I remember walking home from work one evening, on the phone half-listening to my mom while trying to pick up my dry-cleaning.  I was being treated to a scientific tirade, interspersed with earnest pleas that I get off the pills. She meant birth control pills.

Apparently, she'd read a new theory suggesting that women who take oral contraceptives would not attract, or be attracted to, the same person they would have been if they'd not altered their hormones.

"You're throwing off your sensitivity to the 'right' pheromones," my mother warned, convinced that I, in my current state, was doomed to fall for someone incompatible.

During that call, I disregarded these kooky notions as the newest paranoia of my worry-prone mother. After all, it was she who fiercely believes contraceptives are key to modern feminine freedom; and she who'd raised me to fear unplanned pregnancy as a ruinous disaster. 

But how much influence do these pheromones have in our everyday behavior, particularly when it comes to match-making? And can we so easily alter them?

Only recently studied, human pheromone chemicals are still largely a mystery and their influence believed to have only subtle effects on our behavior.

Released through bodily fluids - such as skin oils, sweat or tears - pheromones have physical or emotional effects on another member of the same species.

Although researchers have identified only a few human pheromone compounds, there is evidence to suggest that humans can, in fact, communicate through subconscious chemical signals.

Pheromones can reveal fertility, moods, sexual orientation and even genetic makeup.

 

Perhaps the most well-known study done by a psychologist at the University of New Mexico in 2007, showed that strippers who were ovulating (most fertile 5 days of the menstrual cycle) consistently made $15 more per hour than those dancers that were not, and $30 more than those on birth control since the pill completely prevents ovulation. 

Since then, scientists have shown again and again that men's testosterone levels rise when exposed to ovulating women and that men find these women more attractive than those women who are not.

Attraction to fertility seems somewhat obvious. Most interesting to me is that our pheromones actually encourage us to choose genetically compatible mates.

Swiss researchers asked women to rate the smell of shirts worn by different men. All of the women chose men whose DNA was the most different from their own. The genetic variance more likely to make taller, stronger and smarter offspring. 

All sorts of pheromone signals have been discovered. Gay men, for example, prefer sweat samples of other gay men, while straight men favor that of women. Alarm signals are expelled during distress or anxiety to alert recipients of potential danger, thus heightening the senses of everyone in close proximity. Women's tears of sadness are shown to notably lower men's testosterone decreasing their sexual arousal. Probably best, considering the opposite would only make matters worse.

With brain imaging, Swedish researchers showed that humans process pheromones in the hypothalamus, known for its ability to alter emotion, hormones and sexual behavior. "Normal" smells, such as the scent of perfume, are processed through a separate part of the brain called the olfactory bulb.

The fragrance industry, estimated to be worth over $40 billion globally by 2020, has tried to capitalize on the potential sex-inducing effects of pheromones by adding them to colognes. Don't be fooled. Most of these colognes contain animal hormones and since pheromones are species-specific, this won't work on the barista at your sometimes-office coffee joint.

However, our "normal" sense of smell is pretty powerful. Recognition of scent is immediate since it is the only one of our five senses directly connected to the brain; an ancient part near the center that affects instinctive behaviors including memory. One sniff of a particular scent can instantly take us back to childhood, for example.

 

We can take advantage of this strong sentimental effect by keeping a subtle consistent scent that will remind those around us of [1] our pheromones and [2] previous experiences together.

When asked, most claim they like a man's natural skin smell, sans fragrance. And quickly add "clean" to that description. Never desired, is the smell of stale sweat (obviously), since the repulsive odor of bacteria quickly overshadows any pleasant notes.  

Subtlety is key - fragrance should complement what you've naturally got going on. When it does, it's utterly irresistible.

 

The top-polling "elegant and subdued" fragrances are listed below. Click to shop.

$4 Old Spice Original Deodorant

$4 Old Spice Original Deodorant

$8 Old Spice Body Wash

$8 Old Spice Body Wash

$72 Bleu de  Chanel  Eau de Toilette

$72 Bleu de Chanel Eau de Toilette

$72    Dior    Sauvage Eau de Toilette

$72 Dior Sauvage Eau de Toilette

$25 Bleu de  Chanel  Deodorant

$25 Bleu de Chanel Deodorant

$23  Dior  Sauvage Deodorant

$23 Dior Sauvage Deodorant

$85 Hermes Terre D'Hermes Eau de Toilette

$85 Hermes Terre D'Hermes Eau de Toilette

$39 Hermes Terre D'Hermes Deodorant

$39 Hermes Terre D'Hermes Deodorant

*Note the gradient of fragrance concentration: perfume (or parfum) is most potent and most expensive, eau de parfum slightly less so, eau de toilette and eau de cologne are less potent and more affordable.

 

Perhaps even more important than your personal scent is your home scent. Again, "clean" is paramount (wash the sheets). These three candles will rouse (and soften) your space. 

$62 Diptyque Paris Candle, Cypres - seriously worth every penny

$62 Diptyque Paris Candle, Cypres - seriously worth every penny

$52 Malin + Goetz Candle, Cannabis - disregard name, it's marvelously fresh, woodsy & citrusy

$52 Malin + Goetz Candle, Cannabis - disregard name, it's marvelously fresh, woodsy & citrusy

$10 Mrs. Meyer's Candle, Lemon Verbena 

$10 Mrs. Meyer's Candle, Lemon Verbena 

Turns out mom was partially right. Those of us on hormonal birth control do change our "fertility" pheromones. On the other hand, there are so many silent signals given off either constantly changing with mood or stress; or so steadfast, like genetic makeup, they're near impossible to adjust. We'll just have to trust our nose.

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