Thinking on your feet

When one’s feet smell unpleasant, it’s polite to wonder why. But six scientists at the Shiseido Research Centre in Yokohama, Japan, pursued this interest more thoroughly than mere politeness alone would dictate.

The pioneering research study, Elucidation of Chemical Compounds Responsible for Foot Malodour, by F Kanda, E Yagi, M Fukuda, K Nakajima, T Ohta and O Nakata, appeared in 1990 in the British Journal of Dermatology.

The investigation had three phases. In Phase 1, they assembled a panel of 10 non-professional sniffers. The scientists mixed eight different potions, each containing chemicals of which they were suspicious – chemicals known to often lurk in other fragrant body parts: armpits, vaginas and scalps. After the sniffers sniffed each potion, the scientists asked them if the smell was familiar and, if it was, to say whether it resembled foot odour, armpit odour or something else. The sniffers all agreed that the potions smelled more or less like foot or armpit, but disagreed as to which, and how closely.

So begins this week’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.