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Raising a Stink : With little more than a srong odor, sweat has made its way into the history books. It's taken down a presidential candidate, spurred a billion-dollar industry and given pigs a bad rap.

August 16, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It allegedly cost Richard Nixon an election, is annoying in outer space and helps pay the bills of professional armpit sniffers from Boston.

Salty and stinky, sweat is one of the world's least-loved excretions. But it serves as an occasional collector's item, keeps the nation's $1.6-billion deodorant industry afloat and inspires such artistic milestones as a "Married . . . With Children" episode in which Al Bundy's overheated body produces a sweat stain that resembles Elvis.

It also is a sexual turn-on to dead French dictators.

The evil drip has baffled and bedeviled humans for eons, says sweat scientist Richard L. Dobson, whose four decades of perspiration inquiry include military research, odd medical cases and a study of gorilla underarms.

Among the riddles that he and others have looked into: why some people's sweat is blue, yellow or red--and why riding a Tokyo subway at rush hour is far less odorous than, say, being aboard a crowded New York train.

The shaded perspiration, it turns out, is caused by chromidrosis, a rare condition in which iron or other colored materials get into sweat glands (and which could explain biblical reports that Jesus' sweat took on the appearance of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane).

As for the Tokyo subway phenomenon, Dobson blames a quirk of genetics. Most people, he says, have two types of sweat glands--eccrine, which react to heat, and apocrine, which respond to stress or sexual arousal and are responsible for that decaying goat smell known to scholars by the scientific name, B.O.

Among the Japanese, however, apocrine glands are few in number. "I have no idea what Darwinian forces led to that," Dobson says, "but it probably wouldn't be a good idea to start a deodorant company there."

In most other places, of course, it's another story.

In America, on any given day, residents shed enough perspiration to supply the city of Pittsburgh with 24 hours' worth of water (although nobody would want to drink the stuff).

But scientists are looking for ways to tame the nation's sweat glands. At the Gillette Odor Clinic in Boston, 100-degree human incubation chambers and trained underarm sniffers are used to test the effectiveness of new antiperspirants and deodorants.

When all goes well, wetness is slashed by 60% and stink is virtually eliminated, says Toiletries Technology Lab wizard Brian Rogers.

But not all armpits are created equal.

"You might hear an occasional 'Whoa!' " Rogers says. "We try to let the odor judges take a few breaths in between, but if the product isn't effective or there's a lot of odor, they may need longer to clear their sinuses."

Most employees, however, grow immune to the stench. "They can do (the tests) and go eat a doughnut afterward," he says. And the job is definitely preferable to odor-judging mouthwash or diapers.

Researchers also experiment with deodorant fragrances. Some companies try to imitate popular colognes and perfumes, but others cook up new scents in laboratories, then poll consumers on whether the formulas remind them of "youngness," "conservatism" or "classical music."

"We're selling images, not fragrances," Rogers explains.

Thirty or 40 years ago, those images were limited to Regular, Scented and Unscented. The back-to-nature movement added Herbal and Lime. Today, products tilt toward such concepts as Sport, Surf Spray, Wild Rain and Caribbean Cool.

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Sweat has always had a PR problem. Adam--the first recorded perspirer--was booted from the Garden of Eden with the warning that toil and sweat would be his lot in life. Ancient Egyptians were so appalled by perspiration's odor that they slathered themselves with tree resins to cover it up. And sweat-related foot infections and heat disorders incapacitated thousands of soldiers during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Even Richard Nixon supposedly lost his 1960 presidential bid partly because he dripped profusely during a televised debate with John F. Kennedy (rumor had it that Nixon applied antiperspirants to his face for subsequent appearances).

Nevertheless, sweat does have its adherents. When it falls off celebrities or rock stars--as in "authentic" vials of Elvis sweat and towels that mopped Beatle brows--collectors will pay considerable sums for the stuff.

Sweat lodges and saunas are said to purify both body and soul (although medical experts deride such theories).

And Napoleon regarded the smell of perspiration as an aphrodisiac. After the battle of Marengo, he reportedly sent word to Josephine: "Will be home in three days . . . don't wash."

"If you don't like to sweat," says Henry Allen, writing in the Washington Post, "imagine what life would be like if you couldn't. Imagine those high-tension occasions when you dread sweating, and think of the alternatives--giving a speech, say, and having to periodically pick up the pitcher of ice water and pour it over your head, like an elephant. Or doing a job interview while slavering like a Saint Bernard."

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