Think you only use your nose to seek out the nearest bakery? Oh no. There’s a lot more going on in there… so say some scientists. The rest aren’t so sure. Let’s dive into the topic of pheromones, what they do, how they change throughout our cycle, and whether or not they even exist in humans in the first place.
A pheromone is a chemical produced by animals that changes the behavior of another animal of the same species. Whether or not that same superpower extends to humans is a hot topic, and regularly debated in the science community.
Animals secrete pheromones that can send messages like:
Humans have our voices for that kind of talk, but we do still secrete our own pheromones through sweat and, it is thought, our nasal septum. Scientists have long considered that human pheromones have the ability to trigger slight mood changes, rather than an animalistic mating call. It’s pretty obvious they don’t send us into a sexual frenzy like some perfume brands might have us believe, but they do seem to do… something.
Zoologist Michael Stoddart made the observation back in 1990 (The Scented Ape, University of Tasmania) that humans possess denser skin concentrations of scent glands than almost any other mammal, which would suggest that we have more connection to scent than we might think. Why would we need all those scent glands if we weren’t giving off some serious pheromones?
While the science is still debated, it has since been found that pheromones can in fact affect mood and sexual feelings in women, albeit very subtly, through the odour produced during our menstrual cycle. Interesting…
The short answer? Maybe. We’ve all heard the tale of BFFs with synchronised periods, and in fact a University of Chicago study seemingly connected the synchronisation of a group of women’s menstrual cycles to what they called ‘unconscious odour cues’. They did this by exposing a group of women to the scent of sweat from another group of women. In doing so, it appeared their menstrual cycles either slowed or sped up depending on when the sweat was collected, i.e. before, during or after their ovulation period. The findings claimed that pheromones collected before ovulation shortened their cycle, while pheromones collected during ovulation appeared to make it longer. Pretty cool… if it was true. Unfortunately in recent years the study has come into question, and may not be accurate enough to draw any real conclusions.
It’s what perfume makers have been boasting about for years - increase your sexual attraction with just a spritz! Unfortunately there is no science to back up these claims, just very good marketing.
Research on scent in relation to attractiveness, though inconclusive, is fascinating. Firstly, there may be evidence to suggest that you become attracted to specific types of people at various points in your cycle, with one study finding that female sexual preferences change depending on whether or not they are ovulating.
Then there’s the small matter of how birth control affects this; Swiss researchers studied people taking birth control (which, remember, essentially stops you getting pregnant by flooding the oestrogen receptors, so they downregulate the production of other hormones) and found that, strangely, women felt more attracted to people that they wouldn’t normally consider to be “their type”. This suggested that oral contraceptives demolish the cyclic attractiveness of odors which actually supports the role of the menstrual cycle on odors and human sexual behavior.
This might explain your sudden monthly attraction to Phil Mitchell from Eastenders. No? Just us?
Apart from your potential attraction to someone unexpected, the most compelling evidence involving female pheromones actually relates to men and their attraction to women who are ovulating. This happens through subtle scent components given off from various points around our bodies. Ovulation is our most fertile time of the month, so this would make biological sense if the aim was to get pregnant, but is it true?
One study found that when body odours given off by females were collected at various times throughout the cycle, and ranked by a group of single men and men who were part of a couple, the ovulation odours seemed to improve social perception among single men, while impairing social perception among pair-bonded men. What does this mean? Well, if you’re ovulating, you may appear more attractive to single men, but your partner is unlikely to take any notice - sounds about right!
So what do you think? Are you convinced by the research on pheromones and your menstrual cycle? Let us know your take on this controversial subject over on Instagram at @itsyoppie! You've got enough going on at that time of the month so don't forget that our personalised period subscription box can get organic cotton tampons, PMS supplements, and much more, delivered through your letterbox. That's a few less things to worry about each cycle.
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Fact checked by Doctor Brooke Vandermolen.
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