Do Human Pheromones Exist?

Despite the prevalence of pheromone products on the market, substantial evidence that they can induce sexual attraction is lacking.

By Diana Kwon | January 23, 2018


Search for “pheromones products” on the internet, and dozens of sprays and perfume additives will appear—many claiming to be able to increase your attractiveness to the opposite sex. Some companies, such as the Athena Institute, which, according to its founder, Winnifred Cutler, published its 108th consecutive ad in The Atlantic this month, assert that scientific studies back up their claims.

While there have been several experiments examining the effects of compounds extracted from people’s armpits, much of the data on sex-related behaviors, The Scientist has found, go back more than a decade and were met then—and still now—with skepticism from pheromone researchers. “I am not compelled by any studies that are out there that say there is an active steroid component from the underarm that causes [sexual attraction],” says George Preti, an organic chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who conducted some of the early human pheromone trials.

The problem with [pheromone] companies is not specific to them. It’s a much more general question about claims made without good evidence.

—Tristram Wyatt, Oxford University

Within the scientific community, pheromones are broadly defined as chemical signals released by an animal that induce specific effects on other members of the same species. Although these substances are typically associated with sexual attraction, researchers have found they can have a broader range of influence, such as prompting aggression or modifying parental behaviors.

While pheromones are well-defined among other members of the animal kingdom, the presence of such molecules in humans remains controversial. “I still have an open mind about whether human pheromones exist,” says Ron Yu, an investigator at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research who studies rodent pheromones. “But I just don’t find any of the published studies convincing enough.”

Cutler disagrees. There is robust scientific evidence, she argues, for the Athena Institute’s pheromone cosmetic fragrance additives, which are sold to both men and women and cost approximately $90 per two- to four-ounce vial. “We at Athena, as well as independent researchers, have tested the efficacy of Athena’s pheromones as sexual attractants using double-blind, placebo-controlled protocols,” she tells The Scientist.

The human pheromone experiments

In 1986, Cutler and her colleagues published a pair of studies in Hormones and Behavior that reported that both male and female armpit secretions could shift women’s menstrual cycles. These findings were widely covered by the press—The Washington Post, for example, ran a story titled, “Pheromones Discovered in Humans,” which stated that the team was the first to establish the existence of pheromones in people. The reporter did note, however, that “[t]he human pheromones are not sex attractants, nor do they act almost immediately as animal pheromones do. Instead, the human pheromones act over a period of weeks or months to alter the timing of women’s menstrual cycles.”

Around the same time, Cutler established the Athena Institute and, a few years later, she created two trademarked pheromone products, Athena Pheromone 10:13 for women and Athena Pheromone 10X for men. These formulations, which Cutler says are synthesized copies of chemical substances isolated from armpit extracts, were tested in three published, double-blind, placebo-controlled investigations: the effect of the latter was tested in 38 men by Cutler and her colleagues, and the former was examined in studies by two teams of independent researchers. One study included 36 female university students and the other 44 postmenopausal women. All three papers reported that individuals who received the pheromone formulation reported increased frequencies of sexual behaviors, including kissing, formal dates, and sexual intercourse.

Despite what appeared to be promising results, Preti was skeptical. “I’m not excited by this paper and I’m wary of this mystery chemical,” he told New Scientist in a 2002 story about the study on female university students. Preti, who coauthored both 1986 papers about the effects of armpit extracts on menstrual cycles with Cutler, still expresses that doubt today. Without knowing what the compounds are, he tells The Scientist, scientists cannot repeat these experiments to validate their effects.

When asked about her pheromone formulas, Cutler says that her products were carefully selected from human underarm extracts, “based on my analysis of a world of literature that I do not let my competitors know about.”

Other issues associated with these studies, according to Yu, are the relatively small sample sizes and their reliance on self-reported behaviors. As a result, he says, “I don't think [these studies] are powerful enough to draw a solid solution.”

The hunt for human pheromones

In the literature, there are four compounds that are commonly cited as potential human sexual attractant pheromones, androstenone, androstenol, androstadienone, and estratetraenol.

