Twentysomethings and B.O.
April 7, 2008 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Young people and body odor - did I miss the memo?

I am aware of a lot of folks who, apparently, are perfectly fine with body odor. No, they're not hippies. No, they don't live on the street. No, they are not mentally ill. They're typically young, employed, fashion-conscious, have enough discretionary income to buy lots of records, go out to bars, maybe enjoy a recreational drug or four. Yet they have the pepper steak smell that I associate with infrequent bathers and/or clothes washers. It's a subculture thing, I suppose, but its origins confuse me. I can grok hippies who feel that being "natural" extends to not showering every day (conserves water/energy) and not using deodorant (nasty chemicals in that, man) but creative class types who probably do not share the same sensibilities - why do they want to have obvious B.O.? Does this trend, which I've noticed for the last four or five years, have a single origin?
posted by joseph_elmhurst to Society & Culture (48 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure they don't share the same sensibilities? That seems to be becoming more mainstream lately.
posted by amtho at 10:10 AM on April 7, 2008

In my area, at least, it seems to coincide with a whole group of people that suddenly decided to spend the last years before their trust funds run out playing dress-up as bike messengers. I'm not sure what subculture they consider themselves to be.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:17 AM on April 7, 2008 [5 favorites]

Maybe they've been up for a few days and haven't had time to go home and shower.
posted by chillmost at 10:19 AM on April 7, 2008

What does Axe smell like? Maybe pepper steak.
posted by fusinski at 10:31 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of folks in my generation (born in the 80s) who were beneficiaries/victims of the self-esteem trend. As a result, we're all above-average, "gifted" folks with an inability to accept criticism, and a fear of giving criticism for fear of offending.

These kids probably had parents who let them develop hygiene habits at their own pace and as they wished, and none of their contemporaries know exactly how to say, "dude, you really need to shower more often." Our individuality-prizing culture has left people with very little sense of duty toward avoiding offense, and left people with very little way of indicating offense without appearing to over-react.
posted by explosion at 10:33 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sure it isn't just alternative deodorants? I've tried several different aluminum-free natural deodorants (damn aluminum crap seems to give me a rash, not to mention the potential Alzheimer's risk link). Not all of them work as well as the usual stuff. Takes a bit to find one that works for you. SOme of the people you're smelling might not have found the right one, or might have found one that they like but wears off before the end of the day.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:43 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Maybe since no one can afford to visit Europe anymore, they are just trying to smell like Europeans. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but a few trips on a train through Europe will yield a lot of that special smell. After a while, you don't notice it. At least that's what they told me- it was noticeable for the 3 weeks I was there. (It's not so bad in Paris, as the smell of dog poop and exhaust fumes masks other odors).

It seems to me that a lot of young people who we hire are ecologically aware and careful of what they eat in a way I never was in my 20's. Perhaps this is an extension of that.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 10:44 AM on April 7, 2008

Maybe they don't have their own washer/dryer setup and so are tempted to keep wearing clothes past the launder-by date. I know this happened to me from time to time in my college/younger days.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:49 AM on April 7, 2008

Honestly, the only people I know doing this ARE hippies. They may not just be externally obvious hippies (other than the smell). I knew one person who dressed nicer than anyone else around, despite being a hippie, and didn't use it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:59 AM on April 7, 2008

rxrfrx - Could we please not conflate veganism and bad hygiene? I know and love a bunch of vegans, all of whom are very clean, most of whom are very professional people.
posted by amtho at 11:12 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I know folks who are really concerned about the aluminum in mainstream antiperspirants and as a result will not wear them. Aluminum can be absorbed into the body and can accumulate in the brain where it may correlate with increased risk of Alzheimer's.

