If a skunk sprays me, do I have to bathe in tomato juice?

This guy's not showing off his gymnastic ability -- he's about to show you his other talent. See more pictures of mammals.
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When people get scared, they tend to freeze in place, scream or run away -- none of which are particularly helpful for preventing a repeat attack. Skunks are a bit more productive: They simply turn around, lift their tails and unleash a wicked scent bomb on a potential threat. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from this weasel-like creature, because apparently this offensive skunk smell works wonders.

 

 

Animals in general have acquired an arsenal of ways to protect themselves. Porcupines have prickly quills, poison dart frogs emit a deadly toxin and turtles wear a built-in shell of armor. However, out of the vast collection of defensive tactics, it's the skunk that really has it nailed. Just one brief encounter with this black-and-white furball can have you begging for mercy … and bathing for days.

 

The two walnut-size glands near the animal's rectum are responsible for producing the smelly concoction, which can hold enough juice for five to six sprays. Skunks are capable of emitting the off-putting substance with amazing accuracy in a fanlike pattern, for a distance of up to 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters) [source: Project Wildlife].

 

Even the bravest of animals avoid skunks at all costs. Their predators are limited to birds, like the great horned owl, which spend the majority of their time in the air, ignorant of the animal's nauseating odor.

 

Skunks have much more to offer than just their perfume de nausea. These omnivores feast on a variety of plant and animal life, including eggs, acorns, fruit and small rodents. Their appetite for small mammals helps to keep the rodent population from getting out of hand. Skunks also use their strong front feet and long nails to dig for insects, which account for up to 70 percent of their diet [source: Wilke]. Their status as opportunistic scavengers also helps to keep roadways clean.

 

And as people encroach further into skunk territory, it's not uncommon to spot them socializing with the neighborhood cats. They make their homes in abandoned burrows or hollow logs, or in urban areas beneath buildings, woodpiles, basements and crawl spaces.

 

If a skunk is hanging out in your basement, you probably will have nothing to worry about as far as odors go. While you don't want to get too close since they can be carriers of the rabies virus, you needn't fear that they will just go around dropping stink bombs willy-nilly. Skunks rarely attack unless provoked and tend to give ample warning before their tails rise. But if you do happen to spot one doing its prespray dance, it's helpful to know how to smell like a normal person again.

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The Stinking Truth of Skunk Spray and Tomato Juice

At least the flower smells good.
At least the flower smells good.
Altrendo Nature/Getty Images

Some of the suggestions you'll find when searching for ways to rid yourself of the odiferous skunk spray aren't terribly appealing. Then again, if you've ever gotten a whiff of a skunk's primary weapon (reminiscent of rotten eggs to the nth degree), you may consider any home remedy thrown your way.

Many of the common recommendations, like bathing in a tub full of tomato juice, do little more than mask the unpleasant smell. The most effective antidotes are those that neutralize the spray's main ingredients by changing them into different, nonsmelly compounds.

The exact composition of skunk spray depends on the species, but the main offender common to all skunks is a group of organic compounds called thiols. These compounds are characterized by their attached sulfur and hydrogen atom and are notorious for a strong smell. Two highly volatile thiols, (E)-2 butene-1-thiol and 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, are the main components responsible for the characteristic odor of skunk spray [source: Wood].

The reason that people think skunk spray and tomato juice cancel each other out is due to something known as olfactory fatigue, which is just another way of saying that your nose gets accustomed to a scent after a period of time. When your nose stops detecting the skunk spray, the strong smell of tomato juice tricks you into thinking it must have taken care of the problem. However, if another person were to enter the room, he or she wouldn't be so easily fooled.

The only real way to get rid of the odor is to neutralize the thiols by changing them into compounds that your nose won't recognize as being offensive. The way to do this is by adding oxygen in a process known as oxidation. When oxygen is added to the sulfur/hydrogen compound, odorless sulfonic acid is formed [source: Wood].

This may sound like a complicated process that only Bill Nye could successfully pull off, but it's actually relatively simple. Many oxidizing agents, like hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, are readily available and safe enough to be used on people and pets. For things like clothing and furniture, regular bleach will get the job done.

So if curious Fido happens to frighten Pepe Le Pew, all you need to do is mix 1 quart (.95 liters) of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, a quarter cup (59 milliliters) of baking soda and one teaspoon (5 milliliters) of liquid detergent and lather him up [source: ­Dean]. After five minutes, rinse off your pup and he should be as good as new. Be warned: This potion may do a little more than take away the smell as it can also slightly change hair color. Also, you can't store it in a closed container for the next time Pepe comes around because the mixture releases oxygen, which could break the container [source: Wood].

There are also a variety of commercial products available to eliminate skunk odors, but not all of them are safe for living things, so be sure to do your homework. Remember, it's better to be smelly than sorry.

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Sources

  • Dean, Cornelia. "For That Fresh-Again Smell." New York Times. Sept. 26, 2006 (Sept. 30, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/26/science/26skbox.html
  • "Living With Skunks." Project Wildlife. 2004. (Sept. 24, 2008)http://www.projectwildlife.org/living-skunks.htm
  • Salmon, T.P., D.A. Whisson, and R.E. Marsh. "Skunks." University of California: Agriculture and Natural Resources. June 2004. (Sept. 24, 2008)http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74118.html
  • Wilke, C. "Memphitis memphitis" Animal Diversity Web. 2001. (Sept. 30, 2008) http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Mephitis_mephitis.html
  • Wood, William. "Skunk Defensive Secretion." Humboldt State University. Sept. 1, 2004. (Sept. 24, 2008)http://www.humboldt.edu/~wfw2/skunkspray.shtml
  • Wood, William F. "The History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research." The Chemical Educator. Vol. 4, no. 2. April 2, 1999. (Sept. 24, 2008)http://chemeducator.org/sbibs/s0004002/spapers/420044ww.pdf