receptors that detect smells and tastes. (1) Researchers who study potential human pheromones think that we may not be able to smell pheromones directly but could respond to them subconsciously. (2

It’s not clear if humans produce pheromones 

There isn’t concrete evidence that humans have pheromones as most research has been conducted on animals. Pheromones have been found in insects, fish, and some mammals. 

While we don’t have a definitive answer on whether or not humans produce pheromones, some scientists think human pheromones might be made by glands in the skin and could be contained in bodily fluids like sweat, breast milk, and tears. These pheromones could affect emotions, nursing in babies, and sexual arousal. (3) It can be hard to tell whether studies are showing the effects of pheromones, though, or just measuring people’s responses to other smells. (4

Pheromones may impact sexual arousal and desire

If we do have pheromones, they may play a role in who we’re attracted to and when we get turned on. (5) A 2019 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience showed that men responded more strongly to pictures of couples touching when they’d been exposed to estratetraenol, a chemical found in women’s sweat that researchers suggested might be a human pheromone.

In another study, gay men preferred the underarm odor of other gay men. (6) The study’s authors thought that this might be due to subtle differences in smell between gay and straight men, suggesting that pheromones might contain clues about gender and sexual orientation. (6

A 2008 study suggested that women at a speed dating event found men more attractive when they’d been exposed to androstadienone, a chemical found in men’s sweat that some researchers think could be a human pheromone. (7)

It’s worth mentioning that these studies all involved fewer than 60 people and don’t tell us much about how people act in the real world. So while it’s possible that human pheromones could influence attraction, the evidence isn’t very strong either way. If you want to attract certain people or avoid attracting them, other factors, like looks, personality, and your ability to flirt and communicate, probably have a much bigger impact.

Are pheromones for men the same as pheromones for women?

Studies have shown that males and females may have different chemicals in their sweat, saliva, and other bodily fluids that would suggest their pheromones are not the same. (8) Some research has suggested that chemicals like androstadienone in men and estratetraenol in women might affect social and sexual behavior. (9; 10) However, it hasn’t been proven that these chemicals are human pheromones, and it’s unclear whether people can actually detect these chemicals in other people’s body odors.

What is clear is that attraction, sex, and gender are very complex. We don’t know for sure whether males and females smell different in a way that others can notice or that impacts sexual attraction.

Pheromone perfume: Does it actually work?

You may have heard of pheromone perfumes, like Pheromone XS, True Pheromones, or Love Scent, products that claim to act like human pheromones and make you more attractive. But do pheromone perfumes actually work?

Some researchers have said that they’ve been able to make chemicals that imitate human pheromones and that these chemicals can increase behaviors like hugging, kissing, and touching for both men and women. (11; 12). But other researchers have argued that these studies were not done properly and didn’t actually show any difference between people who wore pheromone perfume and those who wore normal perfume. (13

If you’re interested in buying pheromone perfume, it could be worth a try — just keep in mind that there’s no proof that it will have any effect on your ability to attract potential partners. To reiterate, you have much more powerful tools than pheromones at your disposal — like your personality and ability to communicate — to attract the kind of attention you want. 

The bottom line

Whether humans have pheromones is controversial and hasn’t been proven. But our glands do produce some chemicals that might be pheromones and could have an impact on things like sexual attraction and social behavior. It can be fun to guess about the reasons we’re attracted to some people and not others; when it comes to whether pheromones play a role, though, the jury’s still out. 

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Emily A. Klein is a freelance writer with deep interests in science, culture, and health. As a student of cultural anthropology, she researched and wrote about kink, reproductive rights, cross-cultural medicine, and humans’ relationship with technology. She has designed and implemented a sexual health curriculum for adolescent girls, worked with foster youth and people experiencing housing insecurity, and volunteered as an emergency first responder. Her writing has appeared in The Establishment, Edible magazine, The Seattle Lesbian, Slog, and elsewhere.

Join our newsletter

Do you know the biggest myths about sexuality? Learn what others think about sex. Sign up for a free newsletter with answers to weekly anonymous polls about "how important is an emotional connection when you’re having sex?" and more!

References

1. Wyatt, T. D. (2017). Pheromones. Current Biology, 27(15), R739-R743. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.06.039

2. Wysocki, C. J., & Preti, G. (2004). Facts, fallacies, fears, and frustrations with human pheromones. The Anatomical Record Part A: Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology: An Official Publication of the American Association of Anatomists, 281(1), 1201-1211. https://anatomypubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ar.a.20125

3. Verhaeghe, J., Gheysen, R., & Enzlin, P. (2013). Pheromones and their effect on women’s mood and sexuality. Facts, views & vision in ObGyn, 5(3), 189. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3987372/

4. Mostafa, T., El Khouly, G., & Hassan, A. (2012). Pheromones in sex and reproduction: Do they have a role in humans?. Journal of Advanced Research, 3(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jare.2011.03.003

5. Stevenson, R. J. (2010). An initial evaluation of the functions of human olfaction. Chemical senses, 35(1), 3-20. https://doi.org/10.1093/chemse/bjp083

6. Martins, Y., Preti, G., Crabtree, C. R., Runyan, T., Vainius, A. A., & Wysocki, C. J. (2005). Preference for human body odors is influenced by gender and sexual orientation. Psychological Science, 16(9), 694-701. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01598.x

7. Saxton, T. K., Lyndon, A., Little, A. C., & Roberts, S. C. (2008). Evidence that androstadienone, a putative human chemosignal, modulates women’s attributions of men’s attractiveness. Hormones and behavior, 54(5), 597-601. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.06.001

8. Habel, U., Regenbogen, C., Kammann, C., Stickel, S., & Chechko, N. (2021). Male brain processing of the body odor of ovulating women compared to that of pregnant women. NeuroImage, 229, 117733. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.117733

9. Huoviala, P., & Rantala, M. J. (2013). A putative human pheromone, androstadienone, increases cooperation between men. PLoS One, 8(5), e62499. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0062499

10. Oren, C., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2019). Women's fertility cues affect cooperative behavior: Evidence for the role of the human putative chemosignal estratetraenol. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 101, 50-59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.10.028

11. Cutler, W. B., Friedmann, E., & McCoy, N. L. (1998). Pheromonal influences on sociosexual behavior in men. Archives of Sexual behavior, 27(1), 1-13.

12. Cutler, W. B., & Genovese, E. (2002). Pheromones, sexual attractiveness and quality of life in menopausal women. Climacteric, 5(2), 112-121. https://doi.org/10.1080/cmt.5.2.112.121

13. Winman, A. (2004). Do perfume additives termed human pheromones warrant being termed pheromones?. Physiology & behavior, 82(4), 697-701. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.06.006

14. Fleischer, J., Breer, H., & Strotmann, J. (2009). Mammalian olfactory receptors. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 3, 9. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/neuro.03.009.2009/full