Do You Smell That?

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I often think of my sense of smell as one of my best natural defenses against foul invaders. One faint whiff can steer me clear of vectors before I see, touch, or (worst) taste it. (My ears are good for sensing distant danger, but we all know that some of the worst smelly offenders make a silent approach.) My nose is the first part of me to know which business to stay out of.

I’ve been thinkin’ about stinkin’ since I read Julia Scott’s “No Soap, No Shower, Bacteria-Rich Hygiene Experiment” New York Times Magazine. For one month, Scott misted with a “living bacterial skin tonic” instead of her usual routine. Spritzing with bacteria and skipping soap flips my hygiene training upside down. I should shower so I wouldn’t get smelly, because smelly meant unhealthy (not to mention unpopular). It sounds a little wild to try to cultivate primal body scum when we’ve got modern suds and gels that are premised on wiping out all the buggies that can make us sick. But inventor of the bacteria-based spray—and the journalist’s experiment with it—suggests that a lot of the stuff we think is keep us smelling good is not only unnecessary, it’s actually killing some of our natural defenses against filth. Furthermore, modern cleansers contain chemical agents to help create and preserve their potency and their pretty scents, and some of the most common of those chemicals have been found to be harmful to humans, or even carcinogenic. (One example study here.)

Which means my trusty nose has been leading me astray, allowing me to fall for the floral lures of nasty chemicals. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve caught my nose in a lie before. The worst betrayal came on a sunny summer afternoon. I was walking near the Charles in Cambridge. I inhaled and caught a whiff of something floral and sweet. “Oooh smells good, what is that? What’s blooming now?” I asked my walking companion. Ten seconds later we rounded a bend in the path and saw a crane dragging a portable potty away from the boat house. Nature Gal mistook industrial-strength bathroom spray for fresh summer blooms.

Sometimes my nose catches on. I recently bought a soap that is supposed to conjure “Summer Sunshine” but smells like Nerfls, with undertones of My Little Pony feet. I feel factory-made rather than bathed in solar rays. But I’ve purchased many other shower gel flavors on the merits of a surreptitious whiff in the pharmacy aisles.

I guess the reason that I’m surprised that so many of us could fall for the “trick” of synthetic scents is n sometimes my nose captures truth of my memory with more specificity and complexity than any of my other senses could: melting asphalt, mixed with chlorine and a tang of bark mulch transports me poolside at my childhood friend’s house. Or the smoke from a charcoal grill fueled with too much lighter fluid, and maybe a scrap of charred burger that fell into the pit tell me Dad’s cooking dinner on a Sunday night.

These are specific to my experience, and maybe similar to those who grew up in a similar place and time. But to some extent all humans are working with a shared palette of scents that attract and repel us. Researchers found smells that are universally ranked good or bad. (Participants represented different cultures, gender, etc.) Most of the winning smells are citrus fruits, and some flowers and tree smells were runners up. Sharp, vinegary smells were leaders on the “bad” list—the smell of good list fruits gone dangerously rancid. This fundamental code seems to signal a memory that reaches beyond the shampoo aisle, one that is entrenched in our basic human needs and fears, and unlikely to be lured away by a synthetic sunflower. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up my hygiene routine (sighs of relief here from my family and friends) but I want to try to tune my nose back to that original scale. It’s a good excuse, if nothing else, to stop and smell the roses.

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One thought on “Do You Smell That?

  1. This may fall into the category of TMI, but my colleagues and I have concluded that one of the most noxious odors to be found in the workplace is that restroom combo we call “citrush*t.” Either element, the purely biological, or the manufactured “freshener” is bad enough on its own; the combination, however, is nearly nauseating enough to induce a malodorous spew further complicating the scent. What does one do, or not do? 😉

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