Photo by Jisu Han on Unsplash

Sex S(m)ells: Making perfume from armpits and used underwear!

Beant Kaur Dhillon
Aug 7, 2018 · 4 min read

Ever distilled a perfumed from your dirty socks or perhaps your used underwear or even better, your armpits? Distilling your pheromones, anyone? Curious how that might be? …then read on :)!

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me if I wanted to go to a workshop called Playhouse: Sex s(m)ells. I have left my job and am exploring new life experiences, so the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’. This was my first time joining a perfume making workshop, and I was intrigued. Once we signed up, we received an email on how to prepare for the workshop. Here is an excerpt:

Please bring a used pair of underwear.

Please bring one dirty sock.

Please don’t take a shower, and don’t wear deodorant to class.

The excitement mounts!

The workshop took place at Mediamatic, Amsterdam, in a room that looked like a cross between a kitchen and a chemistry lab. We sat around a table and first started with smelling different scents and trying to describe how we felt about them or what we thought they were. The first fragrance was a perfume called ‘Rocco’ that the facilitating team had created for a band — based on the sweat of the band guitarist. That fragrant and yet sweaty, interesting perfume set the tone for the evening.

We then smelled scents ranging from notes of Jasmine and Vanilla till smells of old people, semen, and dead bodies. Also, since we didn’t know what these scents were in advance (except for Cumin, of course, any north Indian should be able to spot that one ;)), I would mostly find a part of the smell that I liked, and a part that was not-that-nice.It was so cool to find out that if we smell anything out of context, we may have a more neutral experience than if we know what it is. The facilitators mentioned that knowing what a scent or context is affects our perception of the scent a lot. Also, I learnt that many ‘stinky’ fragrances form a part of mainstream perfumes. They help the floral or other fragrances ‘blossom’ or make the fragrance more ‘complex’. Just like adding a tiny bit of sugar to enhance the flavor of a savory dish. Isn’t that wonderful?

List of natural and artificial scents we smelled during the first part of the workshop. The last one Civet, is a mammal, and these days the smell is created artificially as it is unethical to kill civets (thank God!)

Then we took a short break to rest our nostrils and brains before moving to Part 2. The second part formed the heart of the workshop — distilling perfumes from our bodies using three different methods. Are you ready?

Perfume#1: Le Armpit Spécial

To make this perfume, we first placed pieces of gauze in our armpits, so as to harvest the armpit smell. Later, we gave the armpit a good rub with the gauze to really get to the smell and put it in a small jar with some perfumer’s alcohol. The alcohol would absorb the..ahem…fragrance from the gauze. After repeating this with several gauze pads, the alcohol would get a strong scent and ‘Le Armpit Spécial’ is ready for you.

Perfume#2 Le Fragrance de dirty sox

The second type of distillation was much simpler. Imagine an old style espresso maker…now, instead of coffee, imagine stuffing the middle compartment with socks and let the ‘espresso’ brew. The steam will rise and pass through the socks chamber and absorb the smell of socks. Finally, it will reach the top chamber which will be cooled and the steam will turn into liquid which can be collected as the ‘perfume’.

During the workshop, we just cut pieces out of different people’s socks and used them for smell distillation. Such a communal sharing experience ;). However, after distillation, all we could smell in the ‘perfume’ was detergent, so ironically it smelled like ‘clean socks’ or ‘clean laundry’. We learnt that the reason for that is that the steam destroys the gentler (stinky) smell chemicals and the detergent fragrances are designed to be long lasting, so we could still smell them.

Perfume#3 Le parfum de Undies Forever

The final part of the story was learning to making underwear enfleurage. So, we cut out the most ‘fragrant’ part of the underwear, steep it in a mixture of coconut oil and beeswax so that the fat can absorb the scent and then scrape off this fat (repeat this several times for a stronger perfume) and then put the scraped fat in alcohol . Eventually the alcohol will get a layer of fat saturated with the fragrance and you can wear that as the perfume. One of facilitators called wearing your own smell a nice ‘post modern’ expression of the ‘self’…right on! :D.

Perfume Samples from the workshop: Dirty Sock Hydrosol (Left) and Rocco (Right)

The facilitators were generous enough to give us samples from the Rocco (Guitarist Sweat-ish Perfume) and the ‘Le Fragrance de dirty sox’ (photo above).

All in all, I came back pretty stinky, very inspired, and exhilarated at having explored a new facet of the world around me. Have you ever had a cool smell or sensory experience like this?

P.S. This amazing workshop was a part of series of events going on at Mediamatic, Amsterdam. Mediamatic and The Institute for Art and Olfaction are collaborating on innovative topics around olfaction, e.g., Inspired by Patrick Süsskind’ s novel, Perfume, a project is exploring making perfume from sweat of redheads. For more details, see here.

Beant Kaur Dhillon

Written by

UX Researcher | Writer | Artist

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