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Fields & Applications Mass Spectrometry, Environmental

Scent to Try Us

If you’ve ever found your face jammed in a fellow commuter’s armpit, you may have noticed that some fabrics seem to make people smellier than others.

So why do some fabrics leave you reaching for the deodorant? Human body odor consists of many known volatiles that can adhere to the textile against the skin; the fibers of different fabrics have been shown to adsorb and release these volatiles differently. So by more fully understanding these interactions, garment manufacturers could develop products to counteract unpleasant odors. At least that’s what researcher Raechel Laing of the Centre for Materials Science and Technology, University of Otago, has in mind.

Laing and her co-authors from the Department of Food Science used proton transfer reaction-mass spectrometry (PTR-MS) in multiple ion detection modes to identify the volatiles present. Why not simply use our own offended sense of smell to do the ‘dirty’ work? “Human noses tend to vary a lot in their sensitivity,” explains Laing, “and extensive training is required. There are also practical issues in securing and managing specimens...”

They observed three main patterns, which may confirm long-held suspicions (and act as a guide to those who suffer from misbehaving sweat glands): low relative adsorption and low overall release of the volatiles for cotton, high relative adsorption and continuous release of the volatiles for polyester, and high relative adsorption but low overall release for wool.

In the future, the team plans to investigate the bacterial breakdown and adsorption of other fiber types, such as polyamide, viscose and silk. In the meantime, it might be an idea to ditch that polyester shirt come summer.

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  1. TM Richter et al, “Textile binding and release of body odor compounds measured by proton transfer reaction – mass spectrometry”, Text Res J (2017).
About the Author
Joanna Cummings

A former library manager and storyteller, I have wanted to write for magazines since I was six years old, when I used to make my own out of foolscap paper and sellotape and distribute them to my family. Since getting my MSc in Publishing, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and content creator for both digital and print, writing on subjects such as fashion, food, tourism, photography – and the history of Roman toilets. Now I can be found working on The Analytical Scientist, finding the ‘human angle’ to cutting-edge science stories.

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