Who knew that in 2021 being stinky would become one of the most hyped trends. But here we are. Or at least, here we smell.
I firmly believe in not critiquing something before I try it. For the past month I’ve been conducting a little experiment that looks at whether or not we actually need to wear deodorant every day.
The context: in an interview with Vanity Fair, Jake Gyllenhaal confessed that he takes a less is more approach to bathing. His reasoning being “the body cleans itself”. The story set off an entire wave of horny revulsion. There’s also no shortage of irony as the actor has been announced as the latest face of Prada’s Luna Rossa Ocean fragrance.
But, truth be told, was anyone really surprised that everyone’s favourite 5’11 indie king announced that he doesn’t shower that often? I’m not saying the man looks smelly, but I am saying that maybe you are who you hang with…?
Following Gyllenhaal’s revelation, a wave of celebs and famous sorts came out of the woodworks to discuss how they too follow a more organic path – Kirsten Bell, comedian Ilana Glazer, Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher. We know that one of the side-effects of catching COVID is loss of smell but, seriously?
Then I thought, maybe there’s something to the claim. Emphasis on the word maybe.
Some research suggests that showering every day can be harmful to the skin, breaking down its natural barriers and stripping of the oils that keep it healthy and resilient. Especially when we use harsh soaps and heavily fragrant body wash. A great little insight into this can be found on Netflix Explained episode Your Skin.
“I think from a dermatology perspective, not overshowering is smart,” says Melbourne’s ODE Dermatology Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan. “Because when you have long hot showers, you do strip that acid mantle, which is this collection of natural oils, peptides, amino acid that sit in our skin as protection. We change our skin microbiome, which is this trillions of bacteria viruses that live in our skin and give us that homeostases of our wellbeing.”
Of course, Jake could be one of the lucky two per cent who produce no body odour. According to Dr Gunatheesan, two per cent of people in the world are born with a gene known as ABCC11. For some reason, people born with this variant of gene produce no body odour under their armpits. But also, the body does naturally exfoliate she confirms. It takes 28 days for your skin to completely renew itself. So in that respect, Jake is correct. But 28 days is a long time between washes, especially when you consider daily pollutants, sunscreen, fragrance and the whole gamut of environmental factors we now live with.
Let’s be honest though. When you’re famous, there’s a lot of shit you can get away with that everyday folks can’t. And stinking is definitely one of them. But what the heck – I decided to give it a go anyway.
As someone who breaks out into a sweat at the thought of summer and exercises daily, stopping showers was never going to happen. But for the sake of a good story, and something to do during lockdown, I decided to go full Matty McC and ditch the BO spray for a few weeks.
I may not be a celebrity but I can sure as hell stink like one.
To begin, a rundown on what causes your average BO. The body is full of two kinds of sweat glands – eccrine and apocrine. Apocrine glands start to function at puberty and are associated with hair follicles in the underarms and groin. It’s these buggers that produce a viscous, protein-rich sweat that is in and of itself, odourless. But as bacteria break down the proteins this produces the stink-creating molecules that cause body odour.
Deodorant, to put it simply, attacks the bacteria to stop the smell. Anti-perspirant attempts to block your sweat glands entirely.
(For the sake of transparency, a bit of background data: I’d already stopped using all aluminium based deodorants and antiperspirants years ago. Instead, I’ve been using crystal deodorants or natural products such as Black Chicken and Native. I’m a sensitive wittle baby and I’ve found that alcohol stings and the idea of aluminium build up isn’t something I’m too fond of thinking about. I also normally wash with Aesop’s Rose By Any Other Name but for the sake of the experiment, I thought this was cheating so I switched to a non-fragrant CeraVe one.)
First couple of days in – I noticed nothing. Even after a HIIT or cardio workout (thanks BFT Town Hall) my boyfriend noticed nothing. In fact, there was no change whatsoever to the aromatic signature of my armpits at all. This could have been from several factors – it wasn’t hot, for starters. Also, any lingering protection that had built up from previous use of deodorant I assume might have helped.
But that absence was something – normally, there would be at least something there courtesy of whatever deodorant I was using or the faint smell of bodywash.. But nada. For now.
By day four, I began to catch the faintest trace of something that to my nose smelt a bit like traditional beeswax candles. I’ve built a fairly solid career as a fragrance writer and pride myself on my ability to pick out aromas in delicate compositions or complex accords. But I’m also vain as hell so I asked my significant other what he thought – same response.
While researching how-tos, why-for and how-comes for the story, I went down a rabbit hole of the links between food and body odours. Straight up – these studies are a bit tangential because the interaction of bacteria, fat and protein in your sweat is the primary reason for BO.
Yet there’s some research that suggests what we eat and drink has a direct correlation to how much we smell and what we might smell of. We know garlic can linger on us a few days after downing some agliata but coffee is also known to impact how you smell, along with dairy products. But stocking up on water supplies and the upping the fruit intake are two ways that you can minimise your body odour.
“Hydration would be key,” suggests Dr Gunatheesan. “Fruits have a nicer breakdown smelling product compared to meat, for example, because it’s more amine based. Fish has a particular smell, garlic and curcumin. Each of these fruits produce a different breakdown product. So vegetarians are technically meant to smell a bit better.”
Armed with this knowledge, halfway through that first week, I began increasing the amount of water I drank to just close to three litres a day and cut broccoli, kale, onion and garlic out of the diet. Coffee I kept. Give me some small pleasures. Did it help? Too early to say but I did definitely start peeing like a racehorse on a more regular basis.
By the start of the second week the beeswax gave way to something that was definitely more on the musk end of the spectrum. The water was still going down like, well, water and I’d begun living off spinach and pasta and various fruit and only occasionally eating meat. The next day after eating meat (lamb and then chicken) that I noticed anything close to resembling your standard BO smell.
It wasn’t until the end of the third week, while I was out grabbing a coffee, that I really caught a whiff of my own armpit. I’d gone for a bit of a run and my shirt was still wet and while it wasn’t strong (again, thanks to the other half for being my test nose) it was still there. When I got home however, it had completely disappeared.
Into week four and a pattern has emerged. Eat meat the day before, there’s definitely more of an odour floating around come midday. But it only hits around midday By the end of the day, just before I go for a run or Zoom a workout it has completely disappeared. Could this be the body cleaning itself as modern day Pepe Le Pew Jake Gyllenhaal said?
It was during week five that the worst episode happened. It was a Thursday and I had ducked out to grab lunch. It was the first hint of summer weather and even through my mask I was able to catch an updraft of funkiness when I reached out to grab my food and coffee from the barista. To the bloke with the schnauzer standing behind me – sorry mate. But also, you should have had a mask on, too, so up yours.
But despite all this, there was a bit of a learning curve. The conflation between protection and self-cleaning. Overwashing, as Dr Gunatheesan said, is a problem. And what we wash with. She recommends choosing products that are soap free, ceramide and lipid rich and moisturising. This will actually help maintain the skin’s protective barrier – something that can actually help prevent or minimise odours.
It’s been a fun month of languishing in my own stench but with that little hint of things to come it’s back to the Aesop, back to the Black Chicken and rock crystal stick thing and back to being a decent member of society. I’m not rich enough or famous enough to smell bad.