Odour, what can the matter be?;Mind amp; Body

6th March 1998 at 00:00
A smelly colleague can get up everyone's nose. But, as Gerald Haigh explains, a direct approach is often the best way of clearing the air

Remember the television ad in which a woman leaned confidentially to her best friend and whispered "B.O."? It served a purpose beyond selling bars of soap, by inventing a convenient euphemism for bodily smell and by suggesting the subject was fit for public discussion.

In the workplace, someone who smells strongly or has bad breath is repellent and can affect business. But how to tackle it? Many people find broaching the subject embarrassing, so opt for an indirect approach. One restaurant supervisor says: "A course I went on suggested asking if the person had enough changes of uniform. But some people just will not take hints like that."

Others similarly find that hints fall on stony ground. An engineering worker explains how he and other staff left a bottle of antiseptic mouthwash in the jacket pocket of a colleague with bad breath. After this failed, they took a more blunt approach. "He was taking his car for its MOT and someone joked, 'your car will pass, but your breath will fail on the emissions'. This seemed to work," he says.

An infant school head who received appeals from colleagues about a teacher with an unpleasant body odour, and noticed that "the children were holding their noses and frowning at each other", explains how a variety of ploys failed to make any impact. Staff agreed to start up a casual staffroom discussion about favourite deodorants. When this failed, they resorted to Plan B.

"The art teacher asked people to bring in empty deodorant bottles for some unspecified art project. We sat around in the staffroom holding them up and talking about them." Did this work?

"Of course not. In the end the school secretary, a motherly person a little older than the rest of us, promised to tackle her directly. The teacher took it well, and, frankly, we should have done that straight away instead of going through a series of ridiculous charades."

This "tackling moment" is obviously difficult. But as these anecdotes show, the effects of grasping the nettle are not so bad. Angela Baron, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development Management, says:

"It's better coming from someone senior and of the same sex. It can be embarrassing, but once the subject is broached, things get easier."

A National Association of Head Teachers spokesperson agreed - "It's very sensitive, and there might be hidden factors, such as a medical condition. All the same it can be tackled, and we would always advise people to do so rather than skirt around the issue."

The main impact of the smelly teacher, of course, is on pupils. In extreme cases, a teacher's effectiveness may be impaired because pupils are unable to concentrate on anything else. Jo, a sixth-former, leaps immediately upon the issue. "Coffee," she says. "Lots of teachers come in smelling of coffee, and it's awful."

In her experience, the real problem is not just the extreme cases, but that even a low level of unpleasantness opens up chinks in the disciplinary armour. "It's seen as a weakness. and you joke about it behind the teacher's back."

The message is that a teacher who smells - even a little - will find developing a good working relationship with pupils that much more difficult.

Part of the problem seems to be that body odour is increasingly unacceptable in our ever-more sanitised world - even the natural, cosy smell that makes each of us who we are, and is important in the furtherance of sexual relationships. Robert Page is managing director of Kiotech, which markets products based on pheromones, acclaimed as a powerful, subliminal sexual attractant. He says, "Fresh body smell is good, but we're so concerned about stale body odours that we scrub ourselves and cover ourselves with deodorants."

Mr Page is convinced of the power of smells for swinging lovers. He says you apply some of his products, from a bottle (pound;19.95) or an impregnated tissue (pound;1 a time), and await results. People are not (perhaps fortunately) attracted from across the room, "You have to be in somebody's personal space. That's where it can work at a subconscious level," he says.

Women, apparently, smell of caviar, shellfish and goats, while male scent is more like truffles and red wine. It is all, he says, underpinned by science, and supported by the work of biochemist Dr George Dodd, who for many years has studied the effect of smell on human behaviour.

At the other end of the spectrum from fresh body smell is the problem of what retired public health expert Dr Jim Dunlop describes as "cheesy feet".

Foot smells are a particular manifestation of body odour. Not only, says Jim Dunlop, do some people sweat more than others, evidence suggests not all people produce the same kind of sweat, and the difference is especially noticeable at foot level.

He refers to a 1990 medical paper that describes an experiment in which the sweat of people with smelly feet was found to contain short chain fatty acids in a different form to that found in the sweat of the "non-smellies". Dr Dunlop says these fatty acids are also present in Roquefort cheese, which, perhaps comes as no surprise.

Finally, you might like to try Dr Dunlop's test for proving that what you eat and how you smell are closely related. "Rub a clove of garlic on the soles of your feet, and you'll smell it on your breath in half an hour," he claims.

In the interests of science I tried this experiment. But it was inconclusive because of intervening variables. After you have handled garlic, and rubbed it on your feet, not only your breath, but everything else smells of it - your hair, the carpet, the door handle, your best suit.

Kiotech, London W1P 8DJ. Mail order number for pheromone products: O1483 204406Dr Philip Stemmer, The Fresh Breath Centre, Conan Doyle House, 2 Devonshire Place London W1 1PA. Tel: 0171 935 1666. Fax: 0171 935 8225


* Some body odour is natural, and an important part of sexual attraction. The point at which it becomes offensive is partly personal taste and partly culturally determined. We are probably less tolerant now than in the past.

* Fresh sweat is almost odourless. The smell begins when bacteria start working on it.

* Even if your body is sweat-free, your clothing can trap sweat, with bacteria still active.

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