Body odour through the ages

In today’s deodorant-filled world, cleanliness has become synonymous with smelling good. Unfortunately, humans have a pretty rough track record in that department – steel yourselves for a long and pungent tale!

What is body odor?

Body odor is commonly associated with sweat, but you may be surprised to learn that sweat doesn’t actually smell! Our sweat glands, found mostly in the armpit and genital areas, secrete various, scentless compounds. These are then consumed by bacteria living on our body, releasing molecules with a smell we recognize as body odor.

Sadly, humans were unaware of such compounds throughout most of recorded history, which is why the first efforts to smell civilized had some ‘mixed’ results.

Early Man

In 2020, researchers from the University of York identified a unique enzyme within our sweat-consuming bacteria. Amazingly, this discovery allowed them to date the enzyme, and pinpoint how long humans have suffered from body odor.

The researchers say that this “BO enzyme” was present in human ancestors tens of millions of years ago – long before the emergence of Homo sapiens as a species! This suggests that body odour existed prior to the evolution of modern humans. 

Science hasn’t been able to nail down the purpose of body odor, but some theories suggest it may have had an important role in warding off predators, or societal communication. Because of these practical uses for BO, it’s unlikely our ancestors tried to eliminate it. Sadly, it appears that they were a stinky bunch!

Ancient Egyptians

Outside of building Pyramids and mummifying corpses, the ancient Egyptians were also interested in personal hygiene. 

Before it became a popular chocolate alternative, carob was used as a deodorant by ancient Egyptians. Carob trees are native to the Mediterranean region, and affluent Egyptians would crush the pods and rub them over their bodies, in a bid to combat their natural funk. For those that couldn’t access Carob, porridge was infused with incense and rolled it into balls to stick beneath the armpits. Perhaps this was the first ever roll-on deodorant!

Although unproved, there’s a theory that the famous cones worn by ancient Egyptians were actually solid lumps of perfumed fat that melted over the heads of their wearers. A sort of messy, ancient cologne!

Ancient Romans & Greeks

Like the Egyptians, the ancient Romans and Greeks sought out ways to mask their body odor. The Greek poet Homer Said that good hosts offered their guests baths and aromatic oils.

In ancient Greece and Rome, olives were used as the base for most perfumes. Perfume makers would steep aromatics—such as leaves, roots, and flowers—in oil pressed from olives. Once the oil was infused with the scents, they would strain it and apply it to the skin.

The Romans were particularly obsessed with smelling good – not only did they take baths in perfume, but there’s evidence that they soaked their clothes in it, doused their horses in it, and even perfumed their household pets!

The middle ages

By the middle ages, things took a turn for the stink. For several centuries, many Christians rejected bathing and perfumes, due to their connection to the sins of pride and vanity. As a result, places of worship became a little unpleasant. Allegedly, priests were so overwhelmed by the stench of their worshipers, they would burn incense to fight the sea of body odor!

Thankfully, the Islamic communities of the world kept the tradition of cleanliness alive. In the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, Roman bathing customs evolved into the hammam, or Turkish bath. Around the 11th century, the return of Crusaders brought the hammam tradition back to Europe, along with herbal remedies for BO. Phew!

Modern deodorant

1888 brought the earliest successful brand of commercial deodorant. An inventor in Philadelphia dubbed it Mum, as in “keeping silent” or “Mum’s the word.” The first patented version of Mum was sold as a waxy cream, but it was unpleasant to apply and often left a greasy residue on clothing.

In 1903, Everdry introduced the world’s first antiperspirant, which used aluminum chloride to clog pores and block sweat. These early antiperspirants were highly acidic, so they also damaged clothing, and left the wearer with a stinging sensation.  Thankfully, this formula was perfected over the years, and the 1960’s saw the arrival of the first aerosol deodorant.

Today, most people use a deodorant – whether you use a roll-on, a spray or antiperspirant stick, just know that the rest of us truly appreciate it!

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