Thursday, January 29, 2009

Of smells, scents and pongs


I've been amused by two separate reports today, both dealing with odoriferous matters of one sort or another.

The Daily Mail reports:

Little girls may be made of sugar, spice and all things nice - but their underarms smell of onions and grapefruit, scientists say.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to whiff of pungent cheese after a hard day at work.

These are the conclusions from a bizarre study which investigated the distinctive armpit odours of men and women.

Scientists at Firmenich, a company in Geneva that researches flavours and smells for the food and perfume industry, took samples of armpit sweat from 24 men and 25 women after they had spent time in a sauna or 15 minutes on an exercise bike.

The volunteers were asked to wash before the experiment and avoid wearing any perfumes or deodorants that could confuse the results.

To their surprise, the team found strong differences between the sexes.

Christian Starkenmann, who led the study, said: 'Men smell of cheese, and women of grapefruit or onion.'

When the armpit samples were analysed, the team found that women's sweat contained relatively high amounts of an odourless sulphur-containing compound, New Scientist magazine reports today.

When this substance was mixed with bacteria usually found in people's armpits, it was transformed into a chemical called thiol - which was already well known to the scientists for its onion-like smell.

The more of the sulphur-compound they added, the stronger and more overpowering the smell became.

The men, on the other hand, had a different chemical mix in their sweat. The researchers found high levels of an odourless fatty acid which released a cheesy smell when it was exposed to enzymes produced by armpit bacteria.

Although men are traditionally supposed to smell worse then men, a team of independent testers recruited by the Geneva scientists described the smell from women's armpits as the more unpleasant.

Dr Starkenmann hopes to use the findings to develop deodorants aimed at particular sexes. The deodorants could either knock out the unique substances in sweat - or prevent bacteria converting them into smelly chemicals.


Hmm . . . in my many and varied contacts with the fairer sex, I can't say I've ever found even one of them to smell like either onions or grapefruit! As for me (or any other man) smelling like cheese, I'm not really in a position to say - after all, I'd hardly notice it myself, would I?

This offers an interesting marketing opportunity, of course. Imagine a cheese - perhaps a vintage Stilton, with port - advertising itself as "smelling like His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales"! For that matter, how about a perfume (Chanel No. 10, perhaps?) "with the scent of Angelina Jolie onions and Paris Hilton grapefruit"?

The second report is from Summerville, South Carolina.

On Wednesday, the Oakbrook Post Office was blocked off and evacuated by emergency crews after they received a call about a suspicious package.

The incident lasted about three hours.

The call came into the Old Fort Fire Department about 7:30 Wednesday morning from a postal employee. Officials say the package was wrapped in plastic and was giving off a bomb-smelling odor.

They immediately evacuated the post office and several surrounding businesses, but after a few hours of searching there was no bomb to be found.

"There was stink. It just stunk. At first you didn't realize it was a skunk until the guy said 'I'm expecting a skunk' and then you're like, 'That's what it was,'" said one firefighter. "That's exactly what it was."

Apparently the skunk was being delivered to a taxidermist who later told officials he has animals delivered to his home all the time.


Y'know, I've been around a few dead skunks - and, in a previous career, around more than a few bombs and high explosive thingumajigs. I've never, even once, correlated the scents of both! How the heck a Post Office employee could decide that a dead skunk smells like a bomb is utterly beyond me . . .

(For that matter, why anyone would send a dead skunk through the mail takes some imagining!)

Peter

1 comment:

LabRat said...

And, in their own way, both stories illustrate clearly something interesting about smell- the way the brain interprets odors is *incredibly* contextual, far outside the actual chemical contents of the smell.

May write something up on that one day if I ever get round to reading the book on the subject that's in my stack...