Victorian etiquette guides dictated that horses sweat, men perspire and women glow. That must have been a cruel expectation from the British Raj women, struggling in corsets and stockings in the Indian summer. As temperatures skim 42-plus degree Celsius in Delhi, we can only go the way of the horses. Sweat. Profusely, on days when the sun is particularly merciless.
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Sweat is the body’s natural cooling system, and on its own, is a non-controversial, quiet product of the eccrine and appocrine glands that has neither colour nor odour. But in some warm parts of the anatomy, like underarms, there nestle a whole host of bacteria, which feed on the organic matter of sweat and produce that thing called body odour (BO), the defining smell of local train and Metro travel in summer. That’s how sweat acquires a bad name.
Is this an unpleasant morning topic for you? Read on, there’s more.
I haven’t found it but there must be a study linking the development of suburban public transport to the growth of deodorant and anti-perspirant products. Both these things work in different ways though. A deodorant merely masks the BO. An anti-perspirant, which often contains deodorant, blocks the sweat gland, so you perspire less.The plugs that block the gland fall off due to the natural sloughing of the skin. It sort of stifles the body’s natural response mechanism to heat. (From here on, I am using deodorant and anti-perspirant interchangeably.)
In America, the need to smell good has been successfully marketed since the 1940s, such that using a deo is a personal hygiene norm that is as standard as taking a shower. Advertisements did their bit by either playing on insecurity of becoming socially unacceptable due to BO—Raise your arms if your’re sure, said a classic one for Sure deodorants—or promising greater sexual success with the use of deos.
A New York Times article last year reports, however, that in a country obsessed with personal grooming, there is a swathe of population that is breaking away from this practice and still managing to have a social life. This set refuses to use a deo mostly because they stepped back from the advertising hype and assessed whether they really needed one.
Many found that their body type was the kind that could keep off BO with a daily shower and season-appropriate clothing. So when they weren’t exactly struck off invitee lists, they shunned deos and are now walking around town with lemon slices and rubbing them under their arms at any hint of BO. The citric acid kills the bacteria hosted in the underarms and keeps them fresh and lemony. These aren’t freaks or hippies but regular, educated folk including a CEO of a cosmetics company.
There is also a growing section of evolved consumers who are educated about the concoction of chemicals in deos. The average deo contains aluminium products and parabene. There has been conflicting accounts of the role these chemicals play in causing breast cancer and neuro degenerative diseases.
As the jury is still out on this, these consumers are forming their own verdict based on common sense. They are figuring that mixtures of aluminium chlorohydrate, silica, propylene glycol and triclosans doesn’t exactly sound like a good thing to spray or roll on to their skin and let it seep into the bloodstream. So they vigilantly read product ingredients and abstain from those that contain these chemicals.
Natural healers point out that in a humid, dusty tropical climate like India, the dust settles on the deodorant, compounding the sweating and being counterproductive. They recommend going back in time to the way the ancients beat the heat- dabbing sandalwood powder mixed with a little water under the arms after a bath. Or eating satvik food in the summer, that eschews onion, garlic, alcohol and cigarettes, because what goes in, is really what fumes out from the armpits.
Eau de cologne is another gentle option. Baking soda seems to have been adopted as a viable alternative to commercial deodorants by a sizeable number of green consumers.
Here are two ways to make your own deodorant that I found on the Internet, which I thought were easy to do:
Basic deodorant powder: Half cup baking soda and half cup cornstarch. A few drops essential oils such as lavender or cinnamon. Put the ingredients in a glass jar and shake it up. Sprinkle lightly on a damp washcloth and pat in particular regions of anatomy.
Basic liquid deodorant: Quarter cup each of aloe vera gel, and mineral water. One teaspoon vegetable glycerine (available at chemists).A few drops of any essential oils such as lavender. Blend and put into a spray bottle.
I can almost hear you say, grow our own fruits and vegetables, bake your own bread, make our own deodorant. What will it be next, weave your own cloth? In these busy times, are we to regress to working with raw materials? I get that it may not be entirely practical. But it’s really Hobson’s choice. Using chemical-laden commercial deodorant or being the guy in office that everyone’s sniggering about. That’s where these alternatives can at least be considered.
Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd.
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