Antiperspirants, in contrast with deodorants, can work by blocking the sweat-producing pores with powerful astringents (i.e. aluminum salts) so sweat is not released and smell does not ensue. Over time I've heard reviews of the non-antiperspirant/-aluminum deodorants on the market and the consensus seems to be Burt's Bee's deodorant spray. Apparently various Tom's (of Maine) concoctions don't work and cause an intermittent burning rash in the sensitive underarm.

As for smell? One friend who swears by Burt's generally doesn't smell (does this perhaps correlate to his ethnicity?) but when he does tends to smell of curry. He never eats curry, he just smells of it.

On a tangent: I wonder if the availability of genetic information for Alzheimer's risk would alter one's decision to wear an aluminum-containing antiperspirant...
posted by doriangray at 11:14 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Showering every day is not really a worldwide phenomenon. US culture has become obsessed with smell and has decided that any scent that humans produce naturally is a bad smell. There's nothing inherently offensive about the way people smell after a couple of days without washing their hair or putting on deodorant (as opposed to the more universally acclaimed stinkiness of fecal matter or rotten food). We justify it by talking about sanitation and health, but that really has nothing to do with it (avoiding washing your hands and face is a different matter), but really, it's just that a lot of us have been brought up to dislike the smell of human. Some of us didn't pick up that aversion as strongly as others. I mention this because your question seems to be built on the premise that there needs to be an explanation for why people are willing to put up with stinking, as though not finding body odor unpleasant were somehow abnormal. If they don't find their scent obnoxious, then it doesn't take much of a reason to avoid doing anything to mask it. Some of them may be slightly lazy. Some may have been in a rush that morning. Others might dislike deodorant (personally, I hate the way it makes my armpits feel). Washing your hair frequently has a tendency to dry it out, and some people might be worried about that. As you suggest, some might be worried about health or environmental concerns. Many of them may not even be aware that they are giving off a stronger scent than is culturally normal. Maybe they had parents that were hippies or not from the US. Without an instinctual negative response to their odor, it doesn't take much of a reason.
posted by ErWenn at 11:23 AM on April 7, 2008 [22 favorites]

I think doriangray has the most likely explanation, although with regard to the Aluminum-Alzheimer's link I will just say "correlation is not causation" 100x and hope the thread doesn't derail.
posted by Brian James at 11:23 AM on April 7, 2008

"Does this trend, which I've noticed for the last four or five years, have a single origin?"

I don't think this is a trend but I'd love to see some numbers on it. Younger people (males moreso) tend not to wash themselves or their clothes as often as those around them would wish and you are getting, whisper it, older. Having spent much of my time working in positions where the nature of the job commanded daily washings of self and clothing I used to notice the same thing among my age group 20 years ago.

doriangray writes "Aluminum can be absorbed into the body and can accumulate in the brain where it may correlate with increased risk of Alzheimer's. "

The ignorant may believe there is a correlation but groups like the Alzheimers society believe that no useful recommendation can be made to avoid aluminimum.
posted by Mitheral at 11:29 AM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Most of the non-deodorant folks in my life are anarchists, not hippies. (They would shudder at the thought of being labeled hippies.) And, yes most are mid-20s and though most bathe fairly often, so the smell shows up more when vigorous activity is recent or happening.
posted by hworth at 11:35 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

On occasion I've had people complain about my body oder. (Although to be fair, I've also had girlfriends say "My favorite smell is you.")

-- I shower every day, but I dont like slathering my body with chemicals. Sometimes I use Toms Natural deodorant, but as others have stated, its not as effective as the harsh aluminum based options.

-- I'm a very very active person, so in order to remain "smell-free",..I'd probably have to shower (and change clothes) upwards of 4 times a day to remain "smell free" (to modern standards, meaning "no smell at all")

Last but not least,..I dont really care. As others have said, there is a distinction between having a scent..and having an oder so obnoxious it fills the room. If someone has to get in my personal space, and put their nose right at the collar of my shirt in order to complain about my smell---I'm not going to worry that much. If on the other hand, someone can smell me from 5 feet away, then I'll be happy to go take a shower and change clothes. There are much more important things in life to worry about than my smell offending people.
posted by jmnugent at 11:44 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

They ... maybe enjoy a recreational drug or four.

