Do Human Pheromones Really Exist?

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Biology 103
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Do Human Pheromones Really Exist?

Meghan McCabe

What is it that attracts people to each other? Nice hair? Big muscles? Body scent? Recent studies have shown that the cause of such sexual attractions could be airborne chemicals called pheromones, airborne and odorless molecules "emitted by an individual and cause changes in physiology and/or behavior of another individual" (8).

Pheromones, which have been known to influence sexual activity, aggression, and territory marking, have been found in many animals, including amoebas, fish, hamsters, and monkeys (3). However, whether or not these chemicals affect, or even exist in humans, has been a subject for debate in the scientific community. Since pheromones are not detectable by the human sense of smell, scientists believe that pheromones are sensed by the vomeronasal organ (VNO), part of the olfactory system and located inside the mouth or nose (9). For many years, the existence of the VNO produced much speculation because it had only been found occasionally in adult humans, and when it was found, it was believed to be vestigial. However, in 1985 a study was conducted in which the noses of 100 human adults were examined post-mortem. The VNO was found in the septums of 70% of those examined. Since 1985, much evidence has been gathered to suggest the presence of the VNO in most adult humans (2), but many scientists still believe it to be a functionless organ that was inherited from some ancestor of humans. However, recent genetic research has shown the possibility of a receptor in the nose that could sense pheromones. When searching the human genome for genes that had similar sequences to those of rodent pheromone receptors, scientists found one gene that could produce a pheromone receptor, and when searching olfactory tissue from the human nose, they found this receptor (5).

In the past few years researchers have believed to have found scientific proof that "humans have the potential to communicate pheromonally, either by using an unidentified part of the main olfactory system, or perhaps with a sixth sense, with its own unique pathway (1)." One study was based on the observation that women living together develop synchrony of menstrual cycles. In this study, researchers placed gauze pads under the armpits (a body part where pheromones are believed to be secreted in the sweat) of nine women during specific phases of their menstrual cycle. They each wore the pads for at least eight hours. After being treated with alcohol and frozen, the pads were placed under the noses of twenty other women. The women that sniffed the pads of the women that had been in the preovulatory phase of their cycle found that their own menstrual cycles were shortened from one to fourteen days. The women that sniffed the pads of the women that had been in the ovulation phase if their menstrual cycles found that their own cycles were lengthened from one to twelve days (1). This suggests that there are substances or chemicals released from women that can accelerate or delay menstrual cycles (4), which influence the release of eggs (10), and thus lead to synchrony of cycles of women living in proximity. However, since the substances from the pads were placed on the upper lip, it is difficult to say how these women sensed them, "whether it's through skin, the mucous membranes in the nose, or the VNO (9)."

Another study shows that babies prefer clothing worn by their own mothers. In this study, ten mothers were asked to wear a cotton pad in their bras for three hours. The pads were then given to their babies to see whether or not they could distinguish between the pads worn by their mothers and those worn by strangers. At the age of six weeks, eight babies had responded by sucking to their mother's pad, one responded to a stranger's pad, and one did not react to its mothers pad, but reacted with a cry to a stranger's pad (3). Researchers believe this could suggest that men and women choose their mates by sniffing out those that have "compatible immune systems (9)."

Some researchers believe that there is a relationship between physical attractiveness and body odor. In a study to test this hypothesis, 16 males and 19 females were asked to wear a t-shirt on three consecutive nights without using any perfumes or deodorants. Fifteen more subjects each smelled a t-shirt of the opposite sex, rating its scent on pleasantness and sexiness. Another group of 22 men and women were asked to rate the subjects that wore the t-shirts in terms of physical attractiveness. The results showed a correlation between facial attractiveness and sexiness of body odor of females. However, there was only a correlation between facial attractiveness and sexiness of body odor of males when females raters were in "their most fertile phase of menstrual cycle (day 5 to 16) (6)." Nevertheless, this study does suggest a relationship between physical attractiveness and attractiveness of body odor.

A similar study attempted to find out whether or not males can sense ovulation by smelling copulins, fatty acids in vaginal secretions. Males smelled copulin samples from women who were in three different phases of the menstrual cycle. The results showed that males generally could not distinguish between a pre-menstrual, menstrual, and ovulatory scents. However, the males also rated the physical attractiveness of the females, and results showed that females were rated more attractive when the males were smelling their copulins then when they were weren't, and that their testosterone levels increased when they were smelling the copulins (7).

