What’s Up With Pheromone Perfume — & Why Is TikTok Obsessed?

Photographed by Hayleigh Longman.
Throughout two years of on-off lockdowns, our collective spending took a nosedive and dragged the beauty industry with it. But during that time, one particular product boomed in popularity: fragrance.
For many, perfume became something of an affordable luxury, while diffusers and candles were used to lift spirits and enhance living (and working) spaces. Though social contact was kept to a minimum, beauty enthusiasts expanded their perfume collections, realizing the power in wearing scents for themselves.
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As perfume skyrocketed, certain fragrances assumed cult status, particularly on TikTok. We obsessed over Maison Francis Kurkdjian's Baccarat Rouge, a head-turning megamix of saffron, jasmine, and ambroxan (a synthetic molecule that's comforting, sensual and palatable in equal measure). If that didn't flood your feed, perhaps it was Parfums de Marly's Delina with its pretty-pink bottle and notes of rhubarb, lychee, and bergamot, or YSL's Black Opium (black coffee, white flowers, and vanilla).
This summer, one special fragrance trend has ignited a social media frenzy and it's all to do with enhancing your pheromones. On TikTok the hashtag #pheromoneperfume has an enormous 43.7 million views, while the phrase itself has an additional 26.6 million mentions. In one viral video, TikToker @erinduganjurchak tries out the trending Pure Instinct Roll-On, a "pheromone-infused essential oil perfume", available at Amazon for $16. "Have you ever heard of pheromone perfume? It's supposed to mix with your own body's pH and just make you irresistible," says Erin.

Socializing is back with a bang and so is dating, as we get close to each other once again after two years of enforced separation. Can pheromone fragrances really help us attract partners?

The TikToker observes that the Amazon reviews are "all over the place" but proceeds to apply the "fruity and musky" fragrance for their partner's reaction. Judging by a reply in the comments section, the parter liked it — but that was all. Of course, TikTokers began to fill up the comments section with their own stories. "Girl beware!! I put it on and then I had to work (I'm a nurse) and omg it was raining men of all ages 😂😂," wrote one. Another said: "This stuff works! I am a cosmetologist and the days I wear it my tips are way better than when I don't."
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What are pheromones?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that pheromone perfume works well to attract people to your personal scent, and if you believe the anecdotes, it could even make them fall for you. But what exactly are pheromones? Marina Barcenilla, perfumer and founder of AromAtom: The Smell of Space, explains that pheromones are chemical signals with a range of functions, which serve to communicate between members of the same species.
Cosmetic biochemist Nausheen Qureshi says that pheromones are secreted by both animals and humans in the form of sweat, saliva, and other bodily secretions. "So far, most scientific research on the topic has concentrated on sweat," she explains further. "Compounds within these secretions can be detected by smell and they can influence the mindset of the detecting animal."
Pheromones aren't a new discovery but the resurgence in pheromone-enhancing perfume makes sense. Coronavirus restrictions are a thing of the past and we're experiencing a scorching summer to end all summers. Socializing is back with a bang and so is dating, as we get close to each other once again after two years of enforced separation. Can pheromone fragrances really help us attract partners?
Surprisingly, Marina says that we might not even have pheromones. "As mammals, it's possible that human pheromones could exist. However, none have been identified to date by any robust scientific research," she explains. That's where pheromone perfume comes in. Many on the market claim to be infused with synthetic versions of pheromones to enhance your natural scent. That said, Nausheen explains there are limited studies on whether synthetic pheromones in fragrances like these promote the same level of influence that your natural secretions produce. "This could be because the pheromones you produce are far and wide, and contain a huge number of chemicals and substances that lend to a specific response," says Nausheen. "It is very personalized."
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Is wearing pheromone perfume a little cunning? After all, it's basically like hacking another person's senses with the intention of alluring them.

Does pheromone perfume work?

Perfumer Geza Schön, who works with Escentric Molecules (famous for Molecule 01, the perfume which smells different on everyone) is skeptical of synthetic pheromones in perfumes. "Pheromone perfumes just do not work, because we don't have synthesized pheromones [essentially a blend of them] which we can use as ingredients in fragrances." Geza recalls a fragrance brand which attempted to infuse its perfumes with pig pheromones a while ago. As you might have expected, Geza was not a fan of the less-than-appealing perfume and its lasting meaty notes. "You could not really attract a right-thinking human being with that," he says.
If the evidence for pheromone perfume isn't particularly convincing, why are we still so in love with the idea? Amanda Carr, fragrance trend forecaster and cofounder of We Wear Perfume, hints that it's something to do with our intrinsic human need for affection. "If you're young and beautiful and after a mate, wearing perfume becomes all about attracting someone with how you smell. But the idea that a magical 'pheromone' ingredient can make you irresistible is something we'd all be interested in."
The pandemic has definitely had an effect on how we connect with people, adds Amanda. "We crave kindness, happiness, and comfort from other humans because many of us were deprived of it during lockdown. For anyone who lost their sense of smell during COVID, not to be able to smell the comforting scent of your own home, or your partner, or family, can be devastating and isolating." Marina agrees: "As human beings, we seem to have a basic need for attention and love from others so it's very easy to take advantage of this." Though Marina thinks pheromone perfume is a fad, she says that believing in it accounts for a psychological boost, which can kickstart an unconscious positive behavioral change in the wearer — and even lead to an unexpected response from others.
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On the surface, wearing pheromone perfume is pretty harmless. But could it be a little cunning? After all, it's basically like hacking another person's senses with the intention of alluring them. Amanda says it's about as crafty as wearing Spanx. "We all put on our 'best face' when we're trying to attract a partner, or wear our smartest white shirt or coolest jeans. Making yourself smell good seems pretty natural — but it would only be cunning if it worked."

