There are several contradicting thoughts that pass through your head when you're wearing chocolate-scented scrotal deodorant.
First, you're kind of surprised and a little annoyed when nobody notices. But then there's relief, because if you're honest with yourself, you'd really rather not be explaining to friends and co-workers why your balls smell like chocolate mousse.
My unique groin bouquet was courtesy of Comfy Boys, an "intimate deodorant for men." I may have used too much—the directions were vague, offering only that the lotion should be applied by hand "to the desired area." But how much? I opted for a healthy fistful, followed by several generous re-applications every few hours throughout the day. I left the house feeling acutely aware that my nuts had a certain odeur de Willy Wonka. But nobody I encountered said anything. The Starbucks barista. The gas station register guy. Several neighbors. My five-year-old's kindergarten teacher. They all just smiled at me and effortlessly avoided the topic of my balls.
It wasn't my first scrotal odor disappointment of the week. For the past week, I'd been sampling an array of testicular deodorants, antiperspirants, and powders, all promising to control or eliminate the foul stenches coming from my pants that have ostensibly kept me from reaching my full potential. Every morning, I'd coat my manhood with products like Fresh Balls, Dry Goods, DZ Nuts, Driball, ToppCock, and any of almost a dozen other products with punny names. I tried Bálla for Men, whose "Tingle Formula" includes eucalyptus oil and peppermint (which made my nutsack smelled like Vicks Vaporub), and Chassis Man Care, whose ingredients promised "Hydro-Shield technology," and Gentl Men, an intimate care lotion from the Netherlands with the sales pitch "For Men With Balls."
Despite the glut of grooming products designed to camouflage the toxic scrotal ecosystem that's apparently polluting your pants, it's a profitable time to be in the smelly balls business. Sales of Bálla for Men have jumped from 2,000 units when they debuted in 2010 to 50,000 last year. The makers of Man Powder have seen their sales spike "over 60%," according to a rep, since last summer. The marketing department at Fresh Balls claims that sales have increased by "200.26 percent" since this past January. In December, the company launched a subscription service, delivering Fresh Balls to customers every month, and they already have "over 10,000 active members and growing," a rep told me.
They're not just being marketed to athletes. The Comfy Boys Amazon page claims that ball sweat doesn't just happen during intense physical exercise, but can occur "when a man sits for long periods of time either at the office or in front of the TV." Brook A. Frank, the founder and owner of Fresh Balls, says that his ball stink-reducing formula was designed "for the everyday man wearing a suit." Brodie Patten, the creator and co-founder of the Bálla for Men, describes their target demographic as "an athlete, couch-potato or somewhere in between." These products exist on the premise that your balls are always on the cusp of smelling like rancid garbage. Business meetings, family dinners, a job interview, a first date; your gonads can't be trusted to not spontaneously release noxious gases and send strangers screaming for cover.
Are we finally waking up and smelling the scrotum roses? Are we realizing, after too many years of forcing our loved ones to suffer in silence, that our testicles are environmentally unfriendly pollutants that test the world's collective gag reflex? Is this truly (with apologies to Tom Brokaw) "The Greatest Generation," at least when it comes to taking responsibility for our offensive testes? Or are we just a bunch of suckers being conned into thinking our balls stink?
George Preti just laughs when we ask him about ball odor and excessive sweat. "That's ridiculous," he says. This is coming from a man who has been in the business of investigating things that make your body stink for over 40 years. His lab, at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, is filled with vials and samples of every sort of human secretion—if it comes off a person and smells horrible, he probably collects it. His specialty is sweat. In 1989, he helped identify 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid, the chemical responsible for underarm odor. His specialty is trimethylaminuria, a genetic disorder that causes people to smell like dead, rotting fish.
But ball sweat, that he finds ridiculous. Not that guys don't sweat around their testicles. They obviously do. During the humid summer months, when your scrotum is crammed into a confined space (i.e. your pants) and you're doing something active, there's going to be a little sweat. It's unavoidable, just like underarm sweat is unavoidable. The difference, Preti says, is that underarm sweat has a distinctive odor. Scrotal sweat does not. "As far as I know, nobody ever complains about scrotum odors at social distances," he says. "And if they do, take a shower. Soap and water does a lot of good."
Maybe you think Preti is full of shit. Of course stinky balls is a real thing. You've had it! Or your buddy has had it! You've smelled the horrifying stench of a sweaty sack. You're probably right. Balls sweat, and where there's sweat, there's sometimes odor. But if it happens enough that you're considering buying a grooming product to mask that odor, you're either been reading too many click-baity stories about sweaty balls, or you need to make a doctor's appointment tout de suite.
David Pariser, a dermatologist in Norfolk, Virginia, claims that localized sweating in your scrotal region during non extreme conditions—if, for instance, you're in a business meeting in a building with a comfortable temperature and your crotch suddenly and inexplicably feels like a wet sponge—"you should probably be evaluated to see if you have hyperhidrosis," a medical condition that causes excessive sweating.
