How A Person's Scent Can Trigger A Powerful Sexual Response, And Say Something About Gender

By Rhonda J. Miller on May 3, 2014 5:02 PM EDT

Human Scent May Attract Romantic Partner
Compounds called pheromones secreted by animals play a role in attracting mates and now a new study found that human sexual attraction may be ignited by bodily scents that are not even noticeable. (Photo: Shutterstock / Rhonda J. Miller)

Call it animal mating instinct — men and women have natural bodily scents that apparently make them sexually attractive to others, even though the odors do not have a noticeable fragrance, according to a study led by Wen Zhou, a psychologist and olfaction researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Scientific American reported.

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Scientists have concluded that compounds called pheromones secreted by animals play a role in attracting mates, but isolating such compounds in humans has proven difficult.

Two compounded in human body fluids considered possible pheromones were the focus of Zhou's study — androstadienone, associated with men, and estratetraenol, assoiated with women. The two steroids were found to elicit substantially different responses in the 96 men and women, evenly divided by gender, in the study.

Half of the men and women self-identified as heterosexual and the other half as homosexual, or in the case of some of the females, as bisexual.

Responses were invoked by participants watching a set of moving dots on a screen that simulated the outline of a walking human figure and choosing whether the figure appeared to be a man or a woman.

Then the participants were exposed to a solution that had the fragrance of cloves, although some of the scents included androstadienone or estratetraenol, and some neither of the human compounds. The researchers found that that heterosexual participants were more likely to identify the moving dot figures as the opposite sex when exposed to the compound naturally-occurring in that opposite sex. Homosexual men responded in the same way as heterosexual women. Bisexual or homosexual women, however, did not indicate any bias toward either steroid.

While the results suggest that people may choose romantic partners based on scents they're not even aware of, the steroids used in the study were at higher concentrations than naturally secreted by humans.

"It is very important to examine the effects of steroids at more ecologically-relevant concentrations," said Zhou, according to Scientific American

The findings of the study, "Chemosensory Communication of Gender Through Two Human Steroids in a Sexually Dimorphic Manner," are published in the May issue of the journal Current Biology.

The journal summarizes the highlights of the study — androstadienone conveys masculinity to straight women and gay men, estratetraenol conveys femininity to straight men, the effects take place in the absence of awareness, and that human gender perception draws on subconscious chemosensory biological cues.

"The current study takes a critical step to test the qualification of the two steroids as sex pheromones by examining whether they communicate gender information in a sex-specific manner," researchers said in the report.

"Our findings argue for the existence of human sex pheromones," said Zhou, the Daily Mail reported. "They show that the nose can sniff out gender from body secretions even when we don't think we smell anything on the conscious level."

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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