The scent of confidence

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The Scent of Confidence

“You’re going to find that people in other parts of the world can be just a little different,” the veteran traveler said to 17-year-old Lori, who was about to make a long-awaited trip abroad with her youth group.

“Well, of course people everywhere are different,” she answered. “There are different languages, different coloring, different food. You don’t have to tell me that.”

“That’s not what I meant,” replied her friend. “I’m talking about–well–body odor. I’m just telling you to be prepared for the fact that some people smell different than we’re used to.”

What Lori’s older friend was referring to was the fact that not all cultures disguise or wash away body odors as Americans do. The fact that she was just a little uncomfortable to even talk about body odor also reflects American culture.

Americans are among the peoples in the world most influenced by media advertising of chemical products to neutralize natural body odors. In other cultures, where deodorizing chemicals are less readily available, the people respond differently to such odors.

“Oh no,” you say, “it can’t be just television commercials and magazine ads that make me dislike the smell of someone who doesn’t bathe. I really do find the odor unpleasant.”

Bacteria at Work

And you are right. Certain body odors are repellent. Just what produces them?

What you are smelling is acid produced by bacteria when they interact with skin secretions. Scientists have found that the most unpleasant odors result from the apocrine glands. Men have more of these glands than women, and some races have more than others. The glands become more active on any individual when the person is frightened or excited.

Some persons have more acidic skin than others, and that encourages the growth of more bacteria. The acidity of the skin also accounts for why perfumes smell differently on different individuals.

It has also been found that the human brain has the ability to “turn off” certain smells. That may explain why it seems that some cultures do not find body odors offensive while others do. It is likely that people no longer smell the odor that, to you, is offensive, because your brain has not switched it off.

What we eat also affects how we smell. Garlic, onion, and certain spices can be smelled not only on the breath, but through skin secretions as well. Cultural habits play a part in this, too. During the war in Vietnam, North Vietnamese soldiers claimed they could smell Americans before they saw them, and Americans said they could smell Vietnamese. German and English soldiers also claimed they could smell each other during World War I and World War II. Vegetarians say they can detect meat eaters by their smell, which, to some of them, is unpleasant. In the 19th century, Japanese said the English smelled of the butter they habitually ate.

Body Odor and

True Happiness

Television commercials and magazine advertisements lead us to believe that we will not be able to find true happiness, love, or success if we have bad breath or body odor. During the 1960s and 1970s, young people in what was known as the “hippie” culture rebelled against this idea and went back to what they considered a more natural state. That aspect of cultural upheaval lasted little more than a decade, however, and very few people advocate returning to that old “natural smell.”

It is, of course, an exaggeration to say that the way we smell determines our personal worth, but it is true that most of us don’t feel very confident if we think we might have mouth or body odor. We are simply conforming to our culture when we feel that way, and whether that’s the fault of commercials and advertisements really doesn’t matter. What is more important is how to maintain our self-confidence; that is, have a gobody odorod self-image.

Daily bathing, daily use of a deodorant, frequent shampooing of the hair, daily tooth brushing and flossing, and regular visits to the dentist are the weapons for fighting body and mouth odor.

Soap, Shampoo, and


A daily bath with soap will wash away those colonies of bacteria that form on everyone’s skin. Chemicals in deodorant neutralize the acid. Most deodorants also contain a chemical that closes the pores of the skin. This stops perspiration, which is, of course, a skin secretion that contributes to odor. Although all deodorants are similar, some seem to work better on one skin type than on another. You may want to experiment with different brands until you find the right one for you.

Shampooing your hair also washes away oils and other skin secretions from the scalp that have interacted with bacteria to create an odor.

Brushing your teeth helps wash away bacteria formed by the interaction of saliva and food particles. Flossing also helps remove the hard substance called plaque which forms as a result of this bacteria. Whatever other benefits they may have, mouth washes usually only mask odor. Even brushing and flossing cannot remove all the odor-causing plaque that forms, but a dentist or dental hygienist can remove any residue. It’s a good idea to visit the dentist’s office to have your teeth cleaned approximately every six months, not only to help ensure clean-smelling breath but healthy teeth.

An abscessed tooth or diseased gums can also be the cause of foul-smelling breath. If, in spite of careful attention to brushing and flossing you still experience bad breath, you may need to have your dentist check for such a problem.

A stomach upset or a throat or lung infection may temporarily cause bad breath, too.

The Odor of Disease

In the days before X-rays and other laboratory aids, doctors sometimes diagnosed specific diseases by the smell of a person’s breath or body odor. Typhoid, German measles, yellow fever, diphteria, and small pox all caused a person to have a particular, identifiable, smell.

While those diseases are no longer common in the United States, other diseases that create a unique body smell are. Uncontrolled diabetes causes a sweet, fruit-like odor. Liver disorders may cause a person to have an ammonia-like odor. Kidney disease can cause the skin to carry the scent of urine. Cancer can create a smell some medical professionals liken to decay. In almost all cases, however, other symptoms of disease are present along with the distinct body odors.

It’s good to know that the body odors most of us are concerned about are the ones that can be controlled by soap and water and deodorant. Careful hygiene can help keep you healthy–as well as confidently fresh.

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