If ball sweat serious enough to require its own grooming product solution isn't a real thing, why are men buying these products anyway? Brian Steixner, director of the Institute of Men's Health at Jersey Urology Group in Atlantic City, has a theory. Assuming that all of the customers of scrotal deodorant and antiperspirants legitimately have excessive scrotal sweat and odors—unlikely, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt—even then, the cures are a band-aid at best.
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"Mother Nature will find a way to beat all of these ball sprays and lotions," Steixner says. "The only thing they really offer is psychosomatic relief. They're not stopping ball sweat, but they will help a few guys get over their anxiety from thinking they have smelly balls."
This is what happened to Chad, a Federal Air Marshal. He spends approximately 180 hours in the air every month; traveling between 13 countries and making sure terrorists don't hijack our planes. As you can imagine, with that much cross-continental commuting, his balls get sweaty, but it isn't something that's ever occurred to him until we asked him to try several different ball deodorants during a three-day trip.
"This is the first time I've ever put anything on my balls," he told us, before hopping on a flight to the Netherlands while wearing a generous serving of Fresh Balls on his nuts. His email report from the air: "I'm not sweating, and I do have times when it gets pretty moist down there during flights. So maybe it's working?" But then, during the second day of his travels, he noticed that his balls had become especially sticky. "That doesn't usually happen," he admitted.
Even stranger was how deodorizing his balls had "changed my relationship with them," he wrote. "I was thinking about them in ways that never occurred to me before. After a long trip, if I got a little sweaty, I used to be like, 'Well, I should take a shower.' Now I'm like, 'Oh my god, I need more cream. More cream!'"
Our second test subject was Troy Haley, a former Marine with 24 years of military service. He did a tour in the first Gulf War and Somalia; in Chad, Africa—which he calls "probably the hottest place I have ever been"—and a year in the Iraq War, serving in both Taji and Baghdad. During those overseas tours, Haley says that his balls were "both sweaty and cold, depending on the season."
He sampled several scrotal deodorants—Fresh Balls, Comfy Boys, Bálla for Men, DZ Nuts—and wasn't especially pleased with any of them. "My balls feel wet, and I don't like it," Haley explained. "It's like a dog licked my nuts. I don't understand why I need any of this. It's like somebody made Summer's Eve for men."
Comparisons to Summer's Eve aren't unfair. During the 70s and 80s, genital hygiene products like Summer's Eve ("formulated for a woman's pH") and Massengill ("the better way to be free to enjoy being a woman") promised to help vaginas smell a little less like, well . . . vaginas. Women didn't think twice about buying douches and vaginal deodorant sprays, and for several decades business was good, until suddenly their customer base started to change their mind about their supposed stinky vaginas.
"My vagina doesn't need to be cleaned up," Eve Ensler declared in her 1996 play The Vagina Monologues. "It smells good already. Don't try to decorate. Don't believe him when he tells you it smells like rose petals when it's supposed to smell like pussy."
In 2010, Sarah Silverman went on the TBS talks show Conan to make this impassioned plea to women: "I promise you, you do not need vaginal deodorant. You need a doctor. If you use simple soap and water and you get out the shower and there's still a rancid-ish odor, don't spray perfume on it! That's crazy! That would be crazy!"
Not so long ago, the very idea that men would be naïve or foolish enough to buy into a Summer's Eve-esque marketing scam—bullied into believing that their balls should smell like anything but balls—was ludicrous; the stuff of satiric imagination. "I don't think that it's fair that women have these commercial marketed to them telling them that their bodies aren't good enough the way they are," Stephen Colbert told his Comedy Central audience in a bit from 2011. "This completely ignores men and our deeply troubling genitals. Why aren't we encouraged to buy products that make our groins acceptable in polite company?"
So he created one: Autumnal Afternoon Cucumber Ball Dip. "With rejuvenating alpha hydroxy, it'll take years off your scrotum." At the time, it seemed ridiculous and hilarious. Balls that smell like cucumbers? Like that would ever happen.
"Why do you smell like a bed and breakfast?" my wife asked.
This is not a question you want to hear from your wife during your wedding anniversary. The night had started out perfectly. We got a babysitter, went out to a fancy restaurant, and were sipping on expensive wine and holding hands under the table when I noticed her nose crinkling.
"What are you talking about?" I laughed. "I smell fine."
"Wait, no, it's more like a bingo parlor," she continued. "You smell like high stakes bingo at a retirement community."
This was not the reaction I'd been anticipating. When I'd slathered my testicles with a half dozen scrotal deodorants, antiperspirants, and powders, I thought I was doing something romantic. This wasn't for me, it was for her. I was giving my wife an anniversary gift she'd remember for the rest of her life. Some guys give their wives jewelry or clothes or fancy beach vacations. Me, I was giving her a scrotum that smelled like a peppermint candle baptized in green tea and dipped in chocolate.
