I finally managed to make and test my Love Potion, and I'm ready to sell tiny vials at exorbitant rates. But I'm afraid someone is going to analyze it, and steal the recipe.

Is there a way to lock the formula (at least for a good long while)? Is there a method of selling it to ensure it doesn't get into the hands of scientists? How can I keep my Potion formula to myself?

Love Potion #9

If it's relevant, the potion is sprayed by the user like a perfume. Suddenly for the guy who people say, "eh, he's got a nice personality," all straight women and not straight men suddenly think, "wow. He's really, really hot - I can't put my finger on it." It doesn't affect other traits, and it doesn't cause people to lose control over themselves or anything like that.

  • $\begingroup$ how long do the effects last? $\endgroup$ – Dragonrage Feb 24 '16 at 1:11
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    $\begingroup$ Industrial espionage is a major issue in the real world, you should look into the actions companies take to prevent it. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 24 '16 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ I see it as too broad at the moment. Can you add some constraints? Where do you keep the formula? How do you keep the formula? What can scientists do (or not do) to analyse your formula? Is it magic (from your tags I assume not)? Does it affect you (like your behaviour) in a way that makes you really attractive (this can be achieved in many ways), or does it affect the people around you (limits the amount of vectors)? In my opinion the answers to this would help to narrow down on a solution. $\endgroup$ – J_F_B_M Feb 24 '16 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Dragonrage - I wasn't sure how much detail was necessary about the chemical itself; the effects should last as long as a perfume - that is to say a bit more than a day. Good question! $\endgroup$ – Mikey Feb 25 '16 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ @J_F_B_M - I'm more concerned about the methods of keeping it secret, but you raise good questions: (1) I currently keep the vial in a glass container, (2) Scientists might have full access to the concoction (which is the purpose of this question), (3) It does not affect the user, (4) this expressly affects the people of appropriate orientation who may be within 'scent' distance for humans. There is no magic. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Feb 25 '16 at 3:17

10 Answers 10


Don't patent it.

Keep it secret, keep it safe.

Getting a patent means you release the process and chemical formula. If you want to hide it, you keep it a trade secret.

A chemical formula can be known without knowing how to make it. It's highly likely that the process you used to create the potion was not as simple as tossing some ingredients into a cauldron. It probably required very precise mixtures, which needed to be combined at very specific temperatures, pressures, and in a very particular order. That procedure is your trade secret.

On top of that, the chemical compound itself may not be easy to determine. We don't have microscopes that can simply look at the arrangement of atoms and get the formula. It's an exhaustive process of heating, mixing, titrating, etc. in order to determine what is contained in a formula. The great thing about that is it's a highly destructive process! If a company wants to figure out what's in your product they're going to need to buy a lot of it to figure it out. From there, they won't necessarily know how to actually make that formula, that's still your secret.

Also, I have no idea why, but your question is super hot.

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    $\begingroup$ Unless there is a mass spectrometer out there in the entire rest of the world. Industrial espionage makes these sort of secrets hard to keep. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Feb 23 '16 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa A MS alone is not going to tell you the formula. And it certainly won't tell you the active component(s) (or how many components) are in a complex potion. It also won't tell you how to create anything you do find. Unless you have a patent, that would certainly help someone figure it out ;) $\endgroup$ – Samuel Feb 23 '16 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ Second line confused me, dumped my vial into a volcano... $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Feb 24 '16 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ @corsiKa you mean in THAT very attractive volcano over there?! $\endgroup$ – Patrice Feb 24 '16 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel between GC-MS, NMR it's pretty straightforward to elucidate the structure of a small molecule (i.e. most drugs today) and good organic chemists can devise synthesis pathways (efficiency is the tricky part). "Biologics" (drug proteins) are more difficult, but between FTICR-MS, 2-D NMR, crystallography you're quite likely to figure out the structure, but replicating it is much more difficult. $\endgroup$ – Nick T Feb 25 '16 at 2:11

I finally managed to make and test my Love Potion, and I'm ready to sell tiny vials

Are you in US? Bad news then, I am afraid. The product falls under cosmetics (articles intended to be [somehow applied] for ... promoting attractiveness), which is FDA regulated. Specifically,

FDA requires a list of ingredients for cosmetics marketed on a retail basis to consumers (Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 701.3)

So you will need to disclose the list of ingredients, and hope that the word doesn't leak.

