today’s highly deodorized world, we assume that to be without smell is to be clean. But throughout the long and pungent history of humanity, smelling “good” has been as delightful as it has sometimes been disgusting.
To get to the root of body odor, you have to start with sweat. But human sweat by itself typically barely smells at all. “The problem is that bacteria living on our body like to eat some of the compounds that come out in our sweat,” says journalist Sarah Everts, who’s conducted extensive research on the science of perspiration. Eccrine glands, all over the body, and apocrine glands, found mostly in the armpit and genital areas, secrete various compounds that are consumed by bacteria, which in turn release molecules with a smell we recognize as body odor.
Of course, humans were unaware of such compounds throughout most of recorded history, which is why the first efforts to smell civilized consisted of smothering the odors with more favorable scents. “The ancient Egyptians applied concoctions made of ostrich eggs, tortoiseshell, and gallnuts to help improve their personal body pong,” Everts says. Fragrances made during this time were often worn on the head, neck, and wrists as thick pastes, or as oil-based salves incorporating ingredients from fragrant plants like cardamom, cassia, cinnamon, lemongrass, lily, myrrh, and rose. Read more