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    Genetically, Some of Us Never Have Body Odor, But We Still Think We're Smelly

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    Austin Considine

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    I don’t know of a delicate way to put this, buddy, but you’re kinda smelly. That hippie deodorant-crystal thing you rub on your pits every third day isn’t cutting it, bro. You need the real stuff.

    I know Western culture--and American culture in particular--places a normative emphasis on sanitizing its smells. This is the culture most of us live in, my friend, and by those standards most of us smell from zero to offensive pretty quickly if we don’t rock that deodorant. 

    According to new research, however, there are a lucky few among us who don’t have that problem. Researchers at the University of Bristol, in the United Kingdom, crunched B.O. data on 6,495 women and found that around two percent of subjects carried a specific genotype associated with a total lack of body odor.

    Previous research has pointed to genetics. In some people, there is a higher prevalence of “AA” allele in the ABCC11 gene, which is associated with a lack of sweat production and, hence, a lack of odor (and, interestingly, the presence of “dry” rather than “wet” earwax). Most of us, however, possess at least one “G” allele in that same gene instead, which gives us a smelliness propensity (and wet earwax). Some of that research suggests there is an ethnic correlation. East Asians, for example, tend more often to possess the AA (non-smelly) genetic allele. Meanwhile, European and African populations are more likely to have the G allele, which leads to body odor.

    But what we do about our body odor—or lack of it—is where this study really gets interesting. Researchers found that among women who possess the G allele—i.e., the smelly ones—around 5 percent didn’t regularly use deodorant. (Hippies.) Compare that with the 22 percent of those who possess the non-smelly AA allele who didn’t use deodorant. That’s a big difference, and indicates that non-odorous people have rightly figured out that they really don’t need it.

    More fascinating, however, is the 78 percent of people who don’t genetically need deodorant but use it anyway. Why do they feel so compelled? Not only is it unnecessary, but it’s a waste of money. And one can't help but wonder what those numbers would be in other countries, like the U.S. Here, the growth of the deodorant and antiperspirant industry is nothing to turn your nose at: between 2006 and 2011, it grew by 16 percent, boosted by all sorts of newfangled scents, designs and brands. By 2015, the global market for deodorants is forecast to reach $12.6 billion.

    And much of that market is surprisingly young. In the U.S., “Antiperspirant/deodorant use among teens is at 92 percent, placing them on par with adults,” says Amy Ziegler, global personal care analyst at the marketing researcher Mintel. To continue attracting teens, she urges, "Marketers should consider distributing samples at teen-oriented clothing stores and using social networking sites to build interest in their brands.” You can't deny the odorous smell of success. 

    Is marketing the reason why we put on deodorant when we don't need to? Researchers in this study, which was published today in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, could only speculate. But it seems very reasonable to assume, as they did, that the decision is culturally determined. They don’t want anyone calling them hippies, probably. “We believe that these people simply follow socio-cultural norms,” said lead author and Bristol professor of molecular and genetic epidemiology, Ian Day. “This contrasts with the situation in North East Asia, where most people do not need to use deodorant, and they don't.”

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