What happens when you wear pheromone perfume?

The jury is out, but TikTok had me intrigued and I bought the bottled version of the Amazon-famous roll-on pheromone perfume. Amassing over 9k reviews, it's said to "blend perfectly with your body's chemistry", with the campaign images showing various couples canoodling. I also couldn't resist Pheromones For Women Phoenix Body Spray, which has five stars all round. The first smells like tropical fruit mixed with rose and musk (a reviewer actually opted for this stuff over her usual Tom Ford Bitter Peach which is $240), while the second boasts notes of jasmine, orange blossom, and vetiver, notes I'd usually go for when choosing a fragrance.
I applied the first fragrance to my pulse points and went about my day, discreetly wafting myself in the direction of my boyfriend. "Can you smell me?!" I snapped come evening. The joke was on me though. After a stint with COVID, his sense of smell still hasn't returned fully. A deeper whiff concluded I smelled like a plug-in air freshener.
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Dejected, I tested out the body spray in the office. This is actually an oil meant to be rubbed onto your pulse points. It smells a lot like shampoo to me, but to my surprise I did manage to put one colleague under my scented spell. "You smell nice!" said R29's health and living editor Sadhbh. Intrigued, the others flocked to my desk to give me a sniff. "Clean", "powdery" and "fresh" were a few of the adjectives used. However, no one wanted to kiss me.

'Skin scents' which smell warm, familiar, and vaguely salty — like the faintest hint of sweat — are overtaking pheromone perfume.

Though relatively new to TikTok, the idea behind pheromone fragrances has been around for a very long time, says Amanda, and the science is pretty dismissive of it working via perfume. So if it isn't pheromones that make perfume smell different on everyone, what exactly is it? "Biochemistry," explains Marina. "Our own hormones, skin pH, and the millions of microbes that cover every spare centimeter of our skin are responsible for these variations."
Marina says that there is nothing "mystical" or "clever" about it. "It's nature, plus every human being truly is a microcosmos, home to trillions of microscopic lifeforms, all doing their own thing." Lifestyle plays a part, too, according to Geza. "Whatever you take in, you will ooze out," he says. "Do you drink more water than White Claw? Do you smoke? Do you play sports? Do you look after yourself? Fragrances work differently on different people because we are different people."
Amanda suggests it's likely that these popular pheromone fragrances use a good quantity of musk notes, which smell very skinlike. "Think: soft, mineral-esque, warm, comforting, and familiar," says Amanda. "Perfumers have a huge array of these musk notes they can use in fragrance, and they often appear as the base notes because they hang around on the skin for a long time. The smell of warm skin is very familiar and appealing."
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What are 'skin scents'?

'Skin scents' featuring lots of musk had something of a moment in the last few years, says Amanda. She cites Glossier You and Escentric Molecules Molecule 01. "They all smell like a better version of our own skin."
Skin scents which smell warm, familiar, and vaguely salty — like the faintest hint of sweat — are overtaking pheromone perfume. "Perfumes that smell like your skin but better" is a popular video format on TikTok right now. Juliette Has A Gun Not a Perfume Superdose Eau de Parfum, Byredo Mojave Ghost, and D.S. & Durga I Don't Know What Eau de Parfum, are just a few of the perfumes which feature in the viral videos. R29 loves Floral Street's Arizona Bloom, which smells like sunscreen-slathered skin after a dip in the ocean, and philosophy's Pure Grace Eau De Toilette, which evokes soapy, clean skin.
We may not be able to spritz pheromones directly onto our skin, but Geza says that certain fragrances can intensify our own personal scents. "Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 would probably be the only perfume you could say has a pheromonic effect on human beings," says Geza. "It's why so many people in the streets walk up to someone wearing it." Ingredients include Iso E Super (a synthetic note, which smells woody and warm), ambroxan (salty and skinlike) and cashmeran (musky and spicy).
I actually had Escentric Molecules 01 in hand and proceeded to douse myself in it before a trip to the supermarket on one of the hottest days on record. On my sweaty skin, the fragrance was very subtle and occupied a cozy space between clean and peppery. Would people be falling at my feet? I expected a couple of compliments at least. Alas, I received none. Perhaps in comparison to my very loud signature scent (Diptyque Orphéon, in case you were wondering) this was just too low-key. Either that, or the fragrance mixed with my self-tan and smelled a little off to others. Still, I'll be spritzing this on days when I want to wear something inconspicuous. It's like my skin but a bit sexier.
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@eaudesarah My skin scent edit 🤍. Perfume mentioned in the video: ds and durga i dont know what, le labo another 13, diptyque fleur de peau, escentric molecules molecule02, escentric molecule escentric01 #perfumetok ♬ ZOOM - Jessi
Like skin scents, Amanda cites a big trend among perfume wearers to take back control of their fragrances and create their own through perfume workshops. [Editor's Note: Alchemologie hosts perfume-making classes at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden]. Discovery boxes also allow you to mix up your own, personalized scent, says Amanda.
The trend for pheromone perfume might be raging, but the expert consensus is that it isn't all it's cracked up to be. If you really want to improve how your pheromones work, the general advice, says Amanda, is simple: "It's not to wash and go around really smelly. Only then will your skin be loaded with your own scent." But she isn't sure the TikTok world is ready for this just yet...
This story was originally published on Refinery29UK.
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