Love Stinks: The Truth About Pheromones and Pheremone Parties


Monday’s Gizmodo story on Pheromone Parties caught me totally by surprise. Apparently advances in pseudoscience have made a whole new level of scam possible. Imagine!

One of these parties was held on April 5th in Los Angeles, and there are more to come. Pheromones are a perennial item that snake-oil salesmen try to sell, especially within the adult industry — the same folks who want to sell you magic pills that will make your pecker larger, or increase your bust size.

But more on that later. Meanwhile, here’s Gizmodo on Pheromone Parties:

These events pair people based on the scientific idea that we all create our own unique perfume, or pheromones, to attract mates. It works for insects, cats, and other creatures, so why wouldn’t it work for humans? For $30, Pheromone Parties will help you find your next date, or perhaps the love of your life by smelling their stale, sweaty clothes. Which isn’t that creepy, except for all of it.


You read that right…stale, sweaty clothes.

Sound hot? Yeah, for some people it is (though presumably not the people attending a pheromone party). An attraction to sweaty clothes is, in fact, a very common fetish — and generally harmless. Smelling someone’s sweaty clothes can be hot for you if it’s hot for you, and hooray for you if it is. But as a mainstream, utilitarian matchmaking tool? Yeah…that’s kind of weird. And as a mainstream, utilitarian matchmaking tool supported by a buzzword that reeks (hee hee!) of pseudoscience? Gag me with a spoon.

More from Gizmodo:

To prepare for the natural scent shindig, you sleep in the same clean, white, cotton t-shirt for three nights in a row to bottle, or in this case bag, your own “odor print.” You bring the stank shirt to the fête in a ziplock, which is given a number, with bags marked blue for boys and pink for girls.

Throughout the bash, you’re invited to smell the shirts as you wish….if you see someone holding your number, then you’ve found your musk match.


A reader points out in the comments that most human body odor comes from bacteria, far more than a hormonal “fingerprint.” Different types of bacteria may be typical to an individual, creating a familiar smell. Some studies have indicated an important role in male smell to female attraction, but it’s never been shown to have anything to do with pheromones specifically…other than by pseudoscientists selling snake oil, and by people who don’t know what the term — specifically — means.

I’m sure as hell not claiming there’s no role in smell to human attraction. Having experienced it, I’m confident there is a huge role of smell in attraction. But trotting out “pheromones” to give scientific weight to a marketing concept is a time-honored technique used by scoundrels.

What the hell are pheromones, anyway? In case you don’t remember them from that entomology class you wedged into your schedule between O-Chem and Pharmacology — that is to say, in case Professor Berenstreicher’s lecture on gall wasp mating behavior and the secretions of the honeybee’s Nasonov gland is too dim in your memory — pheromones are substances secreted by certain organisms that can be smelled by other members of the same species. They impact the behavior of the receiving individual, and stuff.

In insects, pheromones are very well-documented. In mammals, not nearly as much. One well-known 1998 study (which has been substantially questioned) claimed to demonstrate the synchronization of menstrual cycles based on a pheromone response in human. But it’s more or less accepted fact in medical science that there’s no olfactory capability that humans have of actually detecting pheromones. The sensors that detect them in other animals exist in humans only during fetal development and are non-functional by the time you’re born.

Some research in mice has suggested (maybe) that humans might have an alternate method for sniffing out pheromones….maybe. But broad demonstration of humans reacting sexually to pheromones has been demonstrated in a peer-reviewed journal.

Nonetheless, “pheromone colognes” and even pheromone lubes have long been marketed with the claim that they can affect human (particularly female) sexual behavior. Slather some Pher-O-Matic on your bulging pectorals, the story goes, and women will fall at your feet. Many of these products come out of shady adult wholesalers, but some are from something closer to the mainstream health-and-beauty industry — or at least its shadier infomercial-marketing side. Oftentimes the claims will try to look and sound medical. You can comparison shop and everything. This page even tries to lend credibility by specifying the twin Greek roots of the word.

The upshot? If a lover or potential lover’s scent gets you hot — you’re in good company. It does, for many if not most of us. And by all indications, it’s not due to pheromones.

And a dating event based in pseudoscience is not one you should trust.

Photo: Malena, from this hot X-Art gallery.

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  1. That made me laugh so much. I really dislike that it’s perpetuating incorrect ideas about pheremones though; they should just gear it towards smell-lovers (and I might be one of them) and sell it to the fetishists. This party sounds like SO MUCH FUN if you’re into smell, but otherwise it’s just a scam.

  2. When I was in my 20’s I dated a lady in her 40’s, a fascinating woman with incredible real life experiences. She’d been one of the first women to summit Denali (Mt McKinley) in Alaska.

    In discussing individual’s body odor, we more used the term “body chemistry” rather than hormones, but she was very much of the opinion that an individual’s scent after a good workout offered more to her than just the smell of sweat. Nancy swore that she could predict sexual compatibility based on that “sniff test.”

    It would be my understanding that this has little to do with pheromones . . . but everything to do with some other different factors. The stories I’ve read related this to specific genes called the MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) that are part of our immune system.

  3. Pheremones are only short-range anyway, someone would have to get Really close to be affected by them, so a pheremone-containing cologne isn’t going to do you much good, as they fade pretty fast too.

    Other body smell does affect attraction though, one long-term partner of mine liked me to shower (of course), but didn’t want me putting on too much scent, she liked my natural body odour to be just present, it turned her on.

  4. @Mario — I’ve heard a bit about those studies, too, though I’ve never looked at the studies themselves. In any event, it’s fascinating to think that maybe to some extent attraction is impacted by immune compatibility. If there’s ever more-or-less definitive data on any part of that, what would be really fascinating would be to look at how/whether same-sex attraction shows any related responses. Really interesting stuff.

    And yeah…the “pheromone” label has become to some extent shorthand for “human smell,” which I have no really problem with colloquially, but when it’s used to market a product supposedly based on science…

  5. I’m sure these pheromone parties are just so much snake oil, but there was an interesting show on PBS a while back about the science of attraction, and it covered smells. (I’m going by memory.) Apparently, our scent gives off an indication of the makeup of our immune systems. Robust offspring are generally created when chemistry of one parent’s immune system is complementary to another. By contrast, if two people had a similar chemistry, their children would generally be less well-off than if their immune systems each had something, or somethings, unique to offer. It seems that this biological phenomenon places a role in attraction, and that it plays more of a role in influencing women than men.

    They did a study where they let men work out on a treadmill and then bottled up their sweaty undershirts. They then gave the different shirts to a group of women. The study seemed to demonstrate that when a woman is ovulating, she will find the scent of a man whose immune system’s chemistry complements her own more attractive than the scent of other men. In fact, the study suggested that, generally speaking, women don’t find men’s sweaty scent all that attractive. In the group of women that were shown on the PBS program, when they replicated the study, all of the women complained that they didn’t like the smell of the shirts at all, except for one woman who remarked that the scent on one particular shirt was “not all that bad.” It turned out that, yes, she was ovulating and, yes, the owner of the shirt had an immune system which complemented hers.

    There was another interesting part about the scent that women give off when ovulating and how it affects men.

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