  • $\begingroup$ Having a list of ingredients is not always enough to actually recreate the potion. You also need the recipe and equipment needed, and I'm not sure whether the FDA requires those as well. $\endgroup$ – Nzall Feb 24 '16 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ Ingredients: Hydrogen, Time. xkcd.com/1123 $\endgroup$ – Tyzoid Feb 24 '16 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Tyzoid I think you need to supply the ingredients that you use in a production cycle. Since OP did not mention a Thyme machine, you can't just suppose that everything is made of time and H in the middle. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Feb 24 '16 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I'm definitely not going to sell this legally. But +1 for the research. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Feb 25 '16 at 20:22

From the viewpoint of a biochemist, there are a number of powerful methods that one can use to decipher the contents of this potion using standard analytical chemistry techniques.

Mass spectrometry/chromatography

This is an extremely powerful technique, and modern mass spectrometers can be used in ways that will make it extremely difficult for non-scientists to confound them. For example, Green's answer suggests that one spike it with many different chemicals. A modern analytical chemist would easily defeat this by passing the mixture through a tandem GC-MS (gas chromatography mass spectrometer) which will separate out the spiked contaminants.

The gas chromatography machine will be able to separate out the various spiked-in chemicals that are interfering with the setup by the time they take to pass through the machine. By using different column coils (which bind chemicals with different affinities), chemically different compounds can be easily separated from each other. Once the unknown (new) secret ingredient is found, it can then be studied further.

Chromatography can also be used to filter out other irrelevant ingredients by fractionating the love potion into various subsets. Tools such as the Äkta series of chromatography machines can be used to further narrow down the possible chemicals by testing the fractions which retain love potion activity, discarding those that do not have significant activity.


There are a few standard assumptions that biochemists make, and violating these assumptions during the process of manufacture can completely mess up their compound libraries.

Using isotopically unusual mixtures.

The natural abundance of carbon-13 is around 1.1%, but if you use an isotopically pure carbon-12 or 2.2% carbon-13 mixtures, your adversaries would not be able to get matches on their compound libraries, making it far more difficult for them to isolate your compound of interest.

Conjugating your active compound to a mixture of proteins

While mass spectrometry can measure small molecules easily, it still has difficulties in proteomics, due to the large and varied structure of proteins. By conjugating your chemical of interest to different proteins, its MS signal will be mixed into the protein, making it far harder for ad adversary to determine the chemical you are using. It also makes it very difficult for chromatography, since the different proteins will fractionate into every fraction, preventing them from easily finding out your secret ingredient.


NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) allows one to determine the exact structure of a chemical once it has been purified. As a result, NMR alone is unlikely to reveal the nature of the chemical, but once the chemical is purified, it will be used to find the structure, and then allow organic chemists to synthesise your compound.


Using isotopically pure, NMR-insensitive nuclei (such as carbon-12 and oxygen-18) will make it impossible to detect the absorbances of these nuclei. While proton NMR is still possible, the impossibility of getting NMR spectra from such chemicals will make it extremely difficult for the analytical chemists to determine the compound.

Overall, given enough time and resources, the secret will be broken by a sufficiently determined adversary. However, these techniques will force them to undertake a long period of R&D, and greatly extend the time period during which you can make money.

  • $\begingroup$ Mass spectrometers would not allow a rival company to properly synthesize this in meaningful quantities, right? That's where the chemical engineering aspect of the potion comes into play. $\endgroup$ – ryanyuyu Feb 24 '16 at 20:03

Find the nearest mad chemist then ask them how they would go about discovering the formula of a liquid. Take note of whatever tools and techniques they describe then incorporate countermeasures to those tools and techniques ineffective. Below are a few examples of equipment that might be used by an attacking chemist to discover the formula.

Mass Spectrometers - Include doping elements that will throw off the weight. Assuming that Love Potion #9 is an organic compound, spiking the formula with extra nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen could make a mass spectrometer less helpful.

Roto-vap distillers - This is perhaps the hardest one. Roto-vap distillers can very precisely boil off chemicals.

Centrifuges - Combine other inert molecules of the same weight to prevent separation by this method.

Common and Uncommon chemical catalysts or reactants - This is a hand-wavey "Add in extra things that will make common organic chemistry reactants less effective in figuring out what the secret ingredients are". (I'm not an organic chemist so my knowledge is limited to knowing that there are chemical reactants used in determining the properties of an unknown substance, but I don't know what those reactants are or how to use them.)

As stated in the question, you can't prevent someone from discovering your formula, eventually. What you can do is make such a devilishly difficult chemical cocktail (while remaining non-carcinogenic, non-toxic and effective) that it will take years or decades for an "attacker" to figure out the formula. While they're figuring it out, you'll be making bank.


