Pheromones, body care products, and sexual attraction: Don't believe the hype. - By Randi Hutter Epstein - Slate Magazine
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If only it were so. Pheromones, in scientific parlance, are aromatic chemicals emitted by one member of a species that affect another member of the same species, either by altering its hormones or by compelling it to change its behavior. When they work, they are truly bewitching. For instance, when a female silkworm moth wants to get her guy, she sprays a chemical called bombykol from her abdominal gland and her targeted male transforms into a sex slave, trailing the scent until he mounts her. It's an enviable feat. Still, it's a big leap to extrapolate from bugs to people—or even to lab mice, for that matter. No scientific study has ever proven conclusively that mammals have pheromones.
"The whole pheromone thing got picked up by the mass media," says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Smell and Taste Research Center and author of The Great Pheromone Myth. It feeds into our need to believe, he said, that there "is all this subliminal stuff going on that is affecting us—who we mate with, who we want to be with. It's this mythical perspective." And marketers, like women's magazines, are only too happy to exploit that myth. That's how a whole junk-science industry of pheromone-perfumes, pheromone-soaps, and pheromone-cosmetics managed to spring up from a strange menagerie of misconstrued mammal studies.
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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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