What Are Pheromones — and Do They Really Work?

What are pheromones, exactly? (Asking for a friend.) Okay, if you’ve read any of my articles, by now you know if I’m asking for a friend, I’m really asking for myself — but really, what’s the deal with pheromones?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably listened to a few podcasts or read various articles that explain pheromones as being the body’s natural smell that can attract potential partners. Is that true, though? And do pheromones work?

Let’s get down to the bottom of this and learn more about pheromones and whether they really do anything.

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What are pheromones?

Pheromones are substances secreted to the outside by an individual, which are then received by a second individual of the same species, as noted in a 2013 article published in the journal Facts, Views, and Vision.

The article states that many examples of pheromones exist in animals, but their role in humans remains uncertain since adults don’t have a functioning vomeronasal organ, which processes pheromone signals in animals.

Animals use pheromones for almost everything, including survival-related behaviors like engaging in protective mannerisms, locating food, and sensing predators. Additionally, pheromones in animals can activate things like aggression, attraction, or fear. They also impact maternal bonds, sexual arousal, and territory markers. (It’s wild how much animals rely on pheromones — quite literally and figuratively.)

Amira R. Martin, a licensed clinical social worker, couples therapist, wellness expert, and owner of Amira for Her, explains that humans do have pheromones — but they’re not as potent as those in animals. The primary difference between human and animal pheromones is their function — and although the human sense of smell isn’t nearly as strong as animals, pheromones can still be detected by the olfactory system.

Pheromone meaning

This same 2013 article states that human pheromones may be present in bodily secretions such as breast milk, semen, urine, and vaginal secretions. Pheromones may also be present in the breath and saliva, yet most attention thus far has been directed toward axillary sweat (aka sweat that comes from the underarms).

Theoretically, once released into the air by one individual, these secretions can then potentially be detected by another individual via receptors in their nasal passages. The same goes for animals, but animals actually have a specific well-developed organ that’s thought to detect the pheromones from other animals secreted in close proximity. Although pheromones are recognized through the nose, they may not have a detectable scent.

When a pheromone is detected by the recipient, it’s believed to send a signal to the brain that can influence things like mood, reproduction, and sexual function. The body basically uses this information to make sense of the environment and respond appropriately, whether that means sex or survival if a threat is present.

Do pheromones work?

Do pheromones actually work? Well, it’s kind of unclear. There’s a lack of scientific consensus as to whether or not human pheromones exist despite a body of research supporting the theory. They definitely exist in animals — but in humans, more work still needs to be done.

For years, scientists have studied pheromones but have been unable to scientifically validate the correlation between pheromones and sexual attraction due to the complexity of human interaction, the genetic variability of odors, and the molecules themselves as the components of pheromones are notoriously tricky to isolate.

“While some studies have shown that pheromones may influence attraction and arousal, others have shown that they do not play a significant role in human attraction or falling in love,” remarks Martin. “The evidence is not consistent.”

However, Martin notes that it’s possible high levels of pheromones may make people more sexually attractive to others — which could encourage more attention and social engagement. She says people who experience a love-at-first-sight reaction or a strong attraction to someone are likely experiencing a complex interplay of factors beyond just pheromones.

In reality, the amorous feeling that love in the air isn’t as simple as pheromones at work but is rather likely due to several factors that cause someone’s behavior to shift when they take in certain chemicals from another person.

The bottom line on pheromones

Now you know that smelling someone else’s pheromones may not activate the “get it on mode” immediately. Unfortunately, attraction is far more complex than that. However, scent still plays a role in attraction and desire.

“Research has shown that we are attracted to people with different immune system genes than our own and that we can detect these differences through smell,” says Martin. “Additionally, pleasant scents can create positive associations and increase attraction.”

So make sure to practice good personal hygiene to eliminate any unwanted odors that may deter a partner from making that first move.

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About Ashley Martens

Ashley Martens is a Wellness Writer based in Chicago, Illinois. With a lifelong passion for all things health and wellness, Ashley enjoys writing about topics to help people live happier and healthier lives. With a foundation in fitness, food, and nutrition, Ashley covers it all including sexual health and travel topics.

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