Why Do I Have Body Odor?

Why Sweat Stinks and How to Smell Sweeter

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Everyone gets body odor. Body odor, called bromhidrosis, is a normal part of the human experience. But it's embarrassing enough that you want to get rid of it.

Why Does Sweat Stink?

Sweat itself doesn't have a smell. Body odor is actually the fault of the bacteria that live in sweaty areas of your body.

Bacteria thrive in moist environments, like your armpits. When you sweat, the bacteria break down certain proteins in the sweat into acids.

So, it's not the bacteria that stink. It's the by-product of the bacteria breaking down the sweat.

The Glands Responsible for Body Odor

Bacteria aren't the only odoriferous offenders though. It also depends on which sweat glands are doing the sweating. You have different types of sweat glands in your skin—eccrine glands and apocrine glands.

Eccrine glands are found over your entire skin. These coiled glands are found in the lower layer of the skin called the dermis. They squeeze sweat directly to the surface of the skin through a duct. As the sweat evaporates it helps to cool your skin and regulate your body temperature. Sweat produced by eccrine glands is high in salt, so it's harder for bacteria to break down and less likely to produce a smell.

Apocrine glands are found in select areas of the body, namely your armpits, groin, and pubic area. Apocrine glands aren't designed to help cool you off as eccrine glands do.

Instead, these glands empty into a hair follicle instead of a duct. Apocrine glands release sweat when your body temperature rises, but also when you're under stress.

It's the sweat produced by apocrine glands that is responsible for body odor because it is high in protein that, when broken down by bacteria, causes a stink.

That's why body odor mostly develops in your armpits and groin area, and why you don't get B.O. on your forehead.

It also explains why little children don't get B.O. even when they sweat. Appocrine glands remain inactive until puberty, when they begin to produce sweat. It's only after puberty begins that body odor suddenly becomes an issue.

Things That Make You Susceptible to B.O.

Besides appocrine glands and bacteria messing with your sweat, there are certain things that can make you more apt to develop body odor.

  • Being overweight. Skin folds can hold sweat and bacteria, making a more hospitable home for body odor.
  • Eating spicy, pungent foods. These don't actually make your sweat any smellier, but the scents of pungent foods can permeate through your skin, making body odor seem worse.
  • Excessive sweating. A condition called hyperhidrosis can cause you to sweat a lot, as can menopause. And some people just naturally sweat more than others.
  • Certain medical conditions. Diabetes, kidney or liver problems, overactive thyroid, and (extremely rare) genetic conditions can cause a change in your normal body scent. In some cases, an odd body odor can be a sign of something more serious. For example, a bleach-like or urine-like smell may mean kidney or liver problems. If you notice an odd change in your normal body odor, or feel something is just not right, contact your doctor.
  • Stress. Stress causes your appocrine glands to work overtime. Remember, these are the glands that cause smelly sweat. So, you may notice a sudden breakout of B.O. right before your big presentation or after a particularly hair-raising event.
  • Genetics. Some people are just more prone to developing body odor than others.

Tips for Reducing Body Odor

Body odor can be embarrassing, but luckily, in the majority of cases, it doesn't signal a serious problem. There are things you can do to banish B.O., or at least tone it down a notch.

Shower at least once daily. Use soap or shower gel and lather up thoroughly, especially in areas prone to B.O.

In especially hot, humid areas, a twice-daily shower may be in order. It goes without saying—shower ASAP after working out or sweating.

Use an anti-bacterial soap. If regular showers aren't doing the trick, use an anti-bacterial soap or body wash like Dial. These washes can help reduce the number of bacteria on your skin so there is less to turn sweat into stink.

Get the right underarm product. Did you know there are differences? Deodorants make your underarms a less hospitable home for bacteria. They also help mask B.O. with fragrance. Antiperspirants, on the other hand, block the sweat glands to reduce perspiration. If you don't sweat much but get body odor, deodorants are the way to go. If you're a sweater, make sure you get a product that is labeled both an anti-perspirant and deodorant. If you get major B.O., look for a stronger product with higher percentages of active ingredients. If over-the-counter products aren't keeping you fresh, talk with your doctor about getting a prescription antiperspirant/deodorant.

Wear breathable fabrics. Natural fabrics, like cotton, are better than polyesters, nylon, and rayon at keeping B.O. at bay. Natural fibers breathe, allowing the sweat to evaporate away. Avoid fabrics that trap sweat against the skin. These allow for a better breeding ground for body odor to develop. When working out, opt for moisture-wicking fabrics.

Eliminate or reduce spicy or pungent foods from your diet. Strong smelling foods like curry, garlic, spicy peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and onions can cause a more pungent sweat. Even alcohol can even have an effect on the smell of your sweat. If you eat these types of foods regularly, try reducing them or eliminating them altogether and see if that doesn't help sweeten your sweat.

Shave or wax. Appocrine glands are concentrated in areas covered by hair, namely the armpits and the pubic area. The hair holds sweat and makes a good environment where bacteria can thrive. Removing hair can go a long way in controlling body odor. Yes, guys, that means you may want to consider shaving your underarms. If you prefer not going completely bare in any area, trimming the hair up short can also help reduce B.O.

Medical Treatments for Body Odor

If you've done everything to help reduce body odor and aren't noticing an improvement, give your doctor a call. You may have something different going on that needs addressing (a fungal infection, for example). Or, you just may need a stronger treatment to get body odor under control. Some options:

  • Prescription antiperspirants/deodorants are stronger than what you can get over the counter and are typically the first treatment step for body odor.
  • Antibiotics, topical and oral, can help reduce bacteria on the skin.
  • Botox blocks the impulses that tell the sweat glands to produce sweat. This is not a permanent fix, though, and treatment needs to be repeated every few months.
  • Laser treatment can shrink or destroy sweat glands.
  • Surgery to remove sweat glands is done in extreme cases.

A Word From Verywell

You could say your body is naturally designed to produce body odor. Everyone gets B.O. sometimes. You can't completely get rid of it. And, most often, body odor is more noticeable to you than it is to anyone else.

If body odor is affecting your life, please give your doctor a call. There are treatments available to help reduce it and help you feel confident again.

Sources:

Pastor DK, Harper DS. "Treating Body Odor in Primary Care." The Nurse Practitioner. 2012 Mar 13;37(3):15-8.

Callewaert C, De Maeseneire E, Kerckhof FM, Verliefde A, Van de Wiele T, Boon N. ​"Microbial Odor Profile of Polyester and Cotton Clothes after a Fitness Session." Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 2014 Nov;80(21):6611-9.

Hamada K, Haruyama S, Yamaguchi T, et al. "What Determines Human Body Odour?" Experimental Dermatology. 2014 May;23(5):316-7.

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