If you have a son over age 10, you may be familiar with a fragrance I refer to as "Eau de Boy."
Eau de Boy comes in two unforgettable scents: Locker Room and Axe.
If you live with the Locker Room variety, then you have one of those boys who won't shower and whose socks and T-shirts must be decontaminated by a HazMat team before going in the laundry.
But if it's the smell of Axe deodorant you're used to, then you've got a kid who creates giant vapor clouds every time he sprays himself with the stuff, causing you to run around opening windows, hoping it dissipates before the entire family passes out.
Susan Wilson, a mother of two boys from Scottsdale, Ariz., had to ban Axe body wash in her house. "The 13-year-old was pretty responsible, but the 10-year-old was out of control!" she said. "They couldn't rinse the wash cloths out well enough, and when I washed them, we all wore Axe!"
A Minnesota state representative, Karen Clark, even proposed phasing out fragrances from schools to protect kids with asthma from their overly perfumed classmates. Clark later scaled the idea down to an awareness campaign that was approved by the City of Minneapolis School Board.
Scent of an overzealous boy
Even the makers of Axe are embarking on an education campaign. "We believe most everything is best in moderation, application of grooming products included," said Jay Mathew, U.S. marketing director for Axe deodorants. "One of our newest ad campaigns for Axe focuses on the best application of our deodorant body sprays. The ads focus on the tagline 'Double Pits to Chesty' and refer to the places where guys should apply the deodorant spray."
That is definitely preferable to what some guys do, the tagline for which seems to be "Double Pits to the World."
Matthew also says the target audience is young men 18-24 — even though the mothers of every 15-year-old in America have memorized the smell of Axe (and its 10 types of body spray, eight deodorant sticks and 14 shower gels).
"As with most brands that cater to college-aged guys, we do see that Axe is aspirational for a younger audience," he said.
Don't you feel better knowing that a 13-year-old doused with Axe is aspiring to be more mature?
But maybe you envy parents whose kids use too much deodorant, because yours won't use any. You'll be relieved to know this is not just oppositional behavior. Experts cite biological factors too.
Remind him to shower
"Some adolescents, often more commonly boys, can have excessive secretions in the form of sweat," said Dr. Charles J. Wibbelsman, a San Francisco pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence. "And some male teens really do not see a daily shower as an activity that they wish to take the time to do."
Reminding a teenager that "he is no longer a child and should use deodorant daily, as well as bathe daily, to be better accepted by his peers, usually makes the case," Wibbelsman said.
Charles J. Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, said puberty also changes the perception of body odors: "The female nose gets more sensitive, but the male nose gets worse."
In addition, we may not notice our own odors, because "constant exposure results in a decrease in sensitivity," Wysocki said.
"So what we have going on here is that the adolescent boy, who is in fact probably producing stronger odors than the adolescent girl, is in fact unaware of the odor he's producing," he said.
A study of fragrances used to mask body odor also showed gender differences. Men said that most of the fragrances tested effectively masked female body odor, and "a significant number" masked male body odor, Wysocki said.
But women said that just two of the 45 products tested masked female body odor, and none of the products masked male body odor.
No wonder moms complain about smelly sons!
Let his friends do the talking
Susan Bartell, a psychologist on Long Island in New York, said peer pressure can improve teen hygiene.
"They'll get teased for bad breath, for having greasy hair, and that will motivate them," she said.
She added that while "I hear it more from parents of boys, I also see parents battling with girls" over hygiene, especially girls hanging out with "the grunge kids" who "don't care how they look and smell."
But she said girls are more likely to "give each other feedback. They'll say, 'You smell disgusting!' And a girl may go home crying if someone says, 'What's that smell?' But boys may be oblivious. Their friends couldn't care less, they wouldn't even register it, and even if they did, they have thicker skin."
Young teenagers uninterested in the opposite sex may be the hardest to motivate. But "often all it takes is a little bit of having a girl flirting with him to get a boy to care," she said. "And it can happen overnight."