Raising a Stink : With little more than a srong odor, sweat has made its way into the history books. It’s taken down a presidential candidate, spurred a billion-dollar industry and given pigs a bad rap.
It allegedly cost Richard Nixon an election, is annoying in outer space and helps pay the bills of professional armpit sniffers from Boston.
Salty and stinky, sweat is one of the world’s least-loved excretions. But it serves as an occasional collector’s item, keeps the nation’s $1.6-billion deodorant industry afloat and inspires such artistic milestones as a “Married . . . With Children” episode in which Al Bundy’s overheated body produces a sweat stain that resembles Elvis.
It also is a sexual turn-on to dead French dictators.
The evil drip has baffled and bedeviled humans for eons, says sweat scientist Richard L. Dobson, whose four decades of perspiration inquiry include military research, odd medical cases and a study of gorilla underarms.
Among the riddles that he and others have looked into: why some people’s sweat is blue, yellow or red--and why riding a Tokyo subway at rush hour is far less odorous than, say, being aboard a crowded New York train.
The shaded perspiration, it turns out, is caused by chromidrosis, a rare condition in which iron or other colored materials get into sweat glands (and which could explain biblical reports that Jesus’ sweat took on the appearance of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane).
As for the Tokyo subway phenomenon, Dobson blames a quirk of genetics. Most people, he says, have two types of sweat glands--eccrine, which react to heat, and apocrine, which respond to stress or sexual arousal and are responsible for that decaying goat smell known to scholars by the scientific name, B.O.
Among the Japanese, however, apocrine glands are few in number. “I have no idea what Darwinian forces led to that,” Dobson says, “but it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to start a deodorant company there.”
In most other places, of course, it’s another story.
In America, on any given day, residents shed enough perspiration to supply the city of Pittsburgh with 24 hours’ worth of water (although nobody would want to drink the stuff).
But scientists are looking for ways to tame the nation’s sweat glands. At the Gillette Odor Clinic in Boston, 100-degree human incubation chambers and trained underarm sniffers are used to test the effectiveness of new antiperspirants and deodorants.
When all goes well, wetness is slashed by 60% and stink is virtually eliminated, says Toiletries Technology Lab wizard Brian Rogers.
But not all armpits are created equal.
“You might hear an occasional ‘Whoa!’ ” Rogers says. “We try to let the odor judges take a few breaths in between, but if the product isn’t effective or there’s a lot of odor, they may need longer to clear their sinuses.”
Most employees, however, grow immune to the stench. “They can do (the tests) and go eat a doughnut afterward,” he says. And the job is definitely preferable to odor-judging mouthwash or diapers.
Researchers also experiment with deodorant fragrances. Some companies try to imitate popular colognes and perfumes, but others cook up new scents in laboratories, then poll consumers on whether the formulas remind them of “youngness,” “conservatism” or “classical music.”
“We’re selling images, not fragrances,” Rogers explains.
Thirty or 40 years ago, those images were limited to Regular, Scented and Unscented. The back-to-nature movement added Herbal and Lime. Today, products tilt toward such concepts as Sport, Surf Spray, Wild Rain and Caribbean Cool.
Sweat has always had a PR problem. Adam--the first recorded perspirer--was booted from the Garden of Eden with the warning that toil and sweat would be his lot in life. Ancient Egyptians were so appalled by perspiration’s odor that they slathered themselves with tree resins to cover it up. And sweat-related foot infections and heat disorders incapacitated thousands of soldiers during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Even Richard Nixon supposedly lost his 1960 presidential bid partly because he dripped profusely during a televised debate with John F. Kennedy (rumor had it that Nixon applied antiperspirants to his face for subsequent appearances).
Nevertheless, sweat does have its adherents. When it falls off celebrities or rock stars--as in “authentic” vials of Elvis sweat and towels that mopped Beatle brows--collectors will pay considerable sums for the stuff.
Sweat lodges and saunas are said to purify both body and soul (although medical experts deride such theories).
And Napoleon regarded the smell of perspiration as an aphrodisiac. After the battle of Marengo, he reportedly sent word to Josephine: “Will be home in three days . . . don’t wash.”
