Banking on a chemical reaction

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?

“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 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.

Beginning in the early 1990s, companies like Human Pheromone Sciences in California and Stone Independent Research, in Phoenix, New York, began to create human synthesized pheromones in response to evidence from animal studies that showed a relationship between pheromones and reproduction, as well as a handful of human studies that suggested human behavior may be affected by the perception of pheromones. Pheromone-enhanced products like the fragrance line Realm by Erox were marketed, but remained mostly on the fringes of the beauty industry.

Since then, other companies have signed on. Parlux, a fragrance maker in Florida, was among the first in a recent wave of companies to use synthesized pheromones, which are among the ingredients in the signature Paris Hilton fragrance, which came out in 2004. Urban Decay has a line of Pocket Rocket lip gloss with synthesized pheromones embedded into the ink on the lip gloss dispensers (the idea is that by merely handling the dispenser, you’re releasing pheromones into the air), and Marilyn Miglin’s earthy Sixth Sense fragrance is due out soon.

James Kohl, an independent clinical laboratory scientist who has written on pheromones and is in partnership with Lovescent.com to sell fragrances, said he believes the additives enhance one’s natural scent. “I put it right up there with makeup to enhance visual appeal,” Kohl said.

“It gives people confidence,” said Dr. Winnifred Cutler, an author, biologist and behavioral endocrinologist who markets pheromone products through her Athena Institute in Pennsylvania.

But whether or not someone can boost their confidence wearing synthesized pheromones or inspire someone else’s still remains a scientific mystery.

“We do know there are several types of pheromones,” said Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center. “Modulator pheromones have shown us, for example, when women are exposed to certain male underarm compounds, they become less tense, more relaxed,” he said. He added, however, that what beauty and personal-care companies are trying to market “is a releaser pheromone that has been equated with being a sexual attractant, and we just don’t know enough about them.”

PHEROMONES AND PHARAOHS

We’ve known that perfumes evoke a behavioral response since the ancient Egyptians used them as a sensual attraction, something more precious than gold,” said Marilyn Miglin, founder of an eponymous beauty company, which is based in Chicago.

To create her first fragrance, she traveled to Egypt in the 1970s with a group of Egyptologists from the University of Chicago.

“As soon as I stepped into the room of a temple that housed the perfume, I knew the power of fragrance,” Miglin said. “Grave robbers may have made off with the contents, but after 5,000 years, the bottles were still there, and they still gave off a scent.”

After her journey, she worked with an Italian perfumer to create a fragrance, called Pheromones — which, despite its name, does not include the quixotic chemical messengers.

But, Miglin said, “the technology’s here now.”

In her new fragrance — Sixth Sense, which blends the scents of mandarin orange, jasmine and sandalwood — she uses a a synthesis of pheromones that duplicates a compound of androstadienone, which has shown to have an effect on mood and courtship behaviors in a study at the University of Chicago in 2001.

“At the very least,” she said, “wearing a fragrance enhanced with pheromones makes for delicious cocktail conversation.”

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