Newton Blog

« Turn Frustration into 'Eureka!' | Blog Home Page | Female Genitalia Are Cool, Too! »

The Science of Stink: Human Body Odor

In mankind's history, there has perhaps been no adversary more widely combated than our own body odor. For thousands of years, we were defenseless and without a champion to lead us in the fight against our own stench. But then, out of the noxious plume came Ziryab, the 9th century Persian Renaissance man who brought forth the first deodorant. Since then, the war with odor has been waged with stick and spray, from armpit to smelly foot, with no clear winner.

Since Ziryab's day, this timeless battle has been fought without respite, so perhaps it's time to put down our deodorizers for a moment and take time to reflect on some of the science of stink.

The Basics. Though it has often been blamed, our sweat is actually not the direct cause of human body odor. What we actually smell is bacteria growing on the skin. Our bodies have two types of sweat glands, eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine glands are the most prominent type and secrete the typical saltwater sweat. Apocrine glands, however, provide a veritable feast of fats and proteins for our resident bacteria.

A Selection of Science. For better or worse, diet has been shown to affect one's body odor. However, little research has been done to find out exactly what foods can improve or worsen our natural smell. The only documented study on this topic originates from Charles University in Prague.

Studying the effect of red meat consumption on male odor attractiveness, researcher Jan Havlicek, had thirty female subjects smell the fragrance of males that had been on "meat" and "nonmeat" diets for two weeks. Havlicek found that, "meat

consumption has a negative impact on perceived body odor hedonicity." In other words, score one for vegetarians (or people who don't eat red meat).

For me, if the choice is between red meat and improved body odor, I'll take red meat (much to the dismay of my friends). But I've got another plan to mask my musky scent. I'll simply associate my stink with flowers. After all, a 2005 study from researchers at Oxford found that, "people perceive a scent differently based on the word that goes with the smell."

Researchers exposed test subjects to the smell of cheddar cheese. Some

saw labels that read "cheddar cheese." Others were shown labels that

read "body odor." Those who were told they were smelling cheese rated

the scent more pleasant.


Unfortunately, I fear that this study's findings may be limited. After all, there are just some human aromas that are too pungent to cover up with words, alone.