How We've Fought Smelling Dank Through the Ages

The war against body odor stands the test of time.


Before we delve into the stench-filled world of deodorants, a disclaimer: Not all armpits are stinky. Some people finish a day in the summer sun with funky, acrid pits; others come from a 90-degree day smelling like peaches.

As with most things bodily, it comes down, in part, to the genes your mom and dad blessed you with. People who carry the gene ABCC11 don’t typically produce any under-arm smells. This gene is rare in European, African, Native American, and central Asian populations but common in East Asia, where current deodorant use is as low as seven percent.

For those of us cranking out a more pungent bodily aroma, the degree of rancidness depends on bacteria. Your skin has one of two types of sweat glands: eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands cover most of the body and secrete clear fluid composed of water and salt when your body temperature rises. That’s what sweating is. On the other hand, apocrine glands, which mostly set up shop in the armpits and groin, let out a different type of sweat that, when combined with bacteria, develops an odor. If your skin has bacteria like staphylococcus hominis or the less powerful micococcus, bad news: You’re gonna stink.

People with smell-inducing bacteria have been trying to cover up their body odor for more than a millennia. While current advances in microbial science are helping researchers develop new ways to help us deal with smelly pits, the goal has been the same for thousands of years: Get humans to smell less human.

John Cusack sprays just a touch of antiperspirant.


The Very Past

Deodorant is a word firmly rooted in the 19th century. But when we talk about how ancient civilizations helped themselves smell better, it’s all about perfumes and oils. While perfumes alone don’t get rid of the bacteria that makes our sweat stank, they can act as an “olfactory disguise,” a sort of invisibility cloak for your sweat.

Perfumes have been around since Mesopotamia. But fragrance really took off in ancient Egypt. The rage was scented bathing with an underarm swipe of perfume. Thick pastes were made from natural items, mixing them in with oil or animal fat. And the Egyptians were creative, not limiting themselves to typically fragrant plants like lemongrass and rose — may we suggest some ostrich eggs and tortoiseshells for your pits?

This tradition was continued in Greek and Roman society where a series of hot and cold baths paired with fragrances and scented oil massages was considered not only the best way to smell good, but an essential part of daily life. As the 17th century approached, scented baths became a popular fixture in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. This, unfortunately, wasn’t true for Europeans in the Middle Ages, who followed a Church that said bathing was evil and physicians who believed water opened the pores up to germs. Bathing didn’t become widespread in Europe until the 19th century, which on one hand gave rise to European perfumeries, but also made it easier for disease to spread.

For the Romans, going to the bathhouse was the way to socialize and smell clean.

Travelholic Path/Flickr

The Vaguely Present

The United States began as a malodorous nation, where perfume was seldom used. This changed in 1888, when microbial research had advanced enough for the researchers to develop the first cosmetic deodorant, MUM. Sold in a small tin, MUM at that time was a wax-like cream with a bit of antibacterial zinc oxide. Rival deodorant cream Everdry launched in 1903, while Odorono, the first antiperspirant, debuted in 1912. According to Smithsonian magazine, the active ingredient in Odorono was aluminum chloride, which had to be suspended in acid to remain effective.

The success of these early deodorants and antiperspirants wasn’t so much a realization by the American public that they were smelly, but more so the success of an aggressive advertisement campaign that focused on female insecurities. Consumer research at the time found that two-thirds of women surveyed didn’t think they had a sweat problem. Taking this into an account, a 1919 advertisement for MUMs essentially told ladies, “Sorry, you do smell — and that’s the reason you don’t have any dates.” Sales took off after that.

A 1966 advertisement for Secret deodorant.

Classic Film/Flickr

The technology behind the presentation of deodorant slowly improved, largely led by MUMs. The original formula was considered annoying at best — the cream felt greasy and left stains on clothes. In 1952, inspired by the ballpoint pen, Helen Barnet invented the roll on deodorant, which MUMs promptly began to roll out. Roll-on deodorant continues to be the most popular type of deodorant in the United States, while spray deodorants continue to be more popular in Europe and South America.

The past decade has also seen a rise in “natural” deodorants in the United States and Europe. “Natural” mainly translates to aluminum-free, which has been an active ingredient within deodorant and antiperspirants since their invention. This fear of aluminum for health reasons is unfounded — the National Cancer Institute has said it is “not aware of any conclusive evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer.”

Mmm, that natural musk.


Towards a Smell-Free Future

But while aluminum may not hurt your health, new research claims that it’s not helping your stench either. In 2014, Chris Callewaert of the University of Ghent (he also goes by Dr. Armpit) and his team found that deodorant with aluminum-based compounds that physically plug up sweat glands to keep the fluid from meeting the bacteria actually killed off “good” bacteria and left “bad” bacteria. This means that prescription strength deodorants — like Certain Dri Clinical Strength Roll-On, which is 12 percent aluminum chloride — causes people to be dependent on the deodorant because all their good bacteria has been demolished. A deodorant addiction, if you will?

Callewaert’s expertise in “good” and “bad” bacteria is what drove him to develop a new form of body odor prevention — bacterial transplantation. This method is still in development, but essentially the process is that good bacteria is harvested and put on the washed armpit of someone with bacteria conducive to bad odor. While it sounds simple enough, so far the technique seems to only have a permanent effect when the bacteria is moved between two people who are related. For subjects who are not related, the good bacteria only keeps the subject from smelling for a few days, and then you’re back to struggling with your stink.

Researchers are also working on engineering deodorants based on the discovery that certain bacterias cause bad odors to develop more than others. Dan Bawdon of the University of York is currently working on developing a product that can specifically target bacteria like staphylococcus hominis without killing good bacteria.

But until these new products are developed, we’re going to have to stick with what we got — unless you’re willing to bank on perfumed candies or scented button-up shirts.

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