The most troubling part of all this wasn't my wife's lack of interest in the new and improved odor profile of my gonads. The troubling part was how much serious contemplation I'd been devoting to my testicles lately. Prior to learning that scrotal deodorants were a real thing that you could actually purchase, my giggleberries' stench, whether appealing or appalling, had never crossed my mind. But after several weeks of testing these products, I thought about it constantly. Every time I talked to another human being, I'd study their expressions, trying to figure out if they were smelling my balls, and if so, what they thought. Was that a disgusted grimace, or the smile of someone pleasantly surprised by an eucalyptus-scented nutsack?
Juliann Sivulka, a professor of American Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan and author of Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, says I was another casualty of "consumer engineering." Put simply: I didn't have a problem. But then a company created a solution to the problem I didn't realize was a problem until they started charging me for the cure.
This isn't the first time the deodorant & antiperspirant industry—which today is worth around $18 billion—has used consumer engineering. Back in the early 20th century, men didn't use deodorant. Being sweaty and a little smelly was just part of being a man. Asking a man to mask his natural funk was akin to asking him to put on a dress.
But then Odorono, one of the first commercial deodorants, decided they needed to expand their business beyond women. Ads for female deodorants played on women's insecurities —"If you long for romance, don't let your dress offend with armhole odor"—but how to make men feel the same anxiety about their natural odors?
"When they started consumer engineering towards men, during the 30s and 40s, it was all about the fear of giving offense," Sivulka says. "There was a lot of economic insecurity during that time, a lot of uncertainty. Men who weren't normally worried about how they smelled were absolutely worried about losing their jobs. So advertisers found a way to connect the two. They created a new market by finding what men were scared of."
"Attention men: On the dance floor—or in business—don't think perspiration neglect on your part isn't noticed just as quickly," warned an ad in Life magazine in 1942. "Why risk offending your girl or your boss? Use Odorono Cream!"
Sivulka sees obvious similarities between the male deodorant marketing push of 30s and 40s and the testicular deodorant boom of today. "The conditions are pretty similar," she says. "People are insecure about the economy. Men are worried about losing their jobs. And products are being marketed to take advantage of those insecurities. In a lot of ways, the strategies haven't changed. The products are very different, but the message is the same. It's still very much about consumer engineering of our fears."
If you want to manipulate male fears in 2016, you begin and end with their genitals. That's probably always been the case, but never more so than in this Internet age, when you can fall down a rabbit hole of paranoia-inducing information. A New York Times story from 2015 investigated what people were actually searching for online, and what it revealed about gender neuroses. "It isn't news that men worry about their genitals," the writer observed, "but the degree of this worry is rather profound." As it turns out, men do more anxious Google searches about their junk—Is it normal? Does it look right, perform right, smell right, hang right?—than any other organ; as the Times pointed out, "more than about their lungs, liver, feet, ears, nose, throat and brain combined."
Dr. David Veale, a London-based psychiatrist who specializes in Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), investigated the seemingly endless ways that men feel insecure about their penises in his 2015 study "Am I Normal?" As he discovered, men will always find a reason to believe their genitals are inferior; the size, the shape, the color, the texture. Although he hasn't conducted any studies on men's feelings about scrotal odors—because, in his words, "There are no scrotal odors and it's complete nonsense"—he doesn't think it's too far-fetched to assume that some men, maybe many men, "worry about scrotal odor and seek medical help, when it is probably a psychological problem."
How do you sell a redundant product—one that does the job of soap for eight times the price—to a customer base with a crippling insecurity based on irrational fears? Well easy, you just tell them that using whatever it is that you're selling will get them laid.
An Internet commercial for Dry Goods featured a tongue-in-cheek dance song with less-than-subtle lyrics: "No girl's gonna want to dance/ If you're always sweating in your pants." The infomercial spoof "Cleans Your Balls"—for Axe's "Detailer," which is essentially a loofah for your balls—bordered on soft-core porn. Two attractive women in tight clothing cleaned sporting equipment and made relentless sexual innuendos. ("How can guys clean their balls so they're more enjoyable to play with?") In the ad's most unforgettable moment, busty model Louise Griffiths grabbed some newly buffed golf balls and slowly played with them, gently massaging the balls with her fingers for 13 weirdly sensuous seconds.
The message is couched in comedy, but it's pretty damn clear: Your balls are a disgrace. If they were cleaner, and smelled better, hot women would want to fondle them. How do you argue with that?
Well, for starters, you could talk to some actual woman. My wife was so unimpressed with the unfamiliar redolence wafting from my scrotum that she refused to go anywhere near that general idea. Mikki, the wife of the former Marine who volunteered to try several scrotal deodorants and powders for us, was concerned that her husband's testicles would confuse her olfactory expectations. "If I go down there, I expect it to smell like balls," she said. "I don't expect it to smell like flowers. Cause then you think to yourself, is it going to taste like flowers? And I'm not sure I want it to taste like flowers."
There's a fundamental truth in there. Balls are not supposed to smell like flowers, or taste like flowers. Anybody who tells you differently is probably lying, or they want your money.
Your balls should smell like balls. Women know this. They know it like they know that a vagina should smell like a vagina. It took them a long time to figure that out, but they finally got there. I'll follow their lead and try to be as smart about my supposedly "disgusting" genitals.