Scientists are in constant dispute about what defines a pheromone. Not only can we not physically see them, but they are difficult to measure.
There’s one thing on which they do agree. These chemicals in our bodies can sway human behavior.
Scientists find these chemical compounds complex and sometimes difficult to understand. Most people confuse pheromones with cologne or body spray. However, pheromones are much more intoxicating, and have the potential to make you more attractive.
Confused about what a pheromone is exactly? Fear not: here’s an Updated January 2023 article on everything you need to know about pheromones.
What are pheromones?
Pheromones are similar to hormones, which are molecules that are produced in the glands of your body. However, the major difference is pheromones work outside the body.
Mammals naturally secrete these chemical substances. Scientists have speculated that the biological function of pheromones is to trigger social responses from others.
It’s especially important for those of the same species. You can think of them as chemical secret messages that mammals send to each other.
The discovery of human pheromones came about following a pair of studies by Winnifred Cutler and her colleagues. Cutler’s team published the findings in the science journal Hormones and Behavior. The two studies of human pheromones analyzed donor extracts of chemical substances from men and women.
This discovery went main stream quite quickly. National media like The Washington Post ran featured articles on human pheromones. And thus, a whole new science of human behavior was born.
Do humans have pheromones?
Some contend that pheromones don’t exist at all. However, as humans are mammals, we do indeed have pheromones.
Humans, as well as other mammals, possess what is called an olfactory system. This biological system helps us, as well as other mammals, sort through the smells and the pheromone signals of others.
Facts about pheromones
- Martin Lüscher and Peter Karlson thought up the name “pheromones”. The name derives from the Greek words pheroo meaning “I carry”, and hormon meaning “stimulating”.
- There is a moderate variety of pheromones. Each serves different purposes and provokes individual reactions in the ‘receiver’.
- Scientist Adolf Butenandt officially identified the first pheromone in 1959. He gave it the name bombykol. Butenandt studied bombykol production in moths. He found that female moths secreted this chemical signal. Bombykol could travel vast distances for the male moth to detect. This signal was part of the mating process.
- Most all animals – specifically mammals, humans, and even insects – use pheromones to communicate. In particular, they are prominent in sexual attraction and reproductive behavior.
How do pheromones function?
The olfactory system is part of the sensory system for mammals. It’s what detects different smells and pheromones.
Pheromones are a type of hidden communication. Through the olfactory system, we detect these substances and, likewise, other people detect ours.
Pheromone secretion serves various basic survival purposes:
- As a defense mechanism
- As a calming mechanism
- For attracting a mate
- For territorial marking
Function in animals
Pheromone function differs slightly in animals compared to humans.
Some species release a pungent substance when attacked by predators. The chemical secretion compels the predator to flee. One example is wasps, which release a certain scent when they want to alarm others to potential threats.
Other insects use their pheromone scent to lay a trail. This trail acts as a guide when going out to hunt for food. The pheromone trail allows the insect to return safely. It also serves as a trail for other insects of the same species to find food. Ants are an example.
Territorial pheromones set boundaries in a given environment. The most well-known examples are cats and dogs. When these animals urinate, they are spreading territorial pheromones.
Function in humans
In humans, pheromone function and effect are more complex than basic survival.
Some researchers believe that these chemical messages affect the mental state or mood of the recipient.
They can also help us identify suitable mates and those of our own species. Sweat contains these species-specific compounds. It affects how ready other humans are to reproduce.
Pheromones may also contribute to human development. Human babies crawl toward the scent of their mother’s breast. However, some argue it is not distinctly the breast but the mother’s overall odor, or unique aroma.
A Florida State University group found that the smell of ovulating women can cause a testosterone increase in the receiving males. This encourages reproductive protocols.
Types of pheromones
There are many types of pheromones. The four dominant ones are: releaser, primer, modulator, and signaler.
Releaser pheromones evoke an immediate response. This rapid response is strong and usually linked to sexual attraction.
Primer types elicit a slower response that can alter reproduction or development physiology. They can adjust the hormones of other beings. They also have been closely linked to menstrual cycles. They may even connect to the failure or success of a pregnancy.