You may be smelling the after-effects of tobacco, weed and/or hashish use. I can smell a cigarette smoker a mile away, perhaps you can, too. Moreover, all of these things tend to relieve people of their sense of smell, so maybe they do bathe, but don't notice the odors clinging to them.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:44 AM on April 7, 2008

I've noticed this exact thing, and been mystified by it, as well. I put it down to alternative deodorants and parents/siblings/friends not pointing out the obvious. (Obviously I don't smell too bad, or someone would say something, right?!)

I don't expect people to smell completely neutral, but hey, if I can smell the sweat coming off of you from several feet away, you need a shower.

Likewise, it's not necessary to wash clothes every time they're worn, but if you go this route, they need to be hung up to air out, not left crumpled in a heap with other dirty clothes. Otherwise, you've got a sour moldy smell going on.
posted by desuetude at 12:05 PM on April 7, 2008

Honestly, the only people I know doing this ARE hippies. They may not just be externally obvious hippies (other than the smell). I knew one person who dressed nicer than anyone else around, despite being a hippie, and didn't use it.

Jenfullmoon, What on earth is your definition of "hippie"?
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:14 PM on April 7, 2008

I used to wonder how other young creative types could afford such cool outfits on their low entry-level salaries. (Advertising, graphic design, illustration, etc.) Then after seeing the same people around town a few times, I realized that they wear the same one or two well-styled outfits everywhere they go (no matter how recently they've been laundered). In my city, there's a direct correlation between the number of hipsters present and the level of body odor at any party/club/show. Reason #37 why scene kids are lame.
posted by junkbox at 1:35 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Growing up I knew plenty of punks who did not shower. I think the reasons for this is kind of obvious - environmentalism, rejection of consumer culture (a lot viewed deodorant as a solution to an advertising created "problem"), rejection of wasteful Western-centric habits, general "fuck you I'm punk rock" sentiment, rich kids who wanted to slum it up and piss their parents off with one simple act of laziness, etc.

I noticed in (art) school a lot of people went almost overnight from clean-cut kids to fixed gear riding, bike messenger idolizing, PBR drinking, tattooed, smell-you-from-a-block-away non showering types. Some people have said "hippies" in this thread, my word for it would be "art school hipsters" or I guess just 20-something hipsters in general who mostly work in creative fields.

I always thought the "no showering" connection between the two came from the fact that most actual bike messengers that I've met like punk music and usually smell from riding all day anyways, and the hipster types I think we're talking about here practically worship messengers. It's subculture cross-pollination.
posted by bradbane at 1:42 PM on April 7, 2008

Crusties. Crust punk.
posted by mikeh at 2:33 PM on April 7, 2008

Then there's the whole "let's not wash our jeans ever" movement associated with selvage denim.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:37 PM on April 7, 2008

God forbid someone smells human. yet we accept eye stinging perfumes, and noxious baby powder scented "body washes."

We HAVE been brainwashed.

Not a hippie, shower everyday, use scentless detergents for my clothes.
posted by Max Power at 2:39 PM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

in my city i would place the origin on workout habits / hygiene developed while the folks were in college. sometimes if i head over to a trader joes after work i'm shocked to find the isles populated by 70% sweaty youngsters who've just come from yoga / the gym / running, etc. the stench is palpable. chundertastic, even.

i remember seeing this trend escalate when i was in grad school a few years back, with lots of workout- (body image?)-obsessed kids going straight from the gym to [insert public place here], sans shower.

perhaps i'm indicating a different sort of hipster, but i think the gym/yoga culture (and their having been around other smelly people for years in college) has tweaked their acclimation.
posted by garfy3 at 3:13 PM on April 7, 2008

