Pheromones, body care products, and sexual attraction: Don't believe the hype.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 18 2011 1:01 PM

The Scent of a Woman

Don't trust the hype about pheromones and sexual attraction.

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In 2007, astrostenedione's reputation as a scientific seduction tool should have crumbled even further: That's when Andreas Keller, a geneticist at Rockefeller University, discovered (subscription required) that, depending on the particular variation of the olfactory gene OR7D4 you possess, you may find androstenedione pleasantly floral, you may find it utterly repulsive, or you may not be able to smell it at all.

A true human pheromone would have universal appeal across the species. But the latest research on olfaction hints that our smell systems are much more individualized than we ever imagined. Scientists now estimate that humans have roughly 350 working olfactory genes, which may vary from person to person. Considering that spread, the idea of a truly effective bottled aphrodisiac seems silly—or as Rachel Herz, a Brown University psychologist and author of The Scent of Desire,calls it, a "commercial fantasy."

Still, this evidence has not changed the fact that, today, you can go online and choose from an assortment of copulin-spiked fragrances or body lotions that provide a double-whammy of vaginal and sweat secretions. One company promises that the copulins in its cucumber-melon essential oils "block a man's ability to judge a woman's attractiveness based on her looks alone and has been shown to subconsciously raise testosterone levels in men by 100%!" For male shoppers, Dial has a new androstenedione soap, Dial Magnetic, that claims to lure women.

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None of this is to say that smells aren't powerful. Who doesn't get hungry from the smell of home-baked chocolate chip cookies? Maybe your guy's cologne is a real turn-on. But there's a huge difference between an instinctual behavior-changer and a pleasing odor. Besides, most of the evidence nowadays suggests that the way we react to aromas is learned—learning that can go back to the womb. For instance, Doty refers to a 2004 study on sheep that interrogated the long-held assumption that females ovulate in the presence of males, most likely due to pheromones. The researchers put lavender on the males and after a few mating sessions, the females began ovulating from the scent of lavender alone. The findings suggest that the females' hormonal response was an acquired behavior, rather than an innate one.

This shift in thinking is really quite liberating. It means, for one thing, that we may have more complicated relationships with our men than a female silkworm moth has with hers. It also means that we're not programmed to respond in one particular way but that we can learn—indeed, train ourselves—to respond to an odor the way we want to. Pamela Dalton, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, practices something she calls "pairing," or marrying an odor to a particular emotional state. She buys a new fragrance every time she goes on vacation so that when she returns to work, one spray puts her back in holiday mode. We may never be able to lure that gorgeous stranger with a one-size-fits-all fragrance, but perhaps we can train our lovers to respond to us more passionately by wearing a new perfume on a romantic night out. Later, one whiff of the scent will tug at his odor memory and he'll be back to us like a moth to a flame—I mean, like a male silkworm moth to bombykol.

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