Newborns shit Rorschach tests. And although they’re rambunctious in style and demonic in appearance, these early bowel movements rarely smell. Add formula or solid food, and that’s when the stench starts to make the septum twang. There’s no escape. But, the blow dealt by a particularly pungent deposit can be softened by distraction. Just ask the professionals who deal with it every day, such as nurses.
Before that, a science lesson. Humans find the odors of rotten food, wounds, excrement, and other foul things detestable for a simple evolutionary reason: they waft from sources of illness and infection. This is well-known. Less so is what goes on in the nose and the brain when people get a whiff of a decaying corpse or a full diaper.
The human body has a failsafe for those times when it’s exposed to bad smells for an extended amount of time. To keep the nervous systems from constantly sending signals to the limbic system and exhausting itself, the sense of smell goes temporarily blind and picks up on the molecules of more pleasant aromas. This is why you think your place smells fine, and your neighbor thinks all you do is fart and make curry.
Now, none of this is very helpful when you’re staring down the barrel of a loaded diaper. So how do you actually protect your nose? For that, we sought advice from those who encounter foul odors regularly: nurses and sanitation officers.
Laura, 36, an ER nurse in New York is often face-to-face with not-so-fresh patients but says ignoring and avoiding odors is essential because to avoid making patients feel uncomfortable. Her go-to tactic? Sucking on menthol lozenges or cough drops. The strong flavors entertain the senses.
Charles, 27, a sanitation worker in the Seattle area, recommends the same tactic but says nothing beats a generous swipe of Vick’s Vapor Rub. Peter, 42, who lives in Ohio and works in waste management, said that a few dabs of a strong essential oil like peppermint or cinnamon just above the lip works.
Christy, 34, an assisted living facility nurse in the Cleveland area, says a surgical mask dabbed on the inside with toothpaste does a fine job eliminating odors. And for the harshest olfactory offenders, she advises wearing two masks and lathering up the top one with menthol shaving cream. “It never fails,” she says.
Christy hopes for better scent-deflecting tech so patients are less sensitive about their odor. And it may be on the way: Last year, the fight against terrible smells gained an unlikely ally when Bill Gates entered the battle. The world’s richest man worked with fragrance company Firmenich to create a perfume to counter the smell of a foul toilet. Far more than mere Poo-Pourri, the blend of odors is specifically designed to bind with stink molecules to mask the complex bouquet of bacterial waste. The Gates Foundation’s goal is to encourage the use of pit latrines in the developing world, which are relatively hygienic but go unused because, frankly, they smell terrible.
Unfortunately, the deployment of this powerful weapon is still a few years away, and will probably take even longer to reach the parenting space. Until then, keep your head down, apply your odor-masking method of choice, and soldier on. One day, when your kid’s far from diapers, you might even miss the smell.