This research strongly suggests the presence of chemicals that cause changes in non-conscious behavior. In my research, I mostly found information that discussed scents that females produce that attract males or offspring, such as copulins, or chemicals that affect the menstrual cycle. This is interesting because it supports the old stereotype that in nature males search out females as mates and not vice versa. The existence of the VNO in females might suggest otherwise, but it should be a topic for greater research. I was also a bit wary of the studies that involved the rating of physical attractiveness, simply because attractiveness is so relative. In any case, my research suggests that sexual receptivity is based on more than attractiveness of physical features.

WWW Sources

1) University of Chicago News

2) Human Pheromones

3) Pheromones in Humans: Myth or Reality

4) Human Pheromones

5) Academic Press Daily InScight

6)Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institute for Urban Etholo

7) Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institute for Urban Ethology

8) Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institute for Urban Ethology

9) Sniffing Out Human Pheromones

10) Health Story Page



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

06/15/2005, from a Reader on the Web

I was pleased to find your article. I am a teacher. Many colleagues note that boys' school washrooms smell badly. They know there is often trouble around these areas. I should be interested to know if any research has been carried out in this field. Years ago I read about male pheromones in urine. Thus, territory marking is involuntary, and seems not to have been taken into account by architects. Boys' washrooms do not always get hosed down daily, as their design does not allow for drainage. This means that if a central drain were placed in the middle of the floor, enabling these areas to be hosed down daily, the pheromones could be flushed away. This could reduce the instances of aggressive behaviours. I do not know whether public buildings have a regulation to prevent this type of drainage, or whether there is insufficient information on the connection between the presence of pheromones in male urine and aggression. Mary Saunders



Mark Weber's picture

Pheromones research and testing

I operate a forum for pheromone enthusiasts, and we have some interesting testing, experiments and hypothesis on pheromones and the possible effects different suspected pheromone molecules elicit. Our members include Doctors, Scientists, Molecular Biologists and individuals interested in discovering and advancing pheromone knowledge. There is truly a wealth of information available on phereomones, what works and what doesn't and the myths and realities surrounding pheromones available to anyone interested, here:

Serendip Visitor Ted Holden's picture

Human pheromone

Having taken an interest in DNA genes and the human genome, I find it quiet possible to believe that as we discard millions of dead cells each day, we can expect to find wrapped in the dead DNA molecule of many of these cells were ever these are emmitted from,something that will influence our neighbours behaviour, never mind the heredity traits.The DNA strands are microscopically small 5000 of these strings would only be the thickness of one of our hairs. Some people claim we have such a thing as "Jocobsohns" (VNO) organ tucked away in our noses and claim this organ is part of our evolutionary heritage going back to the time we had no other senses like ears, eyes etc,

Hernani's picture


Interesting article. But what about people that fall in love through internet (you know, chat, MSN, Love Finder, and so on)? These relationships include visual and verbal stimuli, however they do not provide olfactive stimuli. I don't know, but this sounds like a more complex framework than just "hormons" or "personal preferences" (other aspect yet, commonly associated with "beliefs" or such things). And, we must stress that it is only a code in potential for human processes of comunication and signification (including here the sexual atraction as an exemple -- neither major, nor minor -- of this generical setting), but not THE code for sexual atraction. Jared Diamond also suggests an interesting theoretical framework for sexual atraction (must see).

Katie's picture

I meet lots of people online, but...

Pretty much most of the dating I have done has been a result of those people I interact with online; however, when I meet them in person, things change drastically! Note - everyone has been who they said they were - the pictures matched the faces. But I knew fairly instantly if it was going to go somewhere on a physical level - but NEEDED that in-person confirmation. I agree wholeheartedly that body odor plays a HUGE role (but it is not just cologne. For instance, there are some men whose natural odor is immensely appealing, while others are immensely offensive). I have no idea what this means, but what I do know is that I know what I like (but can't exactly pinpoint what that is) and that what I like is not that common (SIGH). I have come to the conclusion that, while I meet so many online, it is essential to meet them in person to get that "organic chemistry."

Serendip Visitor's picture

Well done

I really enjoyed this article, I found it comprehensive and thorough. It was also enlightening to read something unbiased for a change.
I am interested in this area, though I am no expert. Somebody mentioned to me once that there is no formula for attraction and I agree with this. I will mention, that as a woman, I fell like I smell different when I am menstruating, no matter how many showers that I have.
I also read that when a woman is pregnant her "glow" is an in built reaction to keep the male attracted to her when she gain so much weight. Would this be connected to pheromones? Also connected to this is the occurrence of men experiencing cravings while their partner is pregnant. Almost as if the body sends a signal to he partner.
These type of things fascinate me!

