Why Chinese people don’t need deodorant


This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on June 7, 2015:

I am an American who has lived in China several years. I have noticed that Chinese do not sweat nearly as much as we Westerners do, even when the weather is quite hot and humid. Why is this?

Human beings have two types of sweat glands: Eccrine (which are distributed over the skin of the entire body, and found in densest concentration on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet) and apocrine, which do not help in cooling and are mainly in the armpits and perianal area (i.e, around your privates).

Turns out that East Asians — Chinese, Japanese, Koreans — have fewer of the latter. Relevant paragraph from Wikipedia from the article on body odor below, but the TL;DR is that there’s a gene called ABCC11 that is non-functional in 80 to 95 percent of East Asians. That allele determines both apocrine sweat gland size and activity, concentration of protein in apocrine sweat, and, oddly, wet-type vs. dry-type earwax. East Asians are predisposed to dry-type earwax.

I was unable to turn up evidence that East Asians perspire less through eccrine glands, though. On a hot and humid day, put a person of European descent next to an East Asian, neither using antiperspirant, and I think you’d see similar amounts of sweat on forearms and foreheads, but it’s unlikely you’d see the East Asian sweat through the armpits of his or her shirt where it’s quite probable that the European would.

The lack of a functional ABCC11 gene seems to account for both observations — less sweat, and less body odor.

Also see this article in the New York Times, which discusses why foreign deodorant brands have had so little luck in China:

Scientists in recent years have shown that many East Asians, a group that includes China’s ethnic Han majority, have a gene that lowers the likelihood of a strong “human axillary odor” — scientist-speak for body stink.

That lowers the likelihood that they will use deodorant to begin with, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Bristol and Brunel University in Britain, after a survey of nearly 6,500 women of various backgrounds.

Kuora is a weekly column. Photo via VCG