What Is Body Odor?
Body odor is an unpleasant smell that your body gives off.
You probably associate body odor with sweat. But your sweat is actually odorless by itself. Body odor occurs when sweat reacts with bacteria on your skin. Other factors, such as diet, medical conditions or lifestyle habits, can also affect body odor.
Body odor is normal, but severe body odor can be classified as a medical condition, known as bromhidrosis, osmidrosis or ozochrotia.
So how can you stop the pesky stench? First, understand the science behind sweat.
There are two types of sweat glands in your body: eccrine and apocrine glands.
Eccrine glands exist all over your body, and their purpose is to regulate body temperature when you’re hot or exercising. Eccrine glands secrete sweat that is almost entirely water, with tiny amounts of other chemicals like ammonia and salt.
Apocrine glands are located in specific areas – armpits, breasts, genitals, eyelids and ears. These glands become active during puberty. The sweat these glands release is a white, milky fluid containing proteins and lipids that bacteria feed on — releasing the unpleasant smell you know as body odor.
Why do humans produce body odor? Research points to an evolutionary connection. Apocrine glands become active during puberty and are largely concentrated near the sex organs, leading many scientists to believe that body odor has a role in mating.
Additionally, scientists theorize that humans can identify blood-related kin, siblings and parents by their body odor.
Types of Body Odor
You’re most likely to experience body odor in these areas:
- Belly button
- Behind the ears
- Pubic hair and other hair
Your body odor also changes throughout different life stages. Here are a few examples.
Body Odor During Puberty
Body odor becomes apparent during puberty. Between the ages of 8-13 in girls and 9-15 in boys, puberty hormones start to stimulate the apocrine sweat glands in the armpit and genital areas.
Apocrine glands secrete proteins and lipids that mix with the bacteria on your skin and produce a distinct B.O. smell. Experiencing body odor during puberty is completely normal.
Body Odor During Menopause
Along with hot flashes and night sweats, body odor is another bothersome symptom of menopause.
Many women notice a change in their body odor during menopause. A dip in estrogen can trigger night sweats and hot flashes, causing increased sweat and body odor.
Many women also experience anxiety or stress during menopause, which can also lead to unwanted odor.
What Causes Body Odor?
Unfortunately, many factors play a role in body odor production. Common causes of body odor include medical conditions, high stress levels, personal hygiene habits, diet and weight.
Let’s dive deeper into each of these body odor causes.
Certain medical conditions can cause you to produce more sweat and body odor than normal.
- Diabetes: Diabetes patients may experience a sudden change in smell or body odor, due to high levels of blood glucose. The liver produces chemicals (ketones) that make their way through blood, urine or breath and can alter body odor.
- Hyperthyroidism: Sweat and body odor can be a result of an overactive thyroid. When you have an overactive thyroid, your body produces an abundance of sweat, even if you aren’t physically exerting yourself. Your doctor will test your blood or urine to see if you have hyperthyroidism.
- Obesity: Those who are overweight or obese tend to sweat more. Fat insulates the body and raises its core temperature, causing increased sweat production and body odor. Obesity can also decrease airflow in sweaty areas, giving odor-causing bacteria the perfect climate to breed.
- Genetic Disorders: While rare, gene mutations can also affect body odor. Trimethylaminuria is a condition where your body can’t break down the chemical compound, trimethylamine. As a result, the compound builds up in your body and is released through sweat, urine and breath.
Read more: Medical Conditions That Cause Body Odor
High Stress Levels
Have you noticed that stress sweat smells worse than your typical post-workout stench? That’s because stress sweat originates from the apocrine glands, which produce proteins that bacteria love.
When you’re stressed or anxious, your heart rate and body temperature increase, causing your apocrine glands to secrete sweat. This sweat mixes with the bacteria on your skin and produces B.O.
Read more: Stress Sweat Smells Worse Than Normal Sweat: Here's Why
Personal Hygiene Habits
Practicing good personal hygiene habits can keep body odor at bay.
This may seem obvious, but showering daily is important — even if you think you don’t need it. Not showering every day can cause bacteria to build up on your skin, resulting in heightened body odor.
If body odor is a primary concern, be sure to use the right personal care products, whether it’s a standard deodorant or an antiperspirant-deodorant combination if you tend to sweat more.
Unlike deodorants, antiperspirants aren’t designed to prevent body odor; their primary purpose is to block sweat ducts from producing sweat. So if you need to manage sweat and odor, use an antiperspirant or antiperspirant-deodorant for best results.
Certain foods, along with caffeine and alcohol consumption, can intensify unpleasant body odor.
Your liver metabolizes most of the alcohol you drink and excretes it through your urine. But if you drink too much or too fast, your liver has difficulty processing the alcohol. Instead, your body releases the excess alcohol through your breath and pores, resulting in stinky body odor.
Caffeine can also affect body odor. Caffeine causes dry mouth, which can amplify bacteria and odor. Additionally, hot, caffeinated beverages can raise your body temperature and cause you to sweat more, leading to an increase in body odor.
Here are a few foods and diets that cause body odor:
Cruciferous Vegetables: Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts contain sulfur, which your body absorbs and secretes through your sweat glands.
Spicy Foods: Spices like curry and cumin can get trapped in your pores and emit a strong, unpleasant odor.
Refined Sugar: Foods high in refined sugar can lead to yeast overgrowth. Having an abundance of intestinal yeast causes sugars to convert into alcohols that contribute to B.O.