Since we're talking trends, the disappearance of smoking in public spaces in North America over the last decade has allowed people to actually smell their environment. Maybe this is a side-effect of non-smoking: We can actually smell each other instead of various shades of formaldehyde and cat pee.
posted by kamelhoecker at 3:14 PM on April 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am glad that more people are fine with body odor. As long as they're washing every few days or so and after a workout I think it should be defined as "natural" and okay. As someone who's allergic to perfume (and smelly lotion, aftershave, deodorant or whatever) I wish people would stop trying to mask natural odor with chemicals and just be clean. By the way, I do wear deodorant even though it sometimes causes my allergies to flare up and I'm one of those "creative" types, although not quite a hipster.
posted by Bunglegirl at 3:29 PM on April 7, 2008

Bunch of damn hippies! Get yer stink off my lawn!

As for me, I'd just as soon not smell other people. I usually find it far more pleasant when no one around me stinks of B.O. To me, it is common courtesy, politeness and manners to not offend the olfactory senses of those who surround me.

But some people don't care. But some people are just plain rude in other ways, too. To me, stinking up the place if you can help it is just rudeness.
posted by MythMaker at 3:32 PM on April 7, 2008

I use one of the natural deodorants, and a lot of my friends do too or use none at all. Yeah, I think we all have times when we smell (gasp!) human, since many of those deodorants just don't work as well as the mass market ones. I suppose I could lump myself and my friends generally into those who buy natural products to clean their bodies and their homes, eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, buy organic food (or grow our own), bike rather than drive, practice yoga, have some sort of creative profession or pursuit, have a DIY ethic, etc etc. I've been called a hippie, which is OK. But if anything I was really one of these guys. I shower daily now, though.
posted by medeine at 3:53 PM on April 7, 2008

there's a direct correlation between the number of hipsters present and the level of body odor at any party/club/show. Reason #37 why scene kids are lame.

if you're at a party and nobody's sweating, you're at a lame party. :p
posted by swbarrett at 4:26 PM on April 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm going to chime in that more people seem to have (or at least be aware of) fragrance allergies which affect their skin/sinuses/etc. So there are a lot more fragrance-free options available out in the world where there used to be none. Laundry detergents, soaps, shampoos, etc, all cover up our natural scent and if you use none by comparison to those other people around you, you will smell. Combine that with people who can't/won't use harsh detergents, products with sodium lauryl sulfate, etc, and it could be a possible reason.

But I also have met many many hipsters who don't bathe just because they're cool. I find it especially common with dudes in bands. They'll wear the same clothes out every weekend for a month (changing only into their work clothes for their day jobs as graphic designers or whatever) and then they don't seem to bathe much either. It makes them feel less bourgeois I think.
posted by SassHat at 4:59 PM on April 7, 2008

People who don't want to smell your B.O. are no more opposed to you "smelling human," than someone who objects to you cutting loud, smelly farts in public.

I know you feel all free and natural when you go all day stinking up the place with your B.O., but there are things called "social norms" that mature, considerate adults tend to follow, whether you recognize them or not.
posted by jayder at 5:00 PM on April 7, 2008 [7 favorites]

Best answer: People are mixing two things here: normal human scent and stale, old nasty scent. Most people don't need to wear a deoderant if they clean themselves and keep their clothing clean. A cold towel bath will do perfectly well for hygeine if you're adverse to wasting water by showering. Nasty BO, otoh, is the smell of bacteria eating stale sweat, probably at least the day before's leftovers. To really build up a good stink you need a few days accumulation and a not-so-great diet, possibly including a lot of booze. It means your personal hygeine is lacking to the point you may be sticky to the touch. I can go backpacking for a week and I don't smell as bad as some folks on the bus around here.

