Perfume TikTok has gained a reputation for vaulting fragrances to viral fame — just look at Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Amyris Femme, Parfums de Marly’s Delina, and, most recently, Phlur’s Missing Person. Popular TikTokkers like Mikayla Nogueira and Rachel Rigler have endorsed Missing Person not for its smell, but for what the perfume feel like when you wear it: “It smells like the feeling of being in love,” said Rigler, who also demonstrated its efficacy on her boyfriend.
Missing Person’s virality, which has helped it sell out just as Phlur relaunched under new owner and creative director Chriselle Lim, builds off an existing interest on PerfumeTok for fragrances that promise sexual or romantic perks. Both IntiMD’s Pure Instinct Crave and Heaux Cosmetics scents like Habitué Provocateur have sold out thanks to the “pheromones” — chemicals that have evolved to elicit a certain behavior within a species — reportedly included in the formula to attract a particular sex. The appeal of dabbing on some magic elixir and becoming the most bewitching person in the room makes it hard to resist these kinds of fragrances, even if some of those claims are more or less based on bunk science.
Meet the Experts:
- Dr. Tristam Wyatt, a senior research fellow in the department of zoology at the University of Oxford. He has written extensively on pheromones in animals.
- Eden Campbell, a New York City-based strategy manager at creative agency Movers+Shakers.
- Dora Baghriche, perfumer and global president of perfumery at Firmenich, a fragrance manufacturer.
Pure Instinct Crave claims to contain “pheromones imported from Italy” while Heaux Cosmetics’ Habitué Provocateur lists copulins (chemicals secreted in the vagina during menstruation) and androstenol (a neurosteroid found in the testicles) among the ingredients, but they are not the first to use the promise of pheromones to sell perfume – Erox released similarly-marketed perfumes back in the 1990s. But whatever their ingredients, no perfume can reasonably claim to contain those human pheromones guaranteed to inspire sexual attraction. Researchers have not yet definitively identified them as such, let alone confirmed the existence of human pheromones at all.
“The challenge is, humans are very smelly. And research or anything to do with attraction, particularly sexual attraction, is really poor,” says Dr. Tristam Wyatt, senior researcher at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and author of Pheromones and Animal Behavior. “Apart from the ethics committees, humans are difficult animals to work with. We think too much, we learn too quickly,” Wyatt continues. “Because we’re mammals, we might well have pheromones, but none have been found yet.”
Pheromones were first identified in 1959 as chemicals that induce certain behavior in members of the same species, including, but not limited to, sexual behaviour. Copulins and androstenol might be human pheromones, but the research is not definitive, Dr. Wyatt says. “It’s actually a problem of publication bias. People only publish when they find something positive,” he explains. “It fits into the broader story of the whole problem of psychology: Things that are really nice ideas. May, in small experiments, show an effect. But when you try to repeat it, you find there actually wasn’t anything there.” But such studies, including one funded by Erox in the early ’90s, have nonetheless helped propel the myth of “pheromone”-laced products to induce sexual attraction for decades.
The TikTok Effect
TikTok is simply a new platform on which to sell these products. “It’s simply new audiences being found, and the marketing keeping up with the times,” says Wyatt. And TikTok is particularly adept at marketing an ephemeral product like perfume. The category has a foothold on social media as a whole, but unlike Instagram or YouTube, TikTok’s algorithm is able to bring in audiences who weren’t previously immersed in the fragrance world, says Eden Campbell, strategy manager at creative agency Movers+Shakers in New York City. “The difference with TikTok is that the ‘For You’ page starts serving things up that you never thought you would be interested in.”