Banking on a Chemical Reaction

THE TEST As part of an experiment, nine women at a lounge in Manhattan were blindfolded and asked to select a date by sniffing scent strips.


ON a recent evening, an unusual experiment took place at a lounge in downtown Manhattan. Nine blindfolded women were asked to determine, by smell alone, whether any among a group of nine men was worth pursuing.

Three men had just showered using a body wash with synthesized pheromones, three had used a body wash without pheromones, and the rest had worked up a sweat and not washed at all. They then rubbed their arms on scent strips, and handed them to the women to sniff.

One participant, Michelle Hotaling, 24, chose a man who had used the pheromone body wash. “In appearance and personality he was not someone I would otherwise be convinced to go out with,” she said, once her blindfold came off. “But his scent was a factor that would push my decision to say, ‘Yes.’ ”

Which was just what Dial, the event’s sponsor and maker of the new “pheromone-infused” Dial for Men Magnetic Attraction Enhancing Body Wash, wanted to hear.

“We don’t claim using our product you’re going to hit a home run,” said Ryan Gaspar, a brand manager. “We say, ‘We’ll get you to first base.’ ”

As the science — or, as some believe, pseudo-science — of pheromones advances toward commercial applications, more manufacturers of personal-care products are dropping tinctures of synthesized pheromones into their formulas, with claims that they will boost sex appeal and confidence.

The pheromone of choice for men is a family of steroids, related to testosterone, found near the axillary glands in the underarm area. For women, a commonly used compound is estratetraenol, a derivative of the sex hormone estradiol. (The patents of these synthesized hormones are proprietary, and when asked, the makers would not reveal their ingredients.)

But does adding synthetic pheromones truly evoke that elusive Love Potion No. 9?

“There has been a lot of misconception about what human pheromones do,” said Dr. Charles Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and an author of “Human Pheromones: What’s Purported, What’s Supported,” a recently published report commissioned by the Sense of Smell Institute, a branch of the Fragrance Foundation. “We want to raise a flag and say, where’s the evidence? How human pheromones work is still totally questionable.”

Identified by American scientists in 1959, pheromones are believed to be part of a chemical communication system that signals reproductive readiness and affects other animal behaviors.

“For humans, though, it’s usually love at first sight, not love at first smell,” said Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist. “There are many factors to sex appeal, and romance and scent is among them. But from studying the brain, I would argue that our brains are largely built for visual stimuli.”

While Dr. Fisher believes pheromones may not initially be an aphrodisiac, someone’s scent can certainly be a turnoff, or a turn-on, once courtship has been established, she said.

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