Despite their prevalence in scientific studies and consumer products, Tristram Wyatt, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, argued in a 2015 Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper that there was no scientific basis for claiming these molecules were pheromones at all. Androstenone and androstenol, he says, were proposed simply as a matter of coincidence, when researchers discovered molecules in the human armpit that were known to act as pheromones among pigs. Subsequent studies were not able to provide sufficient proof that these compounds influence human behavior.

I still have an open mind about whether human pheromones exist. But I just don’t find any of the published studies convincing enough.

—Ron Yu, Stowers Institute for Medical Research

Androstadienone and estratetraenol have an unusual origin story. They were first proposed by the pheromone company EROX in the early 1990s. “No evidence of how they found these molecules and chose them out of all the potential hundreds was ever published,” Wyatt tells The Scientist. Still, many studies have utilized these molecules. As recently as 2014, a group of researchers published a study in Current Biology, reporting that these molecules could convey masculinity or femininity to members of the opposite sex. Last year, another team contradicted these results in a study published in Royal Society Open Science.

“The problem with [pheromone] companies is not specific to them,” Wyatt says. “It’s a much more general question about claims made without good evidence.”

There is, however, more convincing evidence of human pheromones that are not involved in sexual attraction, according to Preti—for example, compounds that modulate menstrual cycles or hormone release.

Scientists have also observed that a secretion from areolar glands on a lactating mother’s nipples will induce a suckling response in an infant, even if the child is not her own. “If it should turn out that the preliminary observations of the pheromone in babies is correct, and the molecules could be identified, that would give greater confidence for researchers to start serious study of possible human pheromones in a sexual context,” Wyatt tells The Scientist. “But it’s perfectly possible that pheromones are not involved in human sexual behavior—we are complex animals, and other cues and signals may have evolved to take their place.”

As for pheromone products, the main active ingredient in them is likely “hope,” Wyatt says. “The placebo effect is strong. If you have spent $50 on something to add to your perfume, you might go out to the bar with greater confidence, and that’s how an effect by individual consumers could be realized—but it’s not because of anything in the products.”

See “A Pheromone by Any Other Name” 

Update (January 24): The 2014 study on androstadienone and estratetraenol was published in Current Biology, not Cell. The Scientist regrets the error. 

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Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 532

January 23, 2018

The people interviewed are not Nobel Laureates. LInda Buck, co-author of Feedback loops link odor and pheromone signaling with reproduction is a 2004 Nobel Laureate.

Pheromones biophysically constrain food energy-dependent viral latency in species from insect to mammals via the conserved molecular mechanisms of microRNA-mediated cause and effect.

Insect pheromone in elephants

SIR - (Z)-7-dodecen-l-yl acetate is used by the females of more than 126 species of insects, especially Lepidoptera, as part of their pheromone blends to attract insect males1. Female Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, also use a pheromone to signal to males their readiness to mate2.

The claim above links what insects eat to the pheromone-controlled physiology of reproduction of arthropods via the food energy-dependent creation of microRNAs in species from microbes to mammals.  See:

Juvenile hormone and sesquiterpenoids in arthropods: Biosynthesis, Signaling, and role of MicroRNA

Dynamic and complex mechanisms have evolved to regulate sesquiterpenoid production. Noncoding RNAs such as the microRNAs are primary regulators. This article provides an overview of microRNAs that are known to regulate sesquiterpenoid production in arthropods.

The link from microRNAs to juvenile hormone in arthropods is the same as the link from microRNAs to luteining horrmone and the GnRH-directed physiology of pheromone-controlled feedback loops in all mammals.

See for comparison: Differential expression of microRNAs in luteinising hormone-treated mouse TM3 Leydig cells

Results showed that miRNAs might be involved in the regulation of LH to Leydig cells.

Avatar of: Diogenes24


Posts: 5

January 24, 2018

The comment by Dr. Kohl is a classic case of misdirection. Nobody denies that pheromones play a highly significant role in most species. The criticisms above relate to whether they play a significant role in HUMAN sexual behavior.

Given a dose of androsterol, for example, I don't believe that most women in menstrual midcycle would automatically assume the receptive sexual position, as oestrous female boars do when exposed to male boar saliva.

