Scent of a Human

Are you wearing deodorant? If the answer's yes, then you've been had by one of the greatest cons in advertising history.

I haven't worn deodorant for years and I have no idea what a bottle of perfume costs.

There, I said it.

It's a claim that would have branded me an instant pariah back at my all-girls' high school, where everyone went about in a repeatedly applied, cloying fug of Mum or Impulse – as did I. I was too scared not to.

But even now, all grown up and freed from the shackles of peer pressure, it's a confession that takes some courage (and it's one I'm no doubt going to regret the moment this column goes live).

Adolescent females are particularly susceptible to messages that play on insecurities about imperfect bodies and shameful bodily functions, but humans of all ages and genders have been successfully suckered into believing that smelling like a living organism is a grave societal sin.

Deodorant, along with antiperspirant and fragranced “personal care” products in general, rank among advertising's greatest coups: inessential products we've been persuaded to think of as a hygiene staples needed in constant supply.

Let's be clear on this point: applied fragrance may make you smell better, but it has nothing to do with health and hygiene. Deodorants and antiperspirants that claim to provide “All day protection”, or that call themselves things like Shield and Guard are not protecting you against disease, but against societal censure and your own feelings of inadequacy.

Now I'm all for people making reasonable efforts to keep themselves clean (one shower, two teeth-brushings, a fresh change of clothes daily and regular handwashing will more than suffice), and thus smelling unobjectionable in the great majority of cases. But this simple, sensible approach mutated in the course of the 20th century into, well, Obsession.

You are now supposed to smell either of absolutely nothing, like a piece of paper, or absolutely nothing like a human being. Instead you must become a Floral Bomb, or a Dune, or Eternity.

It oppresses me to think of the energy that gets diverted into fretting over this, and all the associated self-consciousness and crises of confidence, but there are more serious problems still with our slavish support of the multi-billion-dollar personal care and perfume industries.

“Chemical load” is the term used for the accumulated chemicals we're exposed to in modern life, including those we apply to our bodies and introduce to our daily lives via the use of household cleaning products.

Of course the ingredients of these are tested (often on animals) to make sure they can't harm us – in the short-term, anyway. Small amounts of single ingredients probably won't, but we expose ourselves to multiple small amounts, and combinations of these, day after day, year after year. No one's sure what they could be doing to us in the long term, or to the environment, which they enter when we wash them off our skins, but there is justified concern about the many toxins they contain.

Fragrances are particularly disturbing in this respect because we aren't told exactly what's in them and in what quantities: fragrance “recipes” are generally a well-kept trade secret.

These chemical nosegays also add to the avalanche of stuff we manufacture that is both bleeding the planet dry of resources and bespoiling it. Artificial fragrance is a highly processed, luxury item, and elaborately packaged – in fact, designer perfume bottles are almost as much of a selling point as their contents.

Am I suggesting we train ourselves to turn our noses up at delicious scents? No, no. But I would like to suggest that we use less of these products, and keep in mind there are worse affronts, and more important things to worry about, than getting the odd whiff of a bit of honest sweat.

There are also lots of safe, natural, gorgeous-smelling alternatives (many of which conveniently double as comestibles like vanilla and thyme), and you can whip them up yourself at home at minimal cost. This appeals to me. Because of course that freed-from-shackles-of-peer-pressure business is untrue: I'm not really totally fine with sallying forth into polite society without some scent-armour.

For one thing, I try to set a shining example to my colleagues by cycling to the office, and I don't think it will help the cause if they associate the alternative transport choice with hopeless grooming failure.

Besides, no one ever gets told, “Wow you smell nice!” without some supplementation to the base note of the human body.

So for the past week I've been pottering about late at night with essential oils, herbs, powders and a bottle of vodka like some sort of batty domestic apothecary, mixing and blending, applying and sniffing. I've got a fair way to go before I bring out my signature fragrance, but in the meantime I'd be delighted to share my recipes with anyone else ready to lay off the Poisons and the Unforgiveables*.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, December 2010

*I thought Unforgivable was a joke at first, but it's a real perfume by rapper Puff Daddy. Apparently he meant that "Life lived without passion" is "Unforgivable", not the odour of the product itself was.

Note that "unscented" products aren't necessarily innocent: they may contain chemicals specifically included to mask the smell of other ingredients.

Read more:
What price pretty? Cosmetics: the Dark Side
Our cancer-causing world. Living under the chemical load.
Homemade non-toxic fragrances

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