While this photo was taken three years ago, the collection of shoes it represents (shoes I regularly garden in) has not changed appreciably. The pair of boots in the background have been replaced by a prized pair of Redwing work shoes. The cross trainers in the foreground have gone to the great landfill in the sky and another pair of the same brand and similar color sit in that place. I try not to use them as gardening shoes any more, so they really shouldn’t be in the shot.
Cross trainers are not gardening shoes, not really. They aren’t really engineered for mud. Also, for some reason, the engineers at New Balance have not addressed the stresses placed on a shoe when the wearer thereof decides on a whim to dig out that mulberry tree that she has been weeding around for a couple of years and starts hacking away at its rootball with her favorite shovel.
I have been moved to make this post, which promises to be particularly wordy, by a poignant comment the other day on Facebook. It was posted by a sweet young “thang” who was explaining why she chose to wear flip flops even though she didn’t find them particularly elegant or comfortable. It had to do with her odiferous pedal appendages.
As I mused on the various and sundry causes of that particularly effulgent and offensive effusion that arises from smelly feet when they have been confined in an anaerobic environment for a while, I was taken back — Waaaaaay back — to the first big bacteriology lab course I took in college.
Let us set the stage, oh My Best Beloved (and I steal this phrase with utmost love and respect from Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” which if you haven’t ever read or had read to you, then the paltry and sad childhood that you must have experienced elicits the utmost pity from me).
The year is before 1975. All phones had cords. They had recently figured out how to beam radio waves to telecommunications satellites and thereby made it possible to converse with people on the other side of the continent or ocean from you. The slight fly in that ointment was the time delay caused by the slower than lightspeed transmission. It made for stilted and interruption filled conversations. Computers were not in common use, although the engineers had a computer lab and the first integrating recorders were appearing from Hewlett Packard.
My bacteriology professor was an amazing woman called Carol Feist. She was engaged in research on cell wall structure. The results of that research led to some very interesting conclusions regarding food ingredients that I will elaborate on tomorrow.
Dr. Feist felt that the best way to learn proper lab technique was to send her students on a collecting expedition and then have them culture, separate out and identify the bugs captured. This first lab actually took up the first six weeks of lab, and involved learning aseptic techniques, staining, and making up specific agar cultures to provide nutrients to the bacteria we were trying to grow.
Our assignment was to take damp cotton swabs and rub them on selected places on our bodies and then plate them onto petri dishes that were provided at the first class meeting, where we also received a short demonstration on how to plate our samples. In addition to petri dishes, there were test tubes with agar in the bottom that we could just plunge the sample swab into. We were instructed to pick at least three spots on our body to swab, with particular attention to be paid to spots where we might expect to be smelly.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we grew out our samples, made pure cultures of selected colonies from our collection of bacteria, and identified the bugs as best we could using all sorts of staining tests and other techniques I honestly don’t remember. It was fascinating, and I loved it. I remember that much.
We learned all about gram negative bacteria, and the nasty sorts of things they tended to do to us. We learned that our skins are a complete ecosystem, populated by microscopic beasties that live on our bodies’ output of sweat and dead skin cells. These bacterial diets are augmented by the dirt and stuff that we encounter falling from the air, by the lotions and other cleanliness-related residues we purposely put on ourselves, and by their habits of eating each other. Some of the predatory bacteria — like acidophilus — are particularly benign to us. Some of their prey — the staphylococci and the streptococci — are very detrimental to us, causing infections and diseases when our immune systems are weak or the skin is broken.
Another thing we learned during the course of preparing our pure cultures, was that certain of these bacteria had the most disgusting odors we had ever encountered. In actuality, Dr. Feiest informed us, those characteristic foul odors were how a bacteriologist could identify certain very nasty bugs of the staphylococcus variety. She also taught us about the sort of sticky mass that surrounded these bacteria’s cell wall, that “glued” them to the surface they were occupying. This makes them very difficult to wash off and also provides a substrate for the chemicals that are their waste products to cling to. It is those waste products from the staph bug that smell so very evil and nasty. When you were growing them out on agar, if you opened the petri dish to collect a few cells from the colony growing within, the smell that came from the petri dish could literally knock you over, it was so thick and strong — reminiscent of locker rooms furnished with aging socks and jockstraps.
After all the growing and plating and identification was complete, there was one final question we were asked to answer. “What kind of soap do you use and how often do you use it?”
A table was compiled on the black board in front of the class. Each set of samples from each student was enumerated and listed. We had found several varieties of acidophilus bacteria in addition to lots of strept0cocci and staphylococci. Interestingly enough, it seemed like the guys were more likely to carry around lots of the latter, whereas the gals tended towards acidophilus and other benigns. One lucky person had scored an acetobacter, and one person earned Dr. Feist’s disdain because he had E. coli on his hands. ”You need to start washing your hands after you go to the toilet,” she told him acidly.
The real kicker was the correlation between what sort of bacteria you had on your body and what kind of soap you used, and how often you used it. People who washed with soap only once in a while tended to have more benign bacteria on them. The people who used an antibacterial soap and washed frequently with it were populated with just as many bacteria per square inch of their skin, but the preponderance of their skin ecosystem consisted of the staph and strep bacteria.
Dr. Feist summed up these results in a fiery lecture that brought all these facts together into a damnation of corporations and advertising. The point was that all the people of soap want to do is sell you soap. They don’t care whether they lie or not, and they are particularly willing to use half-truths if it will sell more of their product.
We have been taught to hate and fear the way we smell as humans. This fear that we might have a bit of disagreeable odor about us at the end of a hard day makes us susceptible to all sorts of blandishments. We can buy perfumes to cover it up, chew gum and pop breath mints. And we can buy soap that will disinfect us so that possibly we won’t smell. “Buy antibacterial soap” we are urged. “Germs cause body odor and our soap kills germs,” we are told, with graphs accompanying the claim of antibacterial activity. Look, after using the soap product, there are less bacteria per square inch!
None of these claims are untrue. The soap does kill germs, but it doesn’t say which kind. The bacteria the soap is most effective at killing are the predatory, benign ones; the ones that eat the strep and staph bacteria (and also candida, by the way); the ones we use to make yogurt. The ones it does NOT kill are the ones that cause strep throat and staph infections and incidentally produce waste products that smell disgusting and horrible. By using the antibacterial soap, you are skewing the ecosystem on your skin towards these nasty bugs.
The more you use the antibacterial soap, the worse you smell, and the more you think you need it. ”It sells a lot of soap,” was the lecture’s conclusion.
So, if you feel like you are particularly afflicted with foot odor, or body odor, then ask yourself what kind of soap are you using? And what have you done to the ecosystem on your body?
By the way, at the time of this class I used Ivory soap, and I used it sparingly. I went down to the pool every morning and swam a mile (no wonder I was so slim), and I reasoned that what I really needed was to get the chlorine off my skin and not dry it out more with liberal soap usage. In my swabs I did not find a single staphylococcus or streptococcus bacteria. I was populated almost exclusively by acidophilus, which made the whole lab very simple for me as I had very few specimins to identify. I spent the majority of the class helping other people plate and identify the numerous inhabitants they had on their bodies.
And yes, those were the ones who had really smelly feet.
(For those of you who are curious, at the present time I use hand made soap made from organic ingredients by a soap maker and herbalist couple in the area. My very favorite is Cleopatra, but the Oatmeal/Almond and the Eucalyptus/Peppermint are very nice too. Their company is called Ozark Herbals and I can testify that their products are quite wonderful and their ethics are of the highest.)