Pher-osmics's picture

I found this article to be

I found this article to be really insightful, even if there is no proven evidence that pheromones exist in humans. Perhaps the attraction has to do with the pituitary gland? Whatever it is, I know that when I find someone to be attractive, a lot of that attraction has to do with their scent...

John David's picture

very intresting....any recommendation on pheromone products?

I have been using pheromone soap and sprays and it's really smells amazing and got me some results... the only reason I tried it was "Ross Jeffies" the seduction guru who appeared on Dr. Phil show and endorsed it.

This article opened my eyes!


Peter's picture

Human Pheromones do not exist!

There is no hard evidence for human pheromones. Many of the examples in the article do not prove that human pheromones exist but rather that people have odor preferences, which is not at all the same thing. As stated early in the article, "pheromones are not detectable by the human sense of smell." This is critical. We are talking about something in the air that causes an INVOLUNTARY behavior. The fact that babies prefer the smell of their own mother does not prove the existence of pheromones but rather that they can discriminate between their mother and others. People have strong preferences when it comes to smells and some of us have a much keener since of smell than others, but this does not prove that pheromones exist.

Now the perfume industry is desperately trying to isolate humane pheromones and have made false claims to have done so. Why, because people WANT to be believe that pheromones exist. What guy would not enjoy wearing a SCENTLESS fragrance that makes women want to have sex with him for reasons that they do not understand. Until there existence of human pheromones is proven, this is science fiction.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Maybe I misinterpreted the

Maybe I misinterpreted the purpose of this but I didn't see it as "proving human pheromones exist" I saw it as bringing up specific studies to question if they really exist. And your statement of "There is no hard evidence for human pheromones" does not prove that they don't exist. Before evidence is found there is no evidence for anything. That's not proof that something doesn't exist.

Alexandro 's picture

Human pheromone Research


Great read and very useful for those of us who are researching human pheromones. I find it interesting that so many people still do not believe in human pheromones. Even educated people act like you are talking about x-ray glasses from the back of a comic book when you mention them.

I think people like to believe that they are somehow not part of the animal kingdom, that we are above and seperate from it.

I think not.

Thank you for the great article.

Steven McReynolds's picture

agree to disagree

i fully agree with you this article is very interesting and informative but when it comes to us being part of the animal kingdom i dont really believe we are that far above i was watching a documetry on animal planet about a scientist who was studying wolves his type of study was unconventional. the scientist actually made himself into one of the wolf pack. he growled and snorted, had all k-9 features when with the wolves. they actually recorded his howl and the frequencies were very close, some spots of his howl matched perfectly. even though you may think they should, wolf howls differ just like human voices. in my own experiance, i grew up in the piedmont area of north carolina, which is covered in hills, some of these hills were so steep walking up them was impossible. between the pitch of the hill and the leaves that covered the woods floor as well as precipitation you could not get traction trying to walk up these hills. so what i would do is i would run up like a dog would, using both hands and feet, digging my fingers and toes into the soil. this may sound strange and a little hillbilly but this was the only way to get up these hills. otherwise it was like trying to run up a wet slide. so for those people who like to place us above the animal kingdom, put them in the animals domain and watch their duality unfold. this ought to be interesting.

Julie Rikkers's picture

Who is doing research on human pheromones at the moment?

I am a premedical student in New York City. I am looking to do research this next year particularly in human pheromone research. Specifically, I am interested in male-female attraction pheromones. Is there a list of scientists doing research in the field? Or Universities that have human pheromone research labs?

Thanks in advance for your time.

- Julie Rikkers
President, Premedical Association
Premedical Student, Columbia University

Serendip Visitor's picture

Pheromone Research - Male-Female Attraction Pheromones

In your research, I suggest you begin with older people near the end of their sexually active life. I suggest this approach because the youthful, fertile human body puts out an amazingly large array of chemicals, making the isolation of human pheromones quite difficult. If, however, you choose older folks (with smaller arrays of such chemicals) as your subjects, and look for reactions among them, when a subject that can be attracted is NOT attracted, you can more easily look for what's missing.

You might contact UCSF for a program possibility.

Pheromone Attract's picture

Great Read

Great article - very detailed and interesting research. Pheromones still remain a mystery, there doesn't seem to be any concrete proof whether pheromones have a magnetic effect or not.

Finance Blog's picture

I am looking to do research

I am looking to do research this next year particularly in human pheromone research. Where can I find?

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