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 532

Replied to a comment from Diogenes24 made on January 24, 2018

January 24, 2018

No serious scientist has ever claimed that human pheromones elicit a stereotypical response like the response of insects or pigs.

See for comparison: Feedback of the Drosophila period gene product on circadian cycling of its messenger RNA levels (1990)

The response at this level of examination via Cryo-EM is linked to biophysically constrained viral latency by autophagy. It has also been linked by serious scientists to the prevention and effective treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's.

Researchers who bastardized the concept of human pheromones are still making ridiculous claims based on definitions because the facts expose them to ridicule. See for example: Pheromones and the luteinizing hormone for inducing proliferation of neural stem cells and neurogenesis

See also: Formulation and evaluation of anti-suicidal nasal spray of Thyrotropin releasing hormone

Thanks for helping me bring the facts to the attention of others. Join others who are ridiculing all pseudoscientists. See: All About that Base (Meghan Trainor Parody) 12/10/14

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 532

January 24, 2018

Epigenetically-effected alternative splicings of pre-mRNAs (now called microRNAs) clearly link the creation of energy from the creation of ATP to the creation of RNA and all biophysically constrained biodiversity via the physiology of pheromone-controlled reproduction.

See: A Pheromone by Any Other Name

In 2013, NK Mishra wrote:

"A pheromone reaches the target cell and elcits a response by invoking changes in the cellular machinery.This may call for production of special protein.The same pheromone in the other sex may also do the same but end up producing different protein through alternate splicing.

This phenomon may be further compounded through epigentic mechanism where factors like age, diet, enviromnental cues, etc. can be brought  into play.This in effect  can modify the behavioural response further."


Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 532

Replied to a comment from James V. Kohl made on January 24, 2018

January 24, 2018

See also: Supramolecular Photoactivatable Anticancer Hydrogels -- Co-author NK Mishra

"A photoactivatable dopamine-conjugated platinum(IV) anticancer complex (Pt-DA) has been incorporated into G-quadruplex G4K(+) borate hydrogels..."

Didn't Schroedinger (1944) link the anti-entropic virucidal effect of sunlight to all biophysically constrained biodiversity via the microRNA-mediated physiology of reproduction?

If all serious scientists knew how to prevent all pathology in the context of biophysically constrained pheromone-controlled viral latency, would George Preti and Tristam Wyatt still cling to their definitions?

Avatar of: Diogenes24


Posts: 5

January 25, 2018

More misdirection. The paper co-authored by Linda Buck reported work done in *transgenic mice*. 

Where is the evidence that pheromones are involved in HUMAN sexual behavior and response? The work reported by Cutler was not blinded/placebo-controlled.

Avatar of: lgm


Posts: 7

January 27, 2018

Surely when a male animal meets a female animal the first thing they do is sniff each others very private parts. Their arm pits do not come into it! Humans do not do this or at least only in private. I guess that close embraces might be enough. Hot air rises.

I live in an area which has some of the UKs major horse studs. Apparently they will never allow ladies to work with stallions. It is just too dangerous and even a certainty that injuries will result when the lady is at the receptive point of her cycle. I think this is certainly evidence for at least human female pheromones.

When I walk along the pavement ouside my house in the morning I can easily smell the soap/shower products the ladies use in the morning.

I certainly believe humans have enough sense of smell to affect their relationships with one another although how much of that is due to human pheromones or the jolop they wash with with (or not) I can not say.







Avatar of: Diogenes24


Posts: 5

January 31, 2018

I certainly agree that animals, especially those that rely on smell for survival, are sensitive to human scent - pet dogs can certainly identify a beloved owner's scent before visual identification - and I find the account of stallions and women in midcyle quite credible.

Whether human males can sense that a woman is in midcyle - or other parts of the menstrual cycle -  remains to be proven. Close spouses can certainly sense the mood changes that accompany, say, the premenstrual period.

While the ability to secrete pheromones through the skin and sweat is unlikely to have been lost during a relatively short period of evolution, the ability to *respond* to them appears to have deteriorated in the higher primates. See , 

"Evolutionary deterioration of the vomeronasal pheromone transduction pathway in catarrhine primates"

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