Scientists Have Been Studying Two Fake Human Pheromones for Decades

Two chemicals provided by a perfume company appear in a 1991 research paper and side-track years of work on human pheromones

Jim Sugar/Corbis

Spritz this scent over you and become instantly and irresistibly desirable — that’s what perfume manufactures would love to be able to say with the backing of science. But they can’t. Despite decades of research, so far no one has found a true human sex pheromone. Yet that hasn’t stopped at least one company from bending the facts a bit, reports Joseph Stromberg for Vox.

Pheromones are simply chemical signals from insects, plants and all manner of animals are capable of eliciting a specific, biological response in another individual. Often they signal sexual availability, but they can also indicate social status and relatedness.

Researchers have found hints that human pheromones exist: The smell of tears, for example, seems to tamp down men’s sexual arousal and testosterone levels. However, isolating the chemical compound in tears that provokes that response hasn’t yet happened. 

In 1991, a small paper claimed to have worked with two "putative human pheromones," androstadienone and estratetraenol. The problem was, those pheromones weren’t isolated from human sweat, tears or other substance. They were actually supplied by a company called Erox. They were interested in patenting the two chemicals to use in their perfumes and colognes. Stromberg writes:

Both the university and the paper's lead author, Luis Monti-Bloch, had a stake in Erox (which was founded by former Utah professor David Berliner), and Monti-Bloch would go on to work for the company. But the paper didn't mention these conflicts of interest.

However, once that paper was in the body of scientific literature, other curious scientists started investigating. Some even found that these chemicals could effect the mood of men and women. Perhaps frustrated by this trend, another researcher, Tristram D. Wyatt, recently published a review of all that work and pointed out how it was based on a flawed study. He called the decades spent chasing these two fake pheromones "the lost decades."

Wyatt argues that humans may have pheromones, but in order to find them researchers need to return to the basic, careful methods used to isolate pheromones from other mammals.

Why did research get so off track? Wyatt points out that research on human sexuality is surprisingly underfunded. 

Another consideration might be that the perfume industry is great at appealing to emotion — like any industry looking to sell a product. The allure of pheromones, with their promise of excitement and mystery, may have even effected scientists. 

Perfumers are very good at playing up that mystery. Even today, recipes for scents are carefully guarded, the materials to craft a perfume are expensive and the knowledge of chemistry keeps it within the realm of experts. “It’s an extremely secretive industry," Saskia Wilson-Brown, who runs a non-profit focused on "making the art of perfumery accessible to the public," told NPR’s Science Friday.  "People have their formulas and they keep holding on to those; they don’t share them. I mean, I understand why—it’s a business model; I get it. It’s just a very closed industry.”

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