If you feel self-conscious about your body odor, all you have to do is stroll down the personal hygiene aisle of your local drugstore to find dozens of products engineered to make you smell good. People living through most of history didn’t have that luxury, so they had to get creative. Before deodorant, humans experimented with many natural ingredients, from ostrich eggs to mysterious whale gunk, in their quest to stink less.
1. Ostrich eggs
The ancient Egyptians were innovators when it came to smelling good. In addition to making perfumes and breath mints, they were among the first peoples to use deodorant. Their deodorant recipes were similar to their perfumes, but instead of creating luxurious scents, the main purpose of deodorant was to mask the smell of sweat. One formula called for ostrich egg, nuts, tamarisk, and tortoise shell ground into a paste with fat. Wearers applied the odorless mixture to their bodies to combat B.O.
2. Porridge balls
Prior to the advent of roll-on deodorant, people found other ways to apply fragrances directly to their most active sweat glands. In ancient Egypt, they flavored porridge with incense and rolled it into balls to stick beneath their armpits.
Before it became a trendy chocolate substitute, carob was used as deodorant by ancient Egyptians. Carob trees are native to the Mediterranean region, and affluent Egyptians would crush the pods and rub them over their bodies to counteract their natural funk.
4. Scented olive oil
Olives were such a big part of life in ancient Greece and Rome that they were used as the base for perfumes. Perfume makers would steep aromatics—such as leaves, roots, and flowers—in oil pressed from olives. Once the oil was infused with the scents, they would strain it and apply it to the skin.
5. Perfume baths
Another way ancient Greeks dealt with body odor was by constantly bathing. Some people in high society took scented baths before applying perfume beneath their armpits (a practice they copied from the Egyptians). In that era, it wasn’t unusual to take baths once a day—a practice that faded out in the Middle Ages when getting nude to bathe was considered impure.
Many of the most common perfume ingredients throughout history came from messy places. Ambergris, which has been used by perfumers for centuries, is a waxy substance that forms when indigestible matter clumps together in the intestines of sperm whales (how it gets out of whales and into the ocean is still debated). In its fresh state, it smells like cow dung, but when the mass is left to age and harden, it develops a sweet, musky aroma. Ambergris has largely been replaced with synthetic ingredients, but it’s still used to make some high-end perfumes.
Musk—a word still associated with fragrances today—first caught perfumers' attention in the Medieval era. It comes from a small sac that hangs in front of a male musk deer’s genitals, and it smells like urine when the deer secretes it. To achieve the desired aroma—sweet, earthy, and sensual—the gland must be harvested and left to dry. The substance was such a popular perfume ingredient for centuries that musk deer were placed on the endangered species list in the '70s. Today, perfumes with a “musky” scent use synthetic ingredients.
8. Carbolic acid
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cosmetics brands realized they could make money by telling women they stink. Human body odor was actually less pungent for most of history than it is now (according to a recent study, using antiperspirants consistently could make sweat smell worse), but insecure consumers were convinced it was a problem. The deodorant used 100 years ago was different from the product most people are familiar with today. It contained acid that could damage skin and clothing; one home recipe from 1903 included carbolic acid, which burns on contact with the skin.