The Sharp End: Underarm assignment

Unilever's deodorant researchers put Rhymer Rigby's armpit-sniffing skills to use.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Never let it be said that the Sharp End doesn't do its homework. Arranging to spend the day sniffing armpits with Unilever's Deodorant Discovery Team, I was told not to wear any deodorant for the preceding three days. This would make my odoriferous experience all the more realistic. But although you can survive without deodorant comfortably for 24 hours, three days, I discovered, is a long and smelly stretch.

Things got so bad that for my train journey up to historic Port Sunlight on the Wirral, I wore clothes that would hermetically seal me. Thus vacuum-packed, I made my way to the Unilever research facility. The experience set me thinking about deodorant more than I usually would. Noticeable only when absent, it is truly a hallmark of civilisation. It's what separates us from the beasts - or at least those who sleep on park benches.

I pitched up bright and ready to go, if not exactly fresh. I was introduced to the team and headed into the hot-room, where volunteers are gently simmered for 40 minutes at 40C with cotton pads under their arms. These are weighed at the end to determine the amount of sweat released. It was a surprisingly nice way to spend two-thirds of an hour. I read my book and chatted to a local woman who was a regular hot-room panellist.

My next challenge was a little tougher than passive sweating. For, as anyone who has done a Best Man's speech knows, it's not just heat that makes one sweat. I sat down and was made to field rapid-fire questions, tackle memory games and generally have the pressure piled on. I have to hand it to the team: they accurately replicated the wedding-breakfast scenario where light blue shirts go horribly dark under the arms.

After a break, I swapped sides to become researcher rather than guinea pig. I was given a brief taste (as it were) of an odour assessor's job. I was asked to identify a battery of smells to ascertain whether my nose passed muster. There's an interesting gender divide here. Women generally have the better noses - which makes you wonder why all sommeliers are men. Some people are unable to smell, while others are super-smellers. And as you'd expect, teenage boys are terrible at odour perception.

I performed broadly to my sexual stereotype: I recognised the smells but struggled to label them. So, although I identified the first odour as citrus, I was hazy as to which fruit. (It was orange). I also identified anise as mild liquorice, but as the two are regarded as similar, I won't be too hard on my nose for this.

We moved on to odour assessment. Here, the difficulty is bringing scientific rigour to a subjective experience. To this end, there's a scoring scale and tests involve large numbers of panellists. The odour assessors, of course, have highly trained noses and know what they're sniffing for. I did not, but I was going to have to get in there and sniff some pits, all the same.

Now, the theory was all very interesting, but the reality was different. Faced with six hairy blokes stripped to the waist whose armpits you are going to have to sniff, you feel uncomfortable. Beholding a platoon of 40-something scousers, my daydreams of bikini-clad models with A-plus pits were shattered. But it wasn't so bad. Outsiders might snigger, but, after a day or two, assessing an armpit becomes as ordinary as opening a spreadsheet. You keep your nose a few centimetres away and sniff. Then you mark your panellist on a scale of one to five. My first two were pretty odour-free; number 3 was on the turn and 4 was funky. I scored my own pits: Three out of five on the left, four on the right.

Next, I compared my scores with those of a professional. To my surprise, there was a good correlation in both level of smell and left/right difference. Perhaps I'd marked my own whiff a bit harshly, and I was way out on number 3. But not bad at all. For the first time in my Sharp End history, I'd shown promise. With the right training, I was told, I had a nose that might go places.

High on this unfamiliar praise - and three days of mediaeval-standard ablution - I stepped into the shower with a profound sense of relief. Having sluiced my malodorous armpits, I anointed them with the finest scents in my Unilever goody bag - and rejoined the blessed world of the clean, where a man can walk freely without pinning his arms to his sides. My memory dredged up the refrain from an American Sure TV ad of the '80s - 'Confident! Confident! Dry and Secure! Raise Your Hand, Raise your hand, if you're Sure!' God's truth, every word of it.

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