Fish: Certain fish like salmon and tuna contain choline, a member of the B-complex vitamin family that emits a naturally fishy smell. Some people who eat a serving of fish will secrete choline in their sweat for up to a day.
Red Meat: The amino acids in red meat leave behind a residue in your intestines. Internal enzymes break down the residue, which then mixes with bacteria on your skin and intensifies your body odor when you sweat.
No-Carb or Low-Carb Diet: When you cut back on carbs, your body starts burning fat for energy. This process produces a chemical that can make your sweat smell like nail polish remover or fruity.
Read more: Causes of Body Odor
How to Get Rid of Body Odor
In most cases, body odor is treatable and manageable. Follow these expert tips to get rid of bad body odor:
- Change your personal hygiene routine
- Use the right deodorant
- Apply a stronger antiperspirant
- Wear anti-odor clothing
- Modify your diet
- Try natural home remedy hacks
1. Change Your Personal Hygiene Routine
A few small tweaks to your personal care routine can make a difference in reducing body odor. Here are a few reminders:
- Shower at least once a day and after exercising.
- Wash sweaty areas thoroughly, including your armpits and groin area, with antibacterial soap. Antibacterial soap fights and prevents odor rather than just masking it with fragrance. Look for a liquid body wash or bar soap with “antibacterial” on the packaging.
- Trim or shave your pits. Research shows having less armpit hair can reduce the amount of sweat and body odor you produce.
- Launder your clothes regularly, and wash workout clothes after exercising.
- Change out your towel, loofah and washcloth frequently to prevent bacteria and dirt buildup.
2. Use the Right Deodorant
Deodorants work by killing the odor-causing bacteria on your skin. However, not all deodorants are created equal. You’ll want to opt for deodorants that reduce sweat, fight bacteria and neutralize odor — these products will be your best bet.
3. Apply a Stronger Antiperspirant
Heavy sweaters often experience stronger body odor than normal. When you sweat excessively, the odor-causing bacteria on your skin have more moisture to work with.
Try a prescription-strength antiperspirant with a high concentration of aluminum chloride, a chemical that plugs your sweat ducts and blocks them from producing sweat. Less sweat = less odor.
More tips: Struggling With Armpit Odor? Here’s How to Get Rid of It
4. Wear Anti-Odor Clothing
The material of your clothes can impact how much sweat and odor your body produces.
But be wary of labels that promote “sweat wicking” features. Many of these garments are made with synthetic materials (like polyester) that absorb (not evaporate) moisture, which actually results in a stinkier shirt.
Instead, wear natural fibers like cotton, wool or silk. These fabrics allow your skin to breathe so sweat evaporates faster, which reduces body odor.
If you're looking for an effective, non-synthetic body odor shirt, try Thompson Tee's Premium Anti Odor Shirt, available in crewneck and V-neck styles. This undershirt is infused with Odor Shield™ technology, a natural, non-toxic hydrogen peroxide-based solution that eliminates 99.9% of odor-causing bacteria in the fabric.
5. Modify Your Diet
Foods to Eat:
- Fruits and non-sulfurous vegetables
- Fresh sauerkraut
Foods to Avoid:
- Spicy foods like curry
- Garlic and onion
- Too much red meat
- Sulfurous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower
- Processed foods
Try Natural Home Remedy Hacks
You can find plenty of odor-fighting ingredients in your kitchen or bathroom cabinet.
Witch hazel is a natural astringent. It contracts your skin’s tissues and reduces the amount of sweat you produce. Most witch hazel extracts also contain rubbing alcohol, which helps fight odor-causing bacteria.
Douse a cotton ball with apple cider vinegar and apply it on your underarms after showering.
Apple cider vinegar is antimicrobial and naturally acidic. It destroys smelly bacteria by balancing out the pH level of your skin.
Douse a cotton ball with apple cider vinegar and apply it on your underarms after showering.
Lemon juice is another acidic ingredient that neutralizes your underarm area and fights smelly bacteria.
Rub half a lemon directly on your armpits once daily. If your skin is extra sensitive, you can mix equal parts lemon juice and water to dilute the solution.
Be careful when applying strong acidic ingredients like the ones mentioned above. Only apply them to clean, dry skin to avoid burning or irritation. Avoid using these remedies if you have any cuts or razor burns.
When to See a Doctor About Your Body Odor
We all experience sweat and body odor — it’s a natural part of being human. But if sweat and body odor are interfering with your daily life, it could indicate an underlying medical condition.
Bromhidrosis, also known as osmidrosis, is the medical condition for chronic foul body odor. People who have bromhidrosis produce excessive sweat and odor-causing bacteria. The odor often resembles a cheese-like or onion-like smell, common in the armpit and groin regions.
Trimethylaminuria (TMAU), also known as fish odor syndrome, is a rare metabolic disorder that causes the compound trimethylamine to be released in a person’s sweat, urine and breath, giving off a strong fishy odor.
Consult your doctor if:
- You start sweating at night.
- You start sweating more than usual without any logical reason.
- You experience cold sweats.
- Sweating or odor interrupts your daily routine.
- Your body smells different than usual. A fruity or bleach-like smell could be an early indicator of diabetes, liver or kidney disease.
*PLEASE NOTE: As with all medical-related issues, it's best to seek the advice from a qualified medical practitioner. The information provided is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic purposes and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.