Can My Perfume Really Attract a Partner?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, pheromone products have started popping up on my TikTok FYP. Pheromone perfumes are scents that are designed to make you more “attractive” to others. Some examples include Venom for Her, Enhanced Scents Original, and DLA Cosmetics Crazy in Love. While many brands don’t make their ingredient lists available to shoppers, a few do: There are some colognes and odorless additives with androstenone, a pheromone present in boar saliva. At least one perfume appears to contain Osmopherone, a “phermonic” fragrance additive described by its manufacturer as “attractive smelling” — which is not the same as calling it a scent that attracts. And there are even some scented and unscented products containing oxytocin.

In animals, pheromones (like androstenone) are chemical signals released externally to elicit behavioral responses from other animals, whereas hormones (like oxytocin) are chemicals released internally to regulate body functions. In perfume bottles, these pheromones and hormones … have not been proven to do much of anything. “People do transmit and respond to chemical information that is passed between humans and that can influence emotional state,” says Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. But “identifying the molecule, or molecules, that produce these effects is still unknown.”

Any of the ingredients in these pheromone scents — whether derived from animals or created in a lab to mimic human secretions — is nothing better than a guess. “The effect of pheromones on our behavior is highly questioned,” says Arnaud Guggenbuhl, the global head of fine-fragrance marketing insight and image at Givaudan. But “the belief is still very prevalent and culturally relevant.” That is: We want to believe.

And the wanting could explain why some people who buy and wear these pheromone-esque products are convinced they work. The placebo effect is a powerful thing. One study found that simply telling subjects they were smelling a fragrance that was stimulating or relaxing was enough to cause a heart-rate change consistent with the correlated emotion regardless of what scent they smelled — or if they smelled anything at all. (Money is also a powerful motivator, and the cynic in me needs to point out that many of the testimonial videos for pheromone scents have an affiliate link to shop.) But the most likely reason people think these products have some effect — at least with the scented versions — is that their aromas trigger positive emotional responses. “The impulse appeal that perfumes arouse could be linked to the [fragrance] ingredients,” says Guggenbuhl. “Finding which ones have the power to seduce is a mighty quest.”

Scientists have studied which fragrances elicit positive emotions and why people judge others’ attractiveness differently depending on the aromas present when they look at them. Guggenbuhl says his company, Givaudan, has found that “some molecules in the musky and woody, ambery families” are more associated with sensuality and sexiness. But there are no fragrances that are universally good at attracting others, because our emotional response to scents is highly influenced by the memories we associate with them. Take vanilla: Many people find it pleasing — most likely because we remember it fondly from childhood and because there are similar scent compounds in breast milk — but that doesn’t make it an aphrodisiac. Rather, the simple act of wearing a fragrance has been shown to make wearers more confident, potentially making them seem more attractive to others.

I can tell you from experience that this theory only works if you like how you smell. And some of these pheromone scents do not smell good. I dabbed my wrists with this Pure Instinct roll-on before a friend’s party, and then spent the night with my arms crossed, hoping the plasticky saccharine odor (think: Chupa Chups wrappers) wasn’t detectable. But I was into the oudlike aroma of 11th Haus Wild Boy, so I wore it to a recent event where I had to moderate a panel. Do I think its “sightly woodsy or powdery scent” was “due to its high pheromone levels,” as the company claims on its website? No. But I felt pretty confident the day I wore it and even had someone compliment my perfume and ask what it was.

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Can My Perfume Really Attract a Partner?