Are you wearing deodorant while sheltering at home?

Humans are woefully unaware of their olfactory sense. That's the reality we've been sold.

Stephanie Shepherd (L) and Malika Haqq attend 'Secret with Essential Oils' Launch Party at Villa 2024 on October 01, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
  • Scent provides valuable information about personality traits and attractiveness.
  • Since the 1920s, companies have made us anxious about our odor in order to sell us their products.
  • Our disdain of personal smell is related to our fear of aging and death.

With so many of our regular habits upended over the past six weeks, I held an informal poll on my social media channels asking who had quit wearing deodorant. As you can imagine, responses were varied. Some people include deodorant along with make-up as part of the "stay sane by keeping to your routine" routine. Others admitted they haven't showered in days. A few people stopped and then started because they offended themselves. Of course, living with others requires a different set of responsibilities.

While this might strike some as an odd question, deodorizing is a relatively new phenomenon. Cultures have long had various cleansing rituals, yet often they only dealt with parts of the body viewable outside of their clothing. Myths long persisted about the validity of soap. In fact, it was believed that cleaning your skin led to disease.

Religions often seek to differentiate themselves from the pack. Whereas ritualistic cleaning has long been part of Judaism and Islam, early Christians strove for alousia, "the state of being unwashed," writes Canadian author Katherine Ashenburg in "The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History." Calling someone of another race, religion, or caste "dirty" is an insult. For many centuries, this was particularly true of Christians—a goal, not a bad habit.

Ashenburg's book has been in my wife's library for years. She only recently read it as the hand washing furor began, prompting me to follow suit. While the hands and sometimes face (though not teeth—Americans still reign in super-white enamel) have long been washed, Ashenburg notes that medieval Christians believed that "blocked pores…sealed the body off from infection." Beyond baptism, many never bathed once in their entire lifetimes.

While Ashenburg's book is filled with historical factoids—Napoleon implored Josephine not to wash for a day before his return so he could drink in her scent—in the last two chapters she focuses on the flip side of cleanliness: how marketing has made us mad about purity.

Dr. Stuart Firestein: The Limits of Our Sense of Smell

Ashenburg's book begins in the Roman bathhouses. She traces cleanliness rituals throughout time in that context. With the introduction of germ theory, it slowly dawned on Europeans and Americans—while the book is global, she mostly focuses on these geographical regions—that blocked pores were not doing much good in keeping disease away. As the Age of Industry commenced, workers packed into warehouses and on shipping docks began noticing their co-workers' scents. A new industry was born.

Two, in fact. As Ashenburg writes, "toilet soap and advertising grew up together." Both had long existed, but with the introduction of germ theory into the popular vernacular, these strange bedfellows united. The race to sell began. As everyone now knows, if you can corner a new market, you'll make bank.

Such was the case when Lambert Pharmaceutical's president, Gerald Lambert, picked out "halitosis" from his chemists' list. He wanted to aggressively market one of his company's oral antiseptics. For the next five years, Listerine's ads were devoted to defining halitosis, telling prospective customers that failed job offers and divorce are due to bad breath. The ploy worked. In 1921, Listerine brought in $115,000 in sales. Seven years later it topped $8 million.

Around the same time, a copywriter named James Webb pumped out ads for his employer, J. Walter Thompson, claiming that women's armpits stunk. He lost a lot of dates. Yet within a year of that campaign, his client, Odorono—say it aloud—watched their profits increase by 112 percent. As Ashenburg writes,

"The success of the Odorono ad and the deluge of deodorant advertisements that followed say much about the decade's willingness to broach taboo subjects and its growing intolerance of secretions and smells."

Sara Saunders

Associate Brand Director of P&G's Secret Deodorant Sara Saunders speaks onstage during The 2020 MAKERS Conference on February 11, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MAKERS

By 1932, the American author, Sophia Hadida, made a big splash with her book on manners. She coined a new term, Body Odor, which has been embraced as B.O. ever since. An entire market opened up for deodorants, soaps, perfumes, and men's and women's grooming products, all designed to maximize profit thanks to our growing anxiety.

Which is why I asked that question on social media. Among animals, humans have a woefully poor sense of smell. As bipeds, we began relying on sight and touch while neglecting our olfactory skills. As such, we've evolved with 20 million smell receptors. Not bad, until you consider that your dog has 11 times that number. Smell still guides our life in many ways, including the lovers we choose and the business partners we trust.

This is a different sensibility than the marketing blitz that began a century ago. Smell informs. Disguising or erasing your scent does the opposite. Thanks to the anxiety peddled by companies pushing their products, we've decided it's better to remain ignorant. With that, we've lost a lot of data about our world.

Aging is one particularly problematic smell to some. Researchers have long worked on ridding us of this burden. Yet aging shouldn't be seen as a burden. In fact, the insane idea that sacrificing our eldest for the sake of the economy is good stems from a longtime existential distress regarding aging and death. Our smell changes as we age, sure, which is called biology. It's useful information, such as assessing personality traits and detecting immune system capabilities.

While everyone smells, women have been especially affected by this marketing phenomenon. Women generally have a better olfactory sense than men, but that comes at a cost. For example, Ashenburg writes that the sexual revolution of the sixties was especially confusing thanks to an advertising rush of feminine hygiene products.

"Sex is natural and wonderful, but the 'natural you' needs to be sprayed to be wonderful. Sex is natural and wonderful, but it leaves a woman in urgent need of washing, powdering, spraying, and douching. Sex is natural and wonderful, but it means that you can be rejected on the most intimate level."

There is no easy response to this dilemma. Sitting next to someone of a particular odor on a plane is not enjoyable. Social mores still matter. But we have to wonder why we cover up or disguise our scent so often. It provides valuable information, but more importantly, it's who we are.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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