“If you don’t like to sweat,” says Henry Allen, writing in the Washington Post, “imagine what life would be like if you couldn’t. Imagine those high-tension occasions when you dread sweating, and think of the alternatives--giving a speech, say, and having to periodically pick up the pitcher of ice water and pour it over your head, like an elephant. Or doing a job interview while slavering like a Saint Bernard.”
Or worse: Ostriches and emus cool off by urinating on their own legs and letting the liquid evaporate. Jack rabbits have to flush blood through their ears to lower body temperature.
Only horses, a few types of cows and some apes perspire for temperature control, say animal experts. Everything else pants. “You’ve heard the old adage about ‘sweating like a pig’?” asks Steve Wickler, an animal and veterinary sciences professor at Cal Poly Pomona. “Well, pigs don’t sweat.”
Perspiration authority Dobson says gorillas have the same kind of eccrine sweat glands in their underarms that people do, except the ape glands don’t work--unless the animals are injected with a human neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, the secret sauce that causes people to perspire when blood temperature rises.
Which is why gorillas will never play at Wimbledon.
“Thanks to eccrine sweat . . . we can do things that animals can’t,” says Dobson, a professor of dermatology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. “At Wimbledon, with court temperatures at 100 degrees, players (competed) for 5 1/2 hours,” he says. “No African animal can run for five hours.”
Even the odoriferous apocrine sweat gland--long considered the appendix of the human perspiration system--might have some usefulness. Women with Fox-Fordyce disease, a rare condition that blocks apocrine sweat during romantic arousal, complain of extraordinary itching while having sex, Dobson says.
Those who have pondered perspiration include generals, poets, astronauts and auto workers.
In World War II, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. wrote that “a pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rhapsodized that “one half of the world must sweat and groan that the other half may dream.”
And, more recently, NASA engineers ruminated over how to deal with sweat in space. “Perspiration and sensitive electronic equipment don’t mix,” one space spokesman said. So tiny dehumidifiers were installed in space suits and capsules.
Meanwhile, in Toledo, Ohio, in 1991, Chrysler employees were asked to stop using antiperspirants because the ingredients damage paint jobs on Jeeps.
Sweat has also been the subject of considerable scientific speculation.
Galen, a 2nd-Century Greek physician whose chief contribution to medicine was the startling announcement that arteries carry blood, not air, was among the earliest sweat theorists. He believed that respiration occurred through the skin as “insensible perspiration.”
In the 1600s, Italy’s Santorio Santorio erected a monolithic scale--on which he worked and slept for hours at a time--to document how much weight he lost as this “insensible perspiration” evaporated from the skin.
But it wasn’t until a few decades later that Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave became the first to describe sweat glands. And nobody counted them until the mid-19th Century, when a German corpse was put under microscope and anatomists found some 2,381,248 of the tiny coiled organs (later studies determined the number varies from 2 million to 4 million, covering every square inch of the body save the lips).
The next great strides in sweat science occurred in 1888 with Mum (the first trademarked deodorant), the early 1900s with Everdry and Odo-ro-no (the first antiperspirant and first nationally advertised deodorant, respectively) and during the Eisenhower era, with the invention of roll-ons and aerosols.
Air conditioning, pioneered in 1902, was also a big breakthrough in anti-sweat technology.
“If you cannot install air conditioning,” writes Miami humor columnist Dave Barry, “I suggest you perspire. Perspiring is Mother Nature’s own natural cooling system. When you’re in a situation involving great warmth or stress, such as summer or an audience with the Queen, your sweat glands, located in your armpits, rouse themselves and start pumping out perspiration, which makes your garments smell like a dead rodent, which is Mother Nature’s way of telling you she wants you to take them off and get naked. Of course the average person cannot always get naked, let alone when with the Queen, so many people put anti-perspirant chemicals on their armpits; this forces Mother Nature to reroute the perspiration to the mouth, where it forms bad breath, which is Mother Nature’s way of telling you she is basically a vicious irresponsible slut.”