At body-odor center, work is the pits

The antiperspirant business sweats out research results

Health & Fitness

July 11, 2004|By Judy Hevrdejs | Judy Hevrdejs,Chicago Tribune

Jonathan Hague and Judy Rahn think a lot about sweat. The sign in front of their beige brick office building in Rolling Meadows, Ill., reads simply: "Global Technology Center." It could just as well read: "Body Odor Analysis and Improvement, World Headquarters."

It is here where their employer, Unilever -- the Anglo-Dutch consumer products colossus that makes such things as Q-Tips and Lipton Tea -- researches, develops and tests its antiperspirants and deodorants Degree, Dove, Axe and Suave.

It is here where Hague and Rahn are consumed by thoughts of clammy underarms.

On this particular day, they're getting help from 28 women who have swapped their tops for flower-print smocks, stuffed absorbent paper pads under their armpits and agreed to spend 80 minutes in a sultry, windowless room to test the effectiveness of an antiperspirant formula.

As the room's temperature gauge inches toward 100 degrees, with humidity around 35 percent, dewy women turn downright drippy.

This is a huge business, with a typical Walgreen's carrying some 300 antiperspirants and deodorants. (Go ahead -- count the brands, the sticks, roll-ons, sprays, gels and various scents.) Americans spent more than $1 billion on the stuff last year, according to retail tracker Information Resources Inc.

It's why Unilever, Gillette, Procter & Gamble and their fellow sweat battlers spend mightily on research. Workers at the Unilever facility are busy mixing and sniffing products, evaluating fragrances with experts whom Rahn calls "really good noses."

They are also cooking up new products that boast "smart" fragrances that work on battling odor and sweat only when you need it, according to Hague, the center's director of product formulation.

Perspiration is actually a good thing -- it doesn't smell, and it helps regulate the body's temperature, cooling you off as moisture on the skin's surface evaporates.

"The minute you start sweating, you are cooling yourself down," said Rahn, the center's manager of consumer science. "That's the whole purpose of sweating."

The body is covered with millions of sweat glands, with two main types: The thermal (eccrine) glands are all over the body, sending moisture through pores in your skin. Another set of sweat glands (apocrine) kick in at puberty and are triggered not by heat but by emotions. They are located mostly in the underarm and groin areas.

Although sweat doesn't smell, when it arrives on the skin's surface and interacts with bacteria there, that's when odor brews.

Deodorants that contain anti-microbials can help eliminate the bacteria on your skin's surface, while the fragrance in the deodorant can help mask the odor, Rahn said.

Antiperspirants, on the other hand, help control sweat by forming gel plugs in some of the sweat glands. They also may contain fragrance and may help eliminate skin-surface bacteria.

Humans have been sweating -- and swabbing themselves with products to help them stay dry and pleasantly fragrant -- for centuries.

Yet it has been only in the last dozen years that many of the important stink-producing elements have been identified, thanks in part to George Preti, an organic chemist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia.

Preti, who studies underarm secretions, has focused his research on odorants -- smell-producing elements. One of the culprits Preti has pegged is called 3-methyl-2 hexenoic acid. Another culprit, 3-methyl 3-hydroxyhexenoic acid, was identified by a group of scientists in Switzerland.

"These are two big offenders," said Preti. Understanding the elements in our armpits is a step toward solving the odor dilemma. "We know more about the bacteria that lives there than we did 20 years ago," Preti said. "We know more about the odorants. ... And we know that men and women perceive odors differently."

In other words, what a man finds manly may not play the same to a woman's nose and vice versa.

Preti is at work trying to identify more culprits in underarm odor, science that could eventually play a role in some deodorant and antiperspirant innovations -- products that zero in on a specific odorant.

Smell and moisture aren't the only armpit issue, particularly for women who shave their underarms and may deal with dryness, irritation, razor burn, bumps, nicks and itching.

Earlier this year, Unilever introduced a formulation of Dove Invisible Solid antiperspirant that aims to be less irritating on freshly shaved skin.

The challenge for researchers at the center was to get skin care ingredients in the product "without the heavy effects of oils, etc.," Rahn said.

"There are still some frontiers on sweat that may or may not play out," Hague said, citing research into the use of Botox injections to fight excessive sweating, called hyperhidrosis.

"For us," Hague said, "it's intriguing."

Taking the heat for science -- and pay

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