A whiff of history: The evolution of deodorant

A whiff of history: The evolution of deodorant

Deodorant is ubiquitous in today’s modern world. Brushing your teeth, combing your hair and applying deodorant are part of most adult’s daily routines. The deodorant market is growing faster than ever. A 2019 study published by Alexander Kunst indicated that 90% of 18–29-year-old females in the United Kingdom use deodorant every day. Even at 60 years and upwards, 78% still apply it daily to combat nagging body odour. 80% of male respondents aged 30 to 59 years reported using deodorants every day in a related Kunst research project.  

But this has not always been the case. Deodorant has an intriguing history that spans thousands of years. From ancient civilizations to the present day, the concept of masking or preventing body odour has evolved significantly. In this article, we unravel the origins of staying fresh and odour-free.

Ancient Beginnings: Aromatic Remedies

The quest for personal hygiene can be traced back to ancient civilizations. The earliest forms of deodorant emerged around 2000 BC in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), where people concocted aromatic remedies using natural ingredients, such as perfumed oils and resins, to mask the scent of sweat and body odour. They were often applied in combination with bathing rituals.

The ancient Egyptians employed a blend of natural ingredients such as scented oils and incense to keep unpleasant odours at bay. Cleopatra, renowned for her beauty and hygiene, was said to have created her own perfumed creams for this purpose.

Greece and Rome: The Art of Perfuming

As time passed, the concept of deodorant evolved. Perfumes and scented oils became a common method for masking body odour in ancient Greece. The Greeks took inspiration from the Egyptians, incorporating fragrances into their daily grooming routines.

Not to be outdone, the Romans took personal hygiene to another level. Public bathhouses, a significant part of Roman culture, were equipped with fragrant oils, herbs, and perfumed waters to ensure patrons smelled pleasant -- even after a sweaty workout. Romans also developed a primitive form of deodorant, consisting of a mixture of natural ingredients like charcoal, animal fat, and scented oils. This mixture, known as "unguent," was applied to the body to combat odour.

Roman Bathing House

The Dark Ages and the Renaissance: A Step Backward

The fall of the Roman Empire marked a period of decline in personal hygiene in Europe. The Middle Ages saw a regression in the use of deodorising methods, largely due to the influence of the Church which associated personal grooming with vanity. Bathhouses declined in popularity and personal hygiene suffered as a result.

However, the Renaissance – a fervent period of cultural, artistic, political and economic growth in Europe, heralded a revival of personal grooming and perfuming. The rediscovery of ancient texts and a revival of classical culture encouraged the return of personal hygiene practices, including the use of scented oils, perfumes, and natural remedies.

19th Century: The Birth of Commercial Deodorants

The 19th century delivered significant advancements in deodorants as the concept of personal hygiene regained prominence and people sought practical solutions to address body odour. In 1888, the first commercial deodorant, “Mum”, was trademarked. This early form of deodorant was formulated using a combination of zinc oxide and other natural ingredients to produce a waxy cream in a metal tin. The cream eradicated some of the bacteria on the skin and the foul-smelling by-products.

Soon after, other entrepreneurs joined the fray. Everydry, the first commercial antiperspirant, was launched in 1903 and incorporated aluminium salts -- which clogged pores and prevented sweating.

In 1910, in Cincinnati, the unique combination of a surgeon, his schoolgirl daughter and a former door-to-door bible salesman converged to lay the foundations of what is now a $18 billion industry.

Dr. Abraham D. Murphey invented a liquid product to keep his hands sweat-free in the operating room. His daughter, Edna, tried the liquid antiperspirant on her armpits, discovering that it thwarted wetness and smell -- naming the antiperspirant product Odorono (Odor? Oh No!). Edna found difficulty gaining attention for her father’s unique invention in an era when advertising was still in its infancy. She contacted J. Walter Thompson Company, a New York advertising agency, seeking assistance. It was here that Edna was paired with James Young, an unexpected but brilliant copywriter. Young was a former door-to-door Bible salesman with a lack of formal advertising training. However, he would go on to become one of the most renowned advertising copywriters of the 20th century, using Odorono as his launchpad.

Together they boldly tackled a subject often left unspoken — the issue of underarm odour. Their advertisements instilled a sense of fear in women, sparking conversations and, ultimately, making antiperspirant products commonplace.

However, Odorono faced challenges related to skin irritation and clothing damage due to the acidic aluminium chloride formulation. Excessive use was associated with sharp itching or a stinging sensation under the arms.

It wasn’t until 1940 that a chemist named Jules Montenier managed to overcome this issue. He filed a patent for a buffered antiperspirant, Stopette, which rectified the excessive acidity by combining it with a soluble nitrile or a similar compound.


Image credit Cosmeticsandskin 

1940s to 1960s: Technological Advancements and Aerosol Deodorants

The post-World War II era brought further innovations. Aerosol sprays, a technology borrowed from the military, were introduced as a new and convenient way to apply deodorant. These sprays became increasingly popular in the 1950s and 1960s, promising quick and efficient application.

In addition to aerosol sprays, the 1950s also saw the introduction of the first modern roll-on deodorant, known as "Ban Roll-On." This product featured a ball applicator that revolutionized the industry and provided a more convenient and precise method of application.

1970s and 1980s: The Age of Deodorant Innovation

In the 1970s and 1980s, we observed greater specialisation with the emergence of a wide range of products catering to different preferences and needs. For example, stick deodorants, gel deodorants, and cream deodorants offered alternatives to traditional roll-ons and aerosols. Many of these formulations were designed to address specific concerns, such as sensitive skin or excessive sweating.

During this time, the industry also began to focus on scent and marketing. Deodorants were no longer just functional products; they became associated with specific brands, scents, and marketing campaigns, appealing to the broader idea of personal grooming and self-expression.

Gel deodorant

1990s to Present: The Era of Natural and Clinical Deodorants

As the late 20th century turned into the 21st century, consumers began to demand more natural and eco-friendly products. This led to the rise of natural and organic deodorants, which boasted ingredients like baking soda, arrowroot powder and essential oils. These products aim to provide odour control without the use of aluminium or other potentially harmful chemicals.

A recent report indicated that 9% of people in the United States currently opt for a clean, aluminium-free deodorant, with almost half of U.S. adults believing it is “somewhat important” to purchase a personal care product that is free from chemical ingredients.

Simultaneously, clinical-strength deodorants and antiperspirants, which were effective in preventing sweat and odour, gained popularity. These clinical formulations promised 24-hour protection and became popular products for individuals with hyperhidrosis or excessive sweating.

Cultural Significance and Health Concerns

Deodorants have not only evolved in terms of their formulations but also their cultural significance. Today, deodorant is more than just a practical product; it's a symbol of personal hygiene, self-expression, and cultural norms. In many cultures, body odour is stigmatized, and the use of deodorant is a common practice to ensure social acceptance.

However, the use of aluminium-based antiperspirants has raised health concerns in recent years. Some studies have suggested a potential link between aluminium in antiperspirants and health issues, particularly breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease. As a result, there has been a growing interest in aluminium-free and natural alternatives.

The Future of Deodorant: Sustainability and Customization

As we step into the future, sustainability and environmental responsibility have become essential considerations. Brands are increasingly developing eco-friendly packaging and exploring new, sustainable ingredients to reduce their carbon footprint.

The history of deodorant is a journey through time, from ancient aromatic remedies to the advanced formulations of the 21st century. What started as a quest to mask body odour has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry offering a wide range of products catering to various preferences and needs. With a focus on sustainability, customization, and health considerations, the deodorant industry continues to adapt to the ever-changing demands of consumers.

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