Love Stinks: Why More Korean Women Wear Deodorant Than Men

성유리-sultry-sung-yuriIn today’s Korea Times. I’ll chime in here with links and extra information that I couldn’t provide in the 800 words allowed there (source, left: fotoya):

“Men can sweat up to 50% more than women,” or so says deodorant maker Rexona. Yet not only do very few Koreans ever wear deodorant, advertisements for it that have started appearing in recent years have almost exclusively been aimed at women.

Far from being counterintuitive however, a study published last Monday in the journal Flavor and Fragrance demonstrates that women have very good reasons to pay more attention to how they smell.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia asked male and female volunteers to rate the strength of 32 underarm sweat samples collected from both genders, and then 32 more that had been disguised by different fragrances typically used to control or mask underarm odor. While both men and women rated the unadulterated samples as equally strong, 19 fragrances successfully disguised the smell for men, while women were deceived by just two.

Investigating further using only female volunteers’, again the unadulterated samples were rated equally strong, but whereas six fragrances succeeded in disguising the men’s smells, as many as 16 worked on the women’s.

Yes, I also thought that it was strange to test only female volunteers in the second series of tests, and I’m confused about the composition of the sweat samples in the first series too: were they just random samples from men or women, were they mixed together into some form of asexual smell, or what? Unfortunately, the above is the best I could make out from 4 even more confusing and widely divergent reports on the study here, here, here, and here, and with what I’m being paid then my sense of journalistic integrity doesn’t quite extend to paying for access to the study itself I’m afraid!

In other words, while women’s noses are more sensitive than men’s, their own odors are more easily disguised, leading women to wear more deodorant or perfume than men.

Naturally there’s much more to it than men’s worse sense of smell, as I’d wager that — at the moment at least — in most cultures it is much more culturally acceptable for women than men to spend a great deal of time and money investing in how they smell, and express an interest in “smelly things” in general, although this study does at least point to a possible biological basis for that. One commentator on one of those other reports argues that the proportion of male to female chefs suggests otherwise, but others argue that that is more due to discrimination than anything else.

As an aside, in the mating game, this may not always be good strategy: other research has shown that the scent of a woman’s sweat is particularly attractive to men at the most fertile time of her monthly cycle.

composite faces of the 10 women with highest and lowest levels of oestrogen(Composite images of women taken with the most (L) and least (R) amounts of estrogen when ovulating. Source: New Scientist)

I’ve lost the link behind that sorry, but with the proviso that what counts as “common sense” and “natural” in gender studies and behavioral science is very much dependent on its era (scroll down a little here for a classic demonstration of that), with so much else about women being the most attractive at the most fertile parts of their cycles then I don’t think that readers will be needing much convincing.

But there is much more than this behind the gender bias in the marketing of deodorant in Korea.

In their low deodorant uptake, Koreans are the exception rather than the rule. While it is true that the first aerosol deodorant was launched as recently as 1965, the first roll-on applicator tested in 1952, and Mum, the first ever commercial product for preventing body odor, only invented in 1888, every major civilization as far back as the ancient Egyptians has left a record of its efforts at disguising underarm body odor. So what makes Koreans so different?

Diet, weight, fitness and climate certainly all play a role in how much one sweats, how smelly it is, and one’s ability to smell others. While explanations involving ethnicity are fraught with danger, it is true that Northeast Asians have fewer of the apocrine sweat glands most associated with odor than average. Famous human behavioralist Desmond Morris (The Naked Woman, 2007) has argued that this makes them less susceptible to body odor. But while Northeast Asians on the whole may smell less than other groups, that does not mean that many individuals – particularly men – can relax about their personal hygiene.

That many do is probably at least partially due to a host of cultural and economic factors: for instance, during much of Korea’s recent history deodorant would have been considered a luxury that few needed and even fewer could afford; a notion that still lingers in the gifting of such basic items as spam and cooking oil for national holidays. Another is Korean men’s mandatory military service, a defining experience forcing youngsters to get used to going without many everyday basics.

nivea-deodorant-korea-데오드란트With a nod to all the commentators on my earlier big post on deodorant use and its marketing in Korea (source, right)…

On the other hand, given women’s physiological advantages and their dominance of the “smelly industries” worldwide, the very word “perfume” has feminine overtones to many Western male ears. It is reasonable to assume that “deodorant” has similar connotations for most Korean men. Yet looking at the popularity of kkotminam or “flower men” in Korea, challenging traditional notions of masculinity and spending more time and money on their appearance, deodorant manufacturers should be keen to tap into a whole new market.

Unfortunately the timing is bad: while “look at this strange side of the recession!”-type stories are in vogue at the moment, with everything from skirt lengths, alcohol and tobacco consumption, number of breast enlargement surgeries, lipstick sales, and even vasectomies variously being described as going up or down with the economy, experience from the financial crisis of 1997-98 suggests that sales of men’s cosmetics are about to drop. After four years of 10-20% growth from 1992, sales dropped 28.6% the next year, and ad spending by 37%.

Those last figures come from p. 125 of “The Trend of Creating Atypical Male Images in Heterosexist Korean Society” by Lim In-Sook, Korea Journal, Vol. 4 No. 4 Winter 2008,  pp. 115-146, available online here. They put paid to any side-notions I had that flower men ideals for men partially came from the need to stand out in the suddenly very competitive job market after the Asian Financial Crisis (which just goes to show that women’s changing tastes probably had more to do with it!), but given their relative popularity now then that may not be what happens to sales of men’s cosmetics during this latest recession though.

When (if) things pick up though, forget about those Korean deodorant advertisements for women that emphasize mother figures and friendships. Expect those for men to associate the right deodorant with sexual success.

Another recent study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science has demonstrated that how a deodorant makes a man feel is much more important than any changes to his scent. Lest that sound like exaggeration, researchers found that women looking at men through one-way mirrors rated those wearing certain deodorants more attractive than others, due simply to the confident swagger the act of wearing the deodorant had given them!

An annoying, tantalizing way to end an article? That must mean I’m learning the tools of the trade then! For that above study see here, and I discuss it in more detail in that earlier post of mine.

9 thoughts on “Love Stinks: Why More Korean Women Wear Deodorant Than Men

  1. It is interesting to note that in the animal world it is the male that is usually the most adorned to attract females. Completely opposite amongst the world of us humanoids.

    Great article.



    1. Thanks. It is interesting, but I suspect it’s a little more complicated than that. Still, while the use of cosmetics amongst both men and women depends hugely on the time and culture, given their ability to disguise and/or exaggerate the physiological effects (on the skin especially) of a woman’s menstrual cycle (like I explain in that earlier post) and the benefits that that provides for sexual selection and so on in turn, then I suspect that women will always have been the primary users of cosmetics. But body adornment per se? I’m not so sure.


  2. Sonagi– I just took a longer look at that article you sent me, and while the subject is indeed interesting…man, do I like that style of writing, both intellectual and funny and the same time, and so difficult to pull off. Seriously, I was so impressed, I’m really going to try hard to emulate that in the future.


  3. I don’t believe it at all. Korean women, both old and young, smell like kimchee and garlic. It’s noticeable everywhere in Korea and here in the US. Koreans need to tone it down and consider the surrounding people. My last flight on Korean Air was a nightmare. Flight attendants breath smelled as well as 90% of the passengers. Fermented cabbage, raw garlic, and onions combined is awful!


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