What happens when you stop using deodorant?
By Justin Rocket Silverman
Can a man know his true self?
Can a man know his true smell?
All he has to do is stop using deodorant for 10 days. Not to mention scented soap, shampoo, cologne, and detergent.
Which is exactly what I did last month, putting into temporary retirement all those familiar smells that attend us since infancy, and are designed to make us smell like something we're not - an olfactory lie, if you will.
The truth is out there, and available to anyone willing to embark on a 10-day "wash-out," as prescribed by Dr. Charles J. Wysocki, a research scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. The wash-out ensures all those years of scented soap have been purged from the pores. Once that happens, says Wysocki, "with an accurate odor print, we can generally tell someone's gender, sexual orientation, age, and if they have any diseases."ALSO: Why You Shouldn't Buy a Black Suit
My own wash-out though was not so I could be a guinea pig in Wysocki's lab, but rather an exercise in pure human inquiry, to answer that singular, ageless question: Do I smell?
To start with, Wysocki mailed me unbranded, fragrance-free soap, which came in a sterile laboratory bottle. Even the "unscented" soap you buy at the store has an odor, he explained, so for 10 days I could only shower with this lab stuff.
I would even use it to shave, as my go-to bottle of coconut lime shave cream, it turned out, was not fragrance-free. Garlic and onions were likewise off limits, a painful restriction for someone who subsists largely on hummus. Alcohol was OK in moderation. Cigarettes? No. Cologne obviously was forbidden, but I hardly touch the stuff.
Deodorant, though, is a different story. Since puberty I've rarely gone a day without it. Neither have most Americans, as in the past century the act of rubbing a scented stick in one's armpits has become an essential component of grooming - making deodorant and antiperspirant an $18 billion a year industry.
Yet some people never wear deodorant, and not just the granola-munchers. Wysocki himself hasn't used it in decades. "I didn't put on deodorant one day and nobody complained, so I never used it again," he says.
Thus encouraged, I turned my stick of fresh scent Arm & Hammer Essentials deodorant upside down - to remind myself to think about it, but not to use it. Then I did something I haven't done in as long as I can remember… I started living with intention.
Gone were the days of showering with whatever soap was handy, or throwing on another layer of deodorant when there wasn't time to shower.
I kept clear of garlic and onions, which are everywhere in food. Over Memorial Day, after declining burgers and hotdogs, I accidentally popped a BBQ flavored potato chip in my mouth. As soon as the chip hit my tongue, the overwhelming presence of onion radiated through my entire being. I spit out the offending potato and gargled with Guinness, feeling miserable and wondering if a life without hummus was a life worth living.
Yet there's a certain calm that comes by living with intention. A Zen that arises when a person is hyper-aware of the products he uses and the food he eats and the cigarettes he doesn't smoke. Time slows and becomes meaningful in a way that it isn't when one consumes mindlessly. My awareness was heightened; and my mind, made sharp.
After a week without deodorant I asked strangers to inhale deeply of my all-natural man scent. At a Fire Island share house, a half dozen people took turns breathing my neck. "You don't smell like someone who is not wearing deodorant," said one housemate. "You don't smell like anything at all," added another.
"I could never go without deodorant for even one day," said a young woman at a nightclub, after I'd screamed over the music and asked her to sniff me. "When was the last time you tried?" I asked. "Never," she said.
"You smell like a man," added her friend. "But not in a bad way."
Shame there was no Pheromone Party going on during my wash-out. I might have been a sex god of raw chemical mating indicators.
Speaking of, no one else experienced my deodorant-free life more so than my girlfriend. "Smell wasn't a problem," she concluded at the end, "but constantly being asked to sniff my boyfriend and see if I noticed a difference got slightly taxing."
Even after riding around on a bike all day sans deodorant in long sleeves and a tie, my girlfriend said she still liked me. It made me wonder why I bothered with deodorant at all.
As my girlfriend put it, "I expected to notice more of a change smell-wise, but basically, it turns out that you're not a smelly person. That's good to know in case civilization ever falls apart and deodorant is no longer an option."The Results
Of course, I didn't actually ask anyone to drive their nose deep into my armpit and inhale. This rare joy I saved for myself alone. Yet even my pits had not taken on the smell of a Manhattan sidewalk in summer; there were no base notes of rancid meat. I did smell, in that there was an odor present, but it was inoffensive, the way a house plant sits in a room - alive, but not really bothering anyone.
On the last night of the wash-out I slept with underarm pads and mailed the sample to Wysocki's lab, where it was analyzed by expert "sniffers," both male and female, who are trained to separate the qualities of "intensity" from "pleasantness."
On an intensity scale of 1 to 100, my underarm funk scored a paltry 14. Considering a blank pad scores a 13, it seems the intensity of my manly smell isn't so intense at all.
Pleasantness is measured in an 11 to -11 range, with zero being totally neutral. My score: -2. Not exactly a field of lavender, but Wysocki and his colleagues tell me they have smelled much, much worse.
"Your results suggest excellent hygiene," he reports. "As well as an efficient metabolism. Whatever you are consuming is handled very nicely by your physiology. You also don't seem to be troubled by disease, which is good."
Agreed, but was there an easier explanation for my lack of odor intensity?
Wysocki's research colleague George Preti has one: "Most folks think they smell a lot more than they do."
Turns out some people don't even smell at all, as genetics render their armpits odorless. It's actually possible to tell whether a person has stinky armpits just from the consistency of his earwax. If it's white and flaky, your pits don't smell. If it's dark and sticky, you do have an odor. My own earwax is of the darker variety, so it's not like I'm genetically free from BO. I just don't need deodorant.
As soon as the 10-day wash-out ended, I showered with the nearest bar of soap (green tea and willow scent) and applied a healthy coat of deodorant to my underarms. The smell was foreign and unnatural, and the stuff felt unpleasant and sticky on my skin.
I put it on again the next day.
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