Having said that synthetic clothing can be very hard to de-funkify unless you pay to get it dry cleaned or give it the occasional serious blast with hot water and major detergent. A lot of my athletic gear has a certain funky odor to it. Which is why I don't wear it to parties.
posted by fshgrl at 5:33 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's nothing inherently offensive about the way people smell after a couple of days without washing their hair or putting on deodorant (as opposed to the more universally acclaimed stinkiness of fecal matter or rotten food).

Well, that's a matter of taste concerning which there is no accounting. Universal is a bit of a slippery slope. Let us discuss, for example, stinky cheese. Ever try explaining Roquefort to an provincial East Asian? "It's, well, curdled milk. Curdled milk that's got mold on it. Rotten? Well, I suppose so. But no, really, it's delicious. Sure you won't try some?"

As to deodorent - don't use it myself, partially because of parabens, partially because I'm hopelessly bourgeois, shower every day, and find it superfluous. For those who do go the the deodorant way, and aren't particular about diet, can I make a plug for rock salt?

(on preview, what fshgrl said - which should come as no surprise, given the source.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:54 PM on April 7, 2008

They are more likely to have biked to work [or wherever] than the non-cool kids and the old folks. (Not that all bikers smell, either.)

FWIW, I work with a ton of 20-somethings and taught a classroom full of 18-year-olds about three years ago, and nobody has BO unless it's me. I guess the memo hasn't been circulated in San Francisco yet.
posted by salvia at 6:11 PM on April 7, 2008

I've found that many of the people that I know who claim "not to need deodorant" smell quite bad. I've seen this trend in acquaintances who aren't necessarily hippies (although some are) and quite a few of these aren't what I would term soap-dodgers at all. Personally I find B.O. inconsiderate.
posted by ob at 6:28 PM on April 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Don't use deoderant but bathe daily, plus shower every other day, hardly ever smell anyone unpleasant, including 20-somethings.

Their music, though -- that's another story.
posted by Rash at 6:34 PM on April 7, 2008

Look here guys, my grandfather, who is 82ish, has his own musky, slightly gamey smell. The guy has been a farmer since he was born, his family has lived on the same road for at least three generations, and my grandmother passed away earlier this year. This man has every right to be who he is, and in my eyes has earned the right to smell a little musky. When he washes his clothes, he uses a wringer washer. When my mom grabs some of his stuff to bring back to my parents place to launder, as she's been checking in on him weekly, the dryer vent outside her place will sometimes emit an earthy, musky smell. Because the guy wears the same shirt and coveralls all the damn time and he's 82.

Now, if you want to live that lifestyle, that's up to you. But I kind of doubt the guy was like that at the ripe old age of 20, I think it's a lifetime of sweat that's never quite been washed off and the grime of hanging out at the tire store and crashing on a mattress at your ancestral home that's not much greater than a flophouse these days. So use the resources at your disposal and hose off a little, ok? There's a difference between people I know have chosen a lifestyle and those who smell a little rank because they're experimenting or are too damn lazy to get to a shower.
posted by mikeh at 8:51 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I get wanger headaches around most scents, though I do wear deodorant (for some reason, Speedstick's regular green one I can tolerate and even kinda like). But around most scents, especially "sweet" ones? My eyes water, my nose swells shut and my brain throbs.

I would tie the use of pernicious smell to the use of obvious make-up, based purely on observance, and am glad that "natural" has become a bourgeoisie affectation.
posted by klangklangston at 9:19 PM on April 7, 2008

Maybe something to do with most 20somethings having jobs that don't require a lot of standardized grooming: real fancy professional jobs require a certain level of grooming, whereas what most of my friends and i are, a crack team of bartenders, TAs, cooks, sometime writers/artists, landscapers, carpenters, nonprofit-sector employees, etc, don't face stringent appearance codes, and are maybe stinkier for it. That's not to say impeccably groomed 25 year-old lawyers don't exist; I just don't know any..
posted by pieliza at 9:22 PM on April 7, 2008

Science education in the United States is abysmal. Despite this, there are is an increasingly large number of Americans who believe themselves to be scientifically-literate. They have never read a research paper in their life, and consider an article in New Scientist to be just as credible as one published in Nature Medicine.