Marketing, marketing, marketing

Real world examples:

  • Coca-cola recipe? Already known. But people keep buying Coca-Cola because marketing and brand recognition
  • KFC secret chicken recipe? Again, well known. But colonel's face is what actually makes chicken "finger licking good"
  • Big Mac sauce? Again, I saw so many recipes on the internet that I doubt it is still secret

Make sure you promote your brand: I know that it is easy to avoid marketing when you have a product which actually does what is said on the label. But if you also create a well recognised brand, you can be less scared at a time when someone cracks your formula

  1. Add lots of very complex and irrelevant stuff.
  2. Patent the hell out of anything and everything, from the potion vial design to the irrelevant stuff, including on a footnote of a subparagraph the actual stuff.
  3. Hire an ARMY of lawyers and use them to sniff for the slightest hint of infringement and hound the hapless infringers into bankruptcy.
  4. Don't sell in China
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    $\begingroup$ A patent is a bad idea to keep someone from ripping it off, as it describes the process and contents. It would only keep them from legally selling it in the country where the patent applies. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Feb 23 '16 at 21:18

I agree with the obfuscation strategy, but the best way to do this would be to include several ingredients which are folk aphrodisiacs. This will cause a tremendous amount of disinformation amongst folks who say: "See! I told you that tiger testicles work!!!" Also, it makes any chemical analysis harder, because of all the potential chemical targets to analyze. This is a form of physical steganography.

Better yet, sell your potion as an additive to coffee, which already contains over 1000 compounds, all natural! It will be nearly impossible to find all the non-coffee compounds. Think "Red Bull for lovers".

  • $\begingroup$ The only problem being that the morons thinking that tiger testicles or lemur penis actually work, will basically rid the world of those things to get laid. You know, poacher business as usual. $\endgroup$ – coblr Feb 24 '16 at 21:46

Make it biological. A tons of stuff that lives like cells and so on cannot (yet) be seen, scanned or whatsoever. Microscope stuff that you see is often dead and artificially-colored in order to let people actually see it. This would also have the advantage that you could have a very fast-expiring mix (when cells inside are dead, it works no more).

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    $\begingroup$ Oh, ya! Like those yogurts that are marketed towards constipated women. Pro-love-otics. $\endgroup$ – coblr Feb 24 '16 at 21:57

Obfuscation! You add steps in the process that are inert and don't affect the end result. You can also add in inert ingredients (though you might need to test this to make sure they don't affect the end product.

And you keep the 'secret' ingredient or process hidden.

However, mass producing this using some kind of industrial plant, will be VERY hard unless you plan to be the one to add the secret ingredient to every batch.

Though you could likely get rich keeping the production down to a level that you CAN over see every batch produced.

But ultimately, the only way to keep a secret, secret is if you are the only one who knows. But you could get a patent on it and let someone else make it for you and they will 'protect' their interests!


I have another idea, don't let them analyze it.

By that I mean be the one who uses the love potion on people. You sell a service instead of the product, you are a matchmaker who make people fall in love.

The happy couple might need to come in for regular visits at their family doctor's office(who you employ to continue distributing the potion) but its a service nonetheless.

I guess at one point someone might try and get the blood of whoever has the potion in their system but I would imagine it will be much harder to figure out what the potion contains.

It might require you to abduct a few people here and there but hey, in love there are no rules...

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    $\begingroup$ Though if you want to make your millions you'll want to franchise it out at some stage at which point you'll once again have to be giving the stuff to other people $\endgroup$ – colmde Feb 24 '16 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid the government wouldn't be too kind to a "service" that secretly sprays people with mind-altering potion. $\endgroup$ – user8808 Feb 24 '16 at 9:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Roux The mind altering part happens with or without the service, I don't think you would use a love potion on someone who is already in love with you. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Feb 24 '16 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Jonathan, yep, but it's one thing to openly sell it, and a different thing to use it on people secretly. Imagine it were a minor plastic surgery instead of love potion: it's legal, but doing it on people without their knowledge and permission is probably very illegal. $\endgroup$ – user8808 Feb 24 '16 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Roux Both cases should be considered illegal, I think a better comparison is to a drug. If that drug is illegal then it is illegal to sell and consume If the drug is legal or "not illegal" then I can mark it as a food supplement and give it to the doctor I understand your distinction between the two actions but it seems like the same distinction between someone who sells an illegal drug and someone who buys it and then makes someone else consume it without that person knowledge. If the drug is illegal then both actions are illegal if not then they fall into the gray area of the legal system. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Feb 24 '16 at 12:00

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