Remember Pepe le Phew, the decidedly self-righteous ‘Frenchman’ cartoon character, who somehow managed to terrorize his tormentors and predators just before they could sink their teeth into him?
To this day, he remains, along with Bugsy Bunny, Elma Fudd and Speedy Gonzales, an enduring and loved character.
But, unlike the others, Pepe le Phew was a pompous skunk. And, unlike humans who carry their odour everywhere all the time, Pepe chose to smell only at his convenience.
After being cornered, Monsieur le Phew would influence one of his glands to release an extremely unwelcome ‘fragrance’ that got him his freedom without further ado.
Pepe le Phew used his body odour as a lethal weapon in self-defence.
Just like everyone has an attitude, so do we all have body odour.
“Body odour is specific to the individual, and can be used to identify people, though this is more often done by dogs than by humans,” says a medical website. “An individual’s body odour is also influenced by diet, gender, genetics, health, medication, and mood.”
Some odours are very pleasant or ‘neutral’ yet others are extremely provocative and loud. Contrary to popular belief, sweat is odourless. Body odour is caused by a natural process that involves sweat on the skin surface. If sweat is left on the skin, the bacteria that normally live on the skin break it down. This process releases chemicals that give it an unpleasant smell.
“Some areas of the skin, such as the armpits and genitals, are more likely to produce body odour because the sweat glands in these areas are slightly different,” says Dr Trisha McNair.
“These glands produce proteins and oily substances that bacteria feed on.” McNair said that smell of body odour may also be influenced by diet because certain foods contain chemicals, such as curry, garlic and other strong spices that may be excreted in the skin.
Pepe le Phew knows he has extremely bad smell and that is why he keeps his tight end sealed, only opening it and releasing the odour to successfully fend off attacks.
But, unfortunately, humans who carry an obnoxious body odour are happily unaware that they smell.
“In many people, the sense of smell has become so rudimentary that there are certain molecules that their nostrils are simply insensitive to,” says Dr Hilary Jones, of Netdoctor, touted as the UK’s leading independent health website. “They may be able to detect the smell of garlic or curry, but the smell emanating from their armpits appears not to register with them at all.”
Smell can lead you to food and water or make you throw up the good food you might just have eaten. Smell alerts you to danger, like smelling the presence of a snake or predator.
Humans have 10 million smell receptors “perched on two patches of tissue – each about the size of a postage stamp ÔÇö at the top of our nostrils.” The human nose can detect the scent from a pinhead-sized drop of fragrance in a large theatre. But with more than 900 square inches of nasal membrane, dogs can smell things humans don’t even know exist. Humans only have 65 square inches of nasal membrane.
Body odour and bad breath are very common. Such odours can have different causes.
Bad breath, also known as halitosis, is breath that has an unpleasant odour. In many people, the millions of bacteria that live in the mouth (particularly on the back of the tongue) are the primary causes of bad breath. The mouth’s warm, moist conditions make an ideal environment for these bacteria to grow.
Some types of bad breath, such as “morning mouth,” are considered to be fairly normal, and they usually are not health concerns. The “morning mouth” type of bad breath occurs because the saliva that regularly washes away decaying food and odours during the daytime diminishes at night while you sleep. Your mouth becomes dry, and dead cells adhere to your tongue and to the inside of your cheeks. Bacteria use these cells for food and expel compounds that have a foul odour.
Bad breath can also be caused by poor dental hygiene, infections in the mouth, respiratory tract infections, external agents (like garlic, onions, coffee, cigarette smoking, chewing tobacco), dry mouth (xerostomia), or systemic illnesses, such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, lung disease, sinus disease, reflux disease and others.
Mouthwash, like deodorant, does not make bad breath go away; it only gets rid of bad breath temporarily. It is better to use an antiseptic because it kills the germs that cause bad breath. There is also a myth that if you breath into your cupped hands you would know if you had bad breath.
“Wrong!” says Barbara Homeier, MD, of The Nemours Foundation which provides educational medical information through its Teens Health Magazine. “When you breathe, you don’t use your throat the same way you do when you talk. When you talk, you tend to bring out the odours from the back of your mouth (where bad breath originates), which simple breathing doesn’t do. Also, because we tend to get used to our own smells, it’s hard for a person to tell if he or she has bad breath.”
Then there is the chemical androstadienone – a compound found in male sweat and a popular additive in perfumes and colognes. The chemical was found to change moods, sexual arousal, physiological arousal and brain activation in women.
The study, conducted by the University of California at Berkeley and published in The Journal of Neuroscience, provides the first direct evidence that humans, like rats, moths and butterflies, secrete a scent that affects the physiology of the opposite sex.
“This is the first time anyone has demonstrated that a change in women’s hormonal levels is induced by sniffing an identified compound of male sweat,” said study leader, Claire Wyart, a post-doctoral fellow at UC Berkeley.
Everywhere we go, to shopping precincts, bars, saloons, on buses, trains or kombis, we are always waylaid by “that unpleasantly distinctive, acrid, penetrating and pungent stale sweat smell produced by human bodies.” So what’s the problem?
“Everybody sweats. They have to,” Dr Hilary Jones again. “Perspiration is the body’s biological way of relieving heat, and while sweat itself does not have an odour, it is a wonderful culture medium for the bacteria that normally live on our skin and which break it down into aromatic fatty acids. These are the substances that produce the unpleasant odour. Logically, therefore, the problem of body odour can be tackled in one of two ways, or even both.”
She suggests that, first, we reduce the amount of sweating and, secondly, we treat the bacteria that produce the odour.
”It is a sad indictment of modern life that there should be a need to talk about personal hygiene,” says Jones. “However, a careful daily routine of thorough washing using soap, particularly in areas of the body where the sweat producing glands are numerous, say in the armpits, groin and feet areas, is essential in removing the sweat and reducing the numbers of bacteria that act upon it. Since some people have more sweat and oil producing glands than others, it stands to reason that they might need to wash thoroughly with soap twice or even three times a day.”
The use of commercial antiperspirants and deodorants, she says, should also be routine, and it’s worth trying a few different ones out as many have different active ingredients, and some work better for some people than others.
Jones says it might also be necessary to shave the armpits as armpit hair provides a greater surface area for sweat to adhere to and gives the bacteria a fertile breeding ground.
That said, Dr MacNair advises, body odour is a highly subjective thing – which means that we all have a different view on it and would describe the same body as smelling very differently.
“Although you may think you have a problem with body odour, others may not even notice, or might even think that you smell nice! It’s also very easy to become hypersensitive to a smell, and so let your worries get out of proportion.”
And body odour is big business. We buy deodorants to stop ourselves from sweating and perfumes to smell different and ‘nicer’ than we would normally do.
Using the officially recognized international definitions of foreign assistance, total U.S. aid to Africa in 2004 was $4.3 billion yet Americans alone spent a little more than that amount on colognes, antiperspirants, deodorants and mouths wash just to mask their body odour.
Yep, bad odour is good!