Modulators may synchronize or alter bodily functions. These are mainly present in sweat. They, too, may affect a woman’s monthly cycle.
Signalers are informative chemical messages. They help mothers find their offspring, something the fathers cannot do. They give off our genetic prints through odor.
Scientific studies suggesting human pheromones exist
There is some debate as to whether human pheromones exist. Scientists cannot be one hundred percent sure. Rather, they must go by studies and research findings on the substances.
Scientists have found that infants, children, and adults can distinguish between other humans based on olfactory cues. This essentially means we can tell who’s who by using the power of smell.
There has been evidence linked to the study of Androstadienone, an ingredient of male sweat. Researchers think it affects mood, increases attraction and changes cortisol levels. They speculate that Androstadienone increases co-operative behavior in men.
Additionally, a study conducted by Winifred Cutler suggests that both female and males sweat secretion could change a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Heterosexual and Homosexual studies
We’ve briefly touched on links to animal and human pheromones and sexual attraction. There are ideas that homosexual men and women react differently to chemical scents than heterosexuals.
In a study, researchers asked 12 heterosexual women and 12 homosexual women to inhale two different kinds of steroids. One derived from that of a pregnant woman. Another was present in male armpit sweat.
The brain scans of the heterosexual women showed activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for sexual cues when smelling the male hormone, androstenone (AND). However, when smelling the female hormone, estratetraenol (EST), only their olfactory system responded. This signifies they were simply processing a smell.
The homosexual women showed brain activity only in the olfactory system for both odors.
The findings suggested that homosexual women’s results were similar to that of the pattern in heterosexual males.
Sources of human pheromones
The most effective odor-producing glands – in humans at least – are our underarms, genitals, and nipples. These are the areas that are most associated with pheromone secretion.
Glands in these areas produce the most sweat. Sweat is the predominant carrier of chemicals and smells outside the body.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers found that the main olfactory epithelium plays a huge role in pheromone detection.
This finding contradicted previous research findings, which suggested that it was the vomeronasal organ that detected pheromones.
The vomeronasal organ (VNO) connects the nose to the hypothalamus in the brain. In humans, this organ is relatively dormant. It does not serve the same function as that in other animals.
A study conducted in 2016 presented the idea that the AND substance caused swelling in the tissue that relates to blood flow in female noses. This also further sustained the idea that AND is a pheromone.
Human menstrual synchronous pheromones
Have you ever heard of women having synced menstrual cycles? Pheromones might well be the cause for this.
During a study at the University of Chicago, researchers found a direct link between menstrual cycles and sweat production. Women exposed to the sweat of other women showed either slowed down or accelerated cycles. The response indicated how women’s menstrual cycles are synchronized.
Pheromones and sexual function
A lot of animals use sex pheromones signals as a mating call. However, it is not completely certain whether humans use pheromones the same way.
The reason is that pheromones are species-specific. They help humans have sex with the right mate. By ‘right’ this refers to someone who fits with a compatible age, species, sex, and genotype.
People who secrete a higher level of pheromones may have sex more often and can bond better with others. This elevated level of chemical production could affect how sexually attractive a person is. The higher the pheromone level, the more the person receives attraction.
Is body odor based on our immune system?
Research of the association between body odor and the immune system is ongoing. Some theories suggest that we can detect major histocompatibility complexes (MHC) combinations through body odor. This refers to genes, alleles and body tissues.
A female may unconsciously use this function to select a fitting gene pattern and immune system for her offspring.
Your immune system may also control what you deem as attractive or unattractive through body odor.
Can humans increase natural pheromones production?
It’s difficult to change the chemical balance inside your body. However, you can increase what secretes these compounds. Can you guess what that is? You got it. Sweat. Exercising more and sweating will increase natural pheromones.
Bathing properly can help unclog pores. However, bathing too much can make the pheromones on your skin decrease. It also can get rid of good bacteria. These good bacteria help you emit a more natural and healthier smell.