Q: If I shave my body hair, will it make me smell better? Serious question.
A: This question isn’t as crazy as it seems. But the answer is a wash (pun intended).
Back in the early 1950s, a research study was done on the function of body hair on men – specifically axillary (armpit) hair.
The scientists (they were dermatologists) were interested in skin, sweat glands, and deodorants. They wanted to know if axillary hair trapped bacteria in the armpit and what function that bacteria played in the odor of the armpit.
- And to think they got paid for such fun research!
- Also, let the record show that the 1953 article begins like this: “As far back as history records, man has been aware of a distinctively malodorous scent that may emanate from his axilla…”
- How’s that for a beginning?
What they found was that when men shaved the hair in their armpits completely, the odor of the armpit was drastically reduced for the next 24 hours.
- As the hair grew back, so did the odor.
- The conclusion was that the bacteria in the armpit did play a role in generating a lot of the odor from a man’s body.
And that was all the research on that subject for over 50 years!
This takes us all the way to 2011. Another group of researchers in the Czech Republic made a couple observations about that research from back in the ‘50s.
- First, recent studies have shown that some body odor is actually good. Women pick up a lot of information from a man’s body odor, and men (of course unconsciously) give off plenty of “signals” about themselves with their odor, such as nutrition, hormone levels, and even what family they come from.
- So the researchers thought that a better study would determine whether shaving one’s armpit improves one’s smell – instead of just eliminating the smell altogether.
- Their own study was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology in 2012.
Over the course of four experiments, the researchers got groups of men to be “odor donors.”
- Some of the men had never shaved their armpits, and some of them shaved their armpits regularly.
Then, each man was given special instructions for his armpit hair.
Some men were asked to shave one armpit and let the other one grow.
Some men were asked to shave both armpits every other day.
Some men were asked to shave their armpits once and then let them grow normally over a period of time.
Men were asked to avoid the following activities at least 2 days before odor samples were collected:
- Using any body product that smells good (perfumes, deodorants, shower gels, etc.)
- Eating meals with strong, pungent odors (garlic, onion, chilies, bleu cheese, cabbage, etc.)
- Drinking alcohol
- Sexual activity
- Sleeping in a bed with partner or pet
Odor samples were collected by wearing cotton pads in the armpits for 24 hours.
Then, the researchers found some lucky ladies who volunteered to rate the odor of the men.
They were paid nothing, and in return for their “service” all they got was a chocolate bar.
The women, under highly controlled conditions (in a ventilated room with no odor, washing their hands with unscented soap, etc.) smelled each cotton pad and rated it on the following:
- The women also indicated where they were on their menstrual cycles (since this actually effects how women perceive men’s body odor) and whether they detected perfume or smoke in each scent.
In EXPERIMENT 1, the researchers found that shaved armpits were rated as significantly more pleasant, more attractive, and less intense than unshaved armpits.
They also found that women rated cinnamon smell better than armpit smell. Hooray for science.
However, in EXPERIMENT 2, they failed to find the same results. In this experiment, shaved and unshaved armpits weren’t significantly different.
Once again, in EXPERIMENT 3, they failed to find any meaningful differences in the unshaved and shaved armpit smells.
In EXPERIMENT 4, they once again had difficulty finding any meaningful differences.
What gives? How could they find a significant effect in the first experiment but then in none of the other experiments?
The researchers gave the following possible explanations:
There might be an effect of shaving armpit hair, but it’s not that big of an effect.
Maybe the donors in the first experiment just had stronger body odor overall.
Additionally, the first experiment may have just been a statistical fluke. This can happen in science!
The bottom line is there is not much evidence that shaving armpit hair really improves your body odor.
All we have is an old experiment from 1953, and an inconclusive experiment from 2012.
There’s a possibility that there’s a slight effect going on, but I wouldn’t bet too much on it.
More likely, other factors will affect how you smell to a much greater degree than whether you have hair in your armpits.
Shelley, W. B., Hurley, H. J., & Nichols, A. C. (1953). Axillary odor: Experimental study of the role of bacteria, apocrine sweat, and deodorants. Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology, 68, 430-446. Link: https://archderm.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=523751
Kohoutova, D., Rubesova, A., & Havlicek, J. (2012). Shaving of axillary hair has only a transient effect on perceived body odor pleasantness. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 66, 569-581. Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00265-011-1305-0#page-1