Many of these people work in the field of science journalism, making wild, unfounded interpretations of research findings for a living. Some of these people become conservatives who believe there is no such thing as Global Warming because of some research published by a botanist. Some become smelly hippies who will tell you that parabens are bad for you while they drink their isoflavone-rich soy milk.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:33 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's very hard to hide chemical smells and I think people my age are especially attuned to them. To me chemical smell = unhealthy and outdated. Deodorant, hairspray, fabric softener, perfume...they smell like a previous generation.

I want to smell a person when I meet them. Smell is part of attraction. I adore the smell of hair grease and skin oil. Smelling those smells on the right person can make me instantly weak in the knees.

There's always one at the bar that overdoes it, not bathing for a few days and smelling up the room just like there's always one lady who went crazy with her eu de musk at the supermarket. And I love showers. I require one every day and it's not to cleanse my chi.

But I'd take a roomfull of twenty-somethings without deodorant over just one person wearing some chokeworthy, oppressive perfume or the metallic smell of deodorant or worse, the creepy smell of nothing at all.
posted by tinamonster at 10:34 PM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh yeah, synthetic clothing might be a factor. I have a couple of these polyester? shirts that are designed to wick away sweat and wash and dry quickly. When I wear them, I positively reek by the evening.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:23 AM on April 8, 2008

Just IME, the young, slightly stanky types tend to freshen up real quick once they realize it's getting in the way of romance. Women tend to be more fastidious, and once the twentysomething unwasheds find a girl they are serious about, they will shower if only for her sake (and the sake of their sex lives). "Get the hell out of my bed, Stinky, and don't come back until you've showered and scrubbed with soap!" has a salutary effect on personal hygiene.

Of course, guys in bands have so much "relationship leverage" that they CAN get women without bathing, so perhaps they don't have the incentive to clean up that ordinary Joes do.

Otherwise, I have to wonder if maybe the ban on smoking does have something to do with our perception of smells. Fewer smokers = less nostril-searing smoke = more sensitive sniffers. Makes sense.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:10 AM on April 8, 2008

I've noticed a trend towards more body odour in my environs. But then, we also get slugged with excess water usage charges if we go over 140L per person, per day (that's 36ish gallons for you imperial types). A typical 10-minute shower will use in the vicinity of 180L of water. A load of clothes will use around 100L of water. A toilet full flush uses 10L. A load of dishes takes around 10-20L.

The easiest of those to cut is the shower. 4-minute, low-pressure, low-flow showers are the rule around here now. And well, with some practice you can get just as clean - but it does take practice.

Next is clothing. Wash only full loads, when you need to. And if you can air your clothes and rewear them, well, that's another load less you have to do.

Throw in a rather warm climate (a cold winter is where it gets down overnight to 5C more than once) and the aroma of 'human' is quite prevalent.
posted by ysabet at 6:13 PM on April 8, 2008

I haven't particularly noticed more people stinking, but I'm amazed by the rudeness of people on here who think it's okay for them to smell around other people. It's not, any more than it's okay to smoke indoors. Keep your smell pollution down. Be considerate of others. Get some fucking manners.

Some people genuinely don't need deodorant. But everyone needs to keep their BO down just for the sake of civility. You're being selfish if you smell, whether from BO or from perfume.
posted by MythMaker at 11:31 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

But I'd take a roomfull of twenty-somethings without deodorant over just one person wearing some chokeworthy, oppressive perfume or the metallic smell of deodorant or worse, the creepy smell of nothing at all.

I wear an odorless deodorant. So I would creep you out because you can't smell my tart musk?

posted by jayder at 6:32 PM on April 9, 2008

I don't think the question was "hey, what does everyone personally consider appropriate hygiene? is BO okay?"
posted by salvia at 6:38 PM on April 9, 2008

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