After a sixth-grade school trip, our teachers separated the boys and girls for an impromptu talk about hygiene.
To their dismay, they had realized it was one of us kids — not the adults — who smelled on the bus ride back. We all wondered, “Is it me?,” subtly swiping under our arms, taking whiffs when nobody was looking.
Mrs. Crawford addressed us in a grave tone.
“There comes a time when your body is going through changes. You might have noticed hair under your arms. Or in other places.”
After a thoughtful and awkward pause, she summarily said, “Those changes mean you need to use deodorant. You should talk about it with your parents.”
My mother had the same dried up stick of Lady Speedstick in her bathroom vanity for years. I knew she didn’t use it daily. And she didn’t smell.
I avoided the conversation. The following year, when I entered the middle school locker room, I just asked her to buy me a decoy, too. I would reach under my shirt with my Teen Spirit just like the other girls, sometimes even letting it touch my skin.
Nobody seemed to notice that my deodorant never ran out. I carried on this way until my twenties, by which point I’d confirmed with my mother and older sister that they also only used deodorant recreationally.
We seemed to be aliens. Until I learned there were more of us.
We seemed to be aliens. Until I learned there were more of us. A lot more of us.
In 2006 Japanese scientists discovered a gene strand (the ABCC11 gene in case you’re curious) that determines whether a person has dry or wet earwax. Wondering what earwax has to do with deodorant? The Japanese researchers were curious, too.
They found that the particular gene variation located in the ABCC11 gene that leads some to have dry earwax also causes less smelly sweat. The only reason sweat can have an unpleasant odor is because of a bacterial reaction that occurs in sweat glands. My fellow dry earwax people are missing the gene for the amino acid that causes that bacterial reaction.
Dry earwax is predominant in East Asian populations, including China’s 1.4 billion people. Unsurprisingly, most Chinese don’t purchase deodorant. In 2016 Deodorant sales there only totaled $110 million compared to $4.5 billion in the U.S.
Sure, wet earwax is more common among those of European and African descent. But cultural norms, such as shaming talks with sixth graders, seem to dictate deodorant use in the west. In addition to those dreaded puberty talks, we’ve been bombarded with deodorant ads since we were kids.
A shower and a few generous swipes (or sprays) of deodorant seemed necessary not just for the gym but for participating in mating rituals and commuting to work on mass transit. A British study determined that among the 2% of people there with dry earwax (who don’t stink), 78% of them still continued to use deodorant regularly to adhere to social norms.
Think about all the unnecessary spending on plastic, and potentially harmful chemicals you could be exposing yourself to for no good reason. Even if you don’t get genetic testing done to help in buying your hygiene products, consider taking a look at what’s on the other end of that Q-tip. If it’s dry and flaky, you might be among the chosen few who don’t need to use deodorant. I’ve even stopped buying a decoy.
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