Everybody has it, and an individual smell is a completely natural part of having a body. Having a strong body odor can become a problem in interpersonal communication, though. And sudden changes in your body odor can also signal underlying health issues – or, in some cases, simply changes in your hormone levels.
We can be overly obsessive when it comes to erasing any and all body odor in the modern world, but it is true that it is an important indicator of personal hygiene and health. An unexpected change in the natural smell your body makes can occur as a response to different factors – from a change in diet to stress and medication.
Dealing with body odor, or BO can be embarrassing, especially if the news about your personal smell being overly noticeable comes from others. Most people learn about body odor when it first becomes relevant during puberty, but the learning curves can vary – as can the reasons behind the body odor itself.
There are several misconceptions about BO. First and foremost – about where it actually comes from.
We often equate BO with sweat, but strictly speaking that is not true. Sweat is a clear, salty fluid produced by sweat glands found in the skin. Sweat does not have a distinctive smell on its own.
There are two different types of sweat glands and, consequently, two slightly different types of sweat. Eccrine glands are the most common sweat glands, found in most areas of your body, and they connect directly to the surface of your skin through a duct. These sweat glands cause perspiration as a means of cooling down your body when it gets too hot. Their main function is thermoregulation.
Apocrine glands are connected to hair follicles in certain parts of the body and create a milkier fluid as an emotional response to stress, anxiety, sexual arousal and similar strong sensations. The fluid initially is still mainly odorless to the human nose, but it does contain more substances to the sweat produced by eccrine glands. It consists of water, various lipids and hormones.
These sweat glands are inactive until puberty, they are found in the armpits, areolas, ear canals and parts of the genital area. Apocrine glands also participate in the production of breast milk.
We do not have sweat glands on the sidelines of our lips, the external ear canal, glans penis, clitoris and labia minora, as well as the nail beds. The rest of the body is covered in glands that work for producing sweat. The amount of sweat is different for each person, mainly due to genetic factors.
The distinct smell – body odor – comes into play when the newly produced sweat comes into contact with the bacteria found on the surface of the skin. The bacteria start breaking down proteins and other components of sweat, creating by-products that, in turn, do have specific smells discernable for the human nose. The by-products with the distinctive pungent and musky smell of sweat mainly come from the sweat produced by apocrine sweat glands.
Bacteria feel best in warm and wet environments, that they mainly multiply and do their work in all kinds of creases on the body.
Similarly, the bacteria found in your mouth – on your teeth and tongue – cause “bad breath”. A condition that is usually nowhere near as important or detrimental to your social life as mouthwash companies would like you to believe, as long as you brush your teeth regularly.
All kinds of bad odor can also be caused by infection somewhere in your body. Check in with your health provider if you notice sudden changes in your sweating patterns or your BO.
Our bodies are naturally covered by bacteria, and we naturally produce sweat. The strength and smell of the body odor will be determined by genetic factors, as well as various underlying health processes.
One more big BO myth is that having body hair makes it worse. It does not. Yes, apocrine sweat glands are connected to the hair follicles in your armpits and, for example, genital area, two zones that are often shaved, the presence of visible hair does not determine the body odor.
Shaving body hair is a purely aesthetic choice, as, if you wash regularly with soap and clean water, there will not be enough bacteria to produce foul body odor, hairy armpits or not.
Equally, being on your period is not a reason to worry about your BO – follow your usual routine and wash your genital area with warm water and gentle soap, use breathable fabrics and period products. Yes, the smell might change, but that does not equal having a bad body odor, just a slightly different one that will not be noticeable to others. Some people report changes in BO during ovulation, but that is also no cause for concern.
The sweat produced in stressful situations does have more lipids and other substances, as that is when your apocrine sweat glands are the most active. Studies show that the adrenaline produced in extreme situations such as when jumping off a plane in skydiving, causes the sweat to change its regular smell rather distinctively. Similarly, as unpleasant as it may be, the stress from every-day situations such as work meetings can also amplify your body odor – besides the fact that they also make you sweat more which can be uncomfortable with or without BO.
If your lifestyle brings you to overheat regularly without the chance to properly change your clothes to clean ones, BO is something to consider.
When considering the chemistry of it all, the food you eat is directly related to the substances found in your sweat and, in turn, your potential body odor. How your body reacts to different foods and how well it breaks down its components will reflect in your body odor. If you make sudden changes, especially if you start a restrictive diet, your body may react accordingly.
Prolonged unhealthy dietary choices such as drinking too much soda on a daily basis or generally not getting enough nutrients can also cause unpleasant BO.
Some otherwise healthy foods can likewise contribute to BO, especially products rich in sulfur: onions, red meat, broccoli, cabbage and others.
If you notice a strong body odor, also pay attention to your intake of and your body’s reaction to:
Hyperhidrosis is a health condition characterized by excessive sweating, mainly from the palms of the hands, the armpits and the feet. These are the places on the body with the highest density of sweat glands. Hyperhidrosis is usually a secondary condition that can occur with illnesses such as thyroid disease and diabetes. Excessive sweating also a common symptom during menopause.
However, as we just saw, the amount of sweat is not directly connected to body odor. The strong scent shows up only after not following proper hygiene regardless of the amount of sweat, if you are otherwise healthy.
Conditions that can affect your body odor, either on the surface of your skin or your breath, include:
Some medications such as penicillin can cause a change in your body odor.
Changes in BO are usually not the first symptom that show that something is wrong with your health, but if you do notice it, look into the possible underlying causes.
BO can be an uncomfortable topic, especially when it comes to intimate hygiene. But there is no need to feel bad in your own skin, and usually there is no need to overcompensate with odor-blocking products. Including when you are on your period.
With the exception of a few actual health conditions that strongly enhance unpleasant BO, maintaining proper hygiene and a reasonably healthy diet are really the key.
The hygiene of neutral BO is:
Normally, we don’t need to wash our body and hair every day, it can even disrupt the pH levels and normal skin functions ironically making the BO worse. Try making small changes in your bathing routine, for example, when on vacation and experiment with bathing once every 2 to 3 days and see how that affects your skin. If you do know that you suffer from strong BO, daily showers might be necessary.
Using a deodorant is a part of many people’s every-day hygiene routine, and it does come in handy in a busy lifestyle. It is best to use fragrance-free products to avoid unnecessary irritation of the skin.
A deodorant masks unpleasant smells and simultaneously helps prevent further spread of bacteria who make the smells in the first place. An antiperspirant blocks the sweat glands from producing sweat. If you are otherwise healthy, it is fine to use either of the products, but it is recommended to have days when you go without them, especially for antiperspirants.
Deodorants and antiperspirants are generally intended for using on your underarms. Antiperspirants can, however, be also used in other areas where sweat is produced more densely, such as the soles of the feet and palms.
Natural remedies for strong BO include:
You can use these and other natural products on your armpits, as long as it does not irritate your skin. Store-bought natural deodorants are also a good option – both for you and the environment – but it might take longer to find one that works for you.
In more serious cases, medical and even surgical options exist for reducing body odor, such as:
There is a big difference between the natural production of sweat after physical activities (including sex) and having an unpleasant BO. Look for help if the problem persists, but always start with a good personal hygiene routine, staying hydrated and having a balanced diet. Life is too short to sweat about natural bodily functions – such as sweat!
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