The search for human pheromones: the lost decades and the necessity of returning to first principles

Proc Biol Sci. 2015 Apr 7;282(1804):20142994. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2994.


As humans are mammals, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that we have pheromones. However, there is no robust bioassay-led evidence for the widely published claims that four steroid molecules are human pheromones: androstenone, androstenol, androstadienone and estratetraenol. In the absence of sound reasons to test the molecules, positive results in studies need to be treated with scepticism as these are highly likely to be false positives. Common problems include small sample sizes, an overestimate of effect size (as no effect can be expected), positive publication bias and lack of replication. Instead, if we are to find human pheromones, we need to treat ourselves as if we were a newly discovered mammal, and use the rigorous methods already proven successful in pheromone research on other species. Establishing a pheromone relies on demonstration of an odour-mediated behavioural or physiological response, identification and synthesis of the bioactive molecule(s), followed by bioassay confirmation of activity. Likely sources include our sebaceous glands. Comparison of secretions from adult and pre-pubertal humans may highlight potential molecules involved in sexual behaviour. One of the most promising human pheromone leads is a nipple secretion from the areola glands produced by all lactating mothers, which stimulates suckling by any baby not just their own.

Keywords: 5α-androst-16-en-3-one; 5α-androst-16-en-3α-ol; estra-1,3,5(10),16-tetraen-3-ol; humans; sex; Δ4,16-androstadien-3-one.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Chemotaxis*
  • Humans
  • Odorants / analysis*
  • Pheromones, Human / isolation & purification*
  • Pheromones, Human / metabolism


  • Pheromones, Human