Are You Smelly?

Lift up your arm and sniff. Do you have body odor?

Scientists at the University of Bristol say the answer to whether you really need deodorant is in your genes. The new study appears online this month in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

The study focuses on a particular variation of the ABCC11 gene. Previous studies have linked the same variation to whether your earwax is wet or dry. Apparently, wet earwax people are more likely to have underarm odor.

Somewhat surprisingly, you’re more likely to use deodorant when you don’t need it than vice versa. Among white Europeans in the sample, only 5% of women with the bad body odor gene didn’t use deodorant. The figure jumped to 13% for men with the smelly gene variant. In short, 95% of the women who need deodorant in fact use it, while one in eight men don’t.

Meanwhile, 77.8% of nonodorous people in the sample use deodorant at least once a week. “[W]e believe that these people simply follow socio-cultural norms,” says lead author Ian Day. In contrast, most people in northeast Asia don’t need to use deodorant, so they don’t bother with it.

If people stopped unnecessary deodorant use, they could cut down on chemical exposures. They’d save money too. Before you ditch the deodorant, though, note that the non-smelly version of the gene is recessive. Unless you got that version from both parents, you’re likely to have body odor. The non-smelly version is also rarer among European and African populations than among Asian ethnic groups.

The study offers some interesting health insights for the future. To the extent personal hygiene needs depend on our genes, testing could eliminate unnecessary use for some people. Meanwhile, maybe those who need deodorant but don’t currently use it could take the testing results as a not-so-subtle hint. Then we’d all breathe easier.

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