Bottling Love at First Smell: The Fallacies of Pheromone Fragrances
By: Yagoda Oleksak
To some people’s dismay and others’ delight, there are suddenly cupid bows, hearts, and decorations of every red, white, and pink combination you can think of. Bouquets of roses, boxes filled with chocolate, and beautifully recounted stories of how couples fell for each other. Valentine’s day is one to celebrate love of all kinds and express gratitude for the support systems in life, and while these ideals are sweet, sometimes this holiday is severely misconstrued.
There seems to be a lot of pressure surrounding gift-giving and grand gestures; this is exacerbated when people are experiencing feelings of loneliness and distress. For this reason, many companies take advantage of these feelings through consumerism. “Do you want to show how much you love someone? Well here are all our products that can help you convey that!” While for some this might be their ideal way to celebrate Valentine’s day, others fall victim to this kind of advertising, especially when companies begin using “scientific” justifications.
One of the most common purchases during the Valentine’s day season is perfume. Over the decades, several companies have capitalized on this holiday to launch and promote ‘human pheromone perfumes’ that claim to increase sexual responses and promote attractiveness. Perfume companies have backed their statements by using research papers—the facts are there, clearly it’s just an innovative way to market the idea of finding love…or is it?
While it is true that pheromones are used by mammals to arouse mating behaviour, these conclusions have only been definitively confirmed in non-human species. This is the result of hundreds of experiments arriving at the same conclusions with the same reasoning: many animal species have an organ, the vomeronasal organ (VNO), designed specifically to detect pheromones and stimulate behavioural changes in response, especially in mating and arousal. However, a lot of pheromonal research has found that humans don’t even possess this organ or have a vestigial version. So how exactly are companies providing these scientific claims that their perfumes work through pheromone detection between people? How are we able to detect pheromones if we lack the VNO? Well, there isn’t really an answer.
The research into human pheromones is fairly new in the scientific community, and results are inconclusive. Scientists look into several potential pheromone compounds but have often come back to explore the same two, especially in relation to sexual attraction: androstadienone and estratetraenol. There have been several studies looking into these compounds and some, like the experiments conducted by Verhaeghe et al. in 2013 found that “in particular androstadienone [plays] a beneficial role in [heterosexual] women’s mood, focus and sexual response, and perhaps also in mate selection.” These results, like in many pheromone research studies, were obtained when participants were administered the “putative pheromone”, which are pheromones thought to be found in sweat or saliva, under their nose and answered questions about their mood or level of attraction to stimulus showing the opposite sex.
While the study mentioned did have reliable data, the issue with a lot of pheromone studies is that they lack generalizability, or external validity, due to small sample sizes or their many confounding variables. Dr. Tristram Wyatt, an animal pheromone scientist at the University of Oxford, argues that the studies in support of human pheromones run into the same fundamental problem: “there is no [explicit] evidence that these molecules have any pheromone activity [so] we should be skeptical about positive results as we have no justified expectation of an effect.” Furthermore, there are, in comparison, more studies finding contrasting results where molecules like androstadienone and estratetraenol had no effect on sexual attraction in humans. These inconsistencies are why claims made by companies about their perfumes promoting sexual attraction grossly misinterpret scientific data.
Corporations have exploited this sort of misguided scientific reasoning to justify their product claims. The EROX Corporation has been known for selling pheromone perfumes and has referred to a 1991 scientific conference supporting the idea that androstadienone and estratetraenol are human pheromones to justify their claims of using these compounds in perfume for enhanced sexual attraction. However, it was discovered that this conference was actually sponsored by EROX, highlighting a non-disclosed conflict of interest and that there were, as Dr. Wyatt explains, “positive publication biases” from the results. This occurs when only research with positive results get published and discussed. So perhaps the ‘innovative’ perfume ideas companies have come up with for consumers really aren’t love at first smell as we might have thought.
It’s no secret that some corporations manipulate facts and take advantage of holiday seasons to increase product appeal, but as consumers, we can use science to detect when these claims are not what they seem. Pheromone perfumes are just one of many examples. It’s important to recognize and look for potential signs that what the media shares with us may not be as scientific as it’s made out to be. Taking grand promises made by these companies with a grain of salt is a start; it’s good to be informed and take a back step to double check the facts claimed to be backed by science. If it sounds too good to be true, that might just be the case.
Beyond that, it’s more important to recognize that companies invest heavily in finding data that will support their claims. This shouldn’t discourage you from exploring scientific phenomena or being excited by the possibilities of ideas being true. While it’s not always definitive, amazing scientific discoveries are made regularly; the progress and exploration of human pheromones are a great example of that. While corporations may make misrepresented claims, science, at its core, is based on testable facts. So when companies promote data manipulation and sponsor publication bias, the scientific community is able to uncover the truth despite attempts to misrepresent knowledge for capitalist gain. As more research is done, more innovative discoveries are made and more reliable conclusions are drawn—an exciting idea to truly fall for this Valentine’s Day.