Ever feel like you're constantly on edge worrying you'll suddenly experience unwanted body odor at some point in your day? This is a pretty common fear, because unfortunately, unexpected or unwanted body odor is a pretty universal experience.
While body odor may appear to arise out of nowhere, the truth is, it's often preventable by following a few simple recommendations. But before we get to that, let's make sure you understand the basics of what body odor is and why it's so common.
Meet the Expert
- Hadley King, MD, is a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
- Purvisha Patel, MD, is a dermatologist at Advanced Dermatology & Skin Cancer Associates.
- Debra Jaliman, MD, is a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
What Causes Body Odor?
Sweating is an important function that helps us regulate body temperature, and body odor is closely tied to sweat. Here's how it works:
As our body temperature rises, the body's sweat glands—more specifically, the eccrine glands and the apocrine glands—release sweat that helps cool the body through evaporation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Most sweat is produced by our eccrine glands, which are located throughout the body and open directly onto the skin's surface. These glands are concentrated on the palms of our hands, soles of our feet, forehead, and armpits. "Eccrine sweat is composed of water and small amounts of salt, protein, urea, and ammonia," Hadley King, MD, says.
Meanwhile, the apocrine glands are mostly located in the groin, breast, and armpit areas, and produce a more concentrated type of secretion that is rich in protein and lipids, and also associated with body odor. "The odor is produced when bacteria break down our sweat into fatty acids," King says. "The majority of stress-related sweat is from apocrine glands."
Basically, the reason why you're sweating plays a big role in determining which sweat glands are activated, and the type of sweat that's produced. If your body temperature rises due to being in a warm environment or some sort of physical activity, the nervous system will signal the eccrine glands to produce sweat to keep you cool. Meanwhile, if you're stressed, this triggers cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones, which can then activate your apocrine glands to produce sweat.
Is It Normal to Have Body Odor?
This will be reassuring for many of you to hear—in most cases, body odor is completely normal. Feel like you sweat more than others? This could have a lot to do with genetics. Body odor also depends on the specific types of bacteria that are present, which can be affected by the products we use, King says.
"A small study found that the armpits of people who used antiperspirant or deodorant had fewer staphylococci bacteria and fewer corynebacterium compared with people who used neither," she points out.
While it's very normal to have body odor, it's a good idea to see a healthcare professional if you notice a sudden change in your body odor. "An abnormal change in body odor should be checked out, as it could be indicative of an underlying medical condition," Debra Jaliman, MD, says.
Read on for eight ways to reduce unwanted body odor, according to dermatologists.
Body odor is caused by a reaction between your sweat and bacteria and microbes on your skin, Purvisha Patel, MD, explains. So by showering and washing regularly, you reduce the presence of bacteria and sweat on the skin, and are less likely to face body odor issues. Of course this method isn't foolproof, and it will be tricky in warmer climates and when you're active, but it's worth a try.
No matter how different our lives may be, most of us have something in common: We use deodorant or antiperspirant at the start of each day. While you might think of deodorant and antiperspirant as interchangeable, these two products are actually pretty different.
Deodorant decreases body odor by reducing the amount of bacteria on the skin and masking smell with fragrance, whereas antiperspirant uses ingredients like aluminum and parabens to block the sweat glands and actually stop us from sweating.
Towel Off After Showering
Microbes thrive in environments that are warm and high in moisture. By toweling off after showering, you reduce moisture, making it harder for bacteria to grow, Patel says.
Wear Clean Clothes
Sometimes, avoiding body odor really is as simple as wearing clean clothes. There's a good chance you already knew that, but do you know why wearing clean clothes is so effective in reducing body odor?
It boils down to the fact that dirty clothes typically contain more bacteria than clean ones. By wearing clean clothes, you decrease the amount of bacteria present, King explains.
Know That Certain Foods Can Contribute to Body Odor
It's believed that some foods may actually contribute to body odor. This could include foods that contain sulfur compounds, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, and garlic.
Highly processed and fried foods can also contribute to body odor in some cases, too.
Keep Your Feet Dry
Ah, the much dreaded foot odor. Who hasn't experienced that one? "Smelly feet occur when you have a buildup of bacteria combining with sweat," Jaliman explains. "The perspiration soaks into your socks and shoes and odor occurs."
But that's not all—hormones, stress levels, and the type of shoes you wear could all contribute to your feet smelling extra funky, Jaliman says.
To nix foot odor, try wearing clean and dry socks, sprinkling baby powder in your shoes to absorb excess moisture, or using an antiperspirant or deodorant spray or roll-on product on your feet.
Wear Breathable Clothing
Cotton fabric is a great lightweight option when you're looking to prevent or minimize body odor. "It’s a natural, breathable fiber that’s moisture-wicking," Jaliman says. Mesh and other lightweight fabrics that encourage airflow are a solid choice, too.
"The looser the fabric, the more your body will breathe," Jaliman says. "Don’t wear super-tight jeans or leggings when it’s very hot out." She also suggests avoiding tightly-woven fabrics like nylon and satin.
Put on Clean Clothes After Your Workout
"It’s very important after you exercise to immediately change your clothes so that you aren’t staying in wet clothes," Jaliman says. "Staying in clothes containing sweat will build bacteria and make you have body odor."
No time to shower or change after your workout? Carry some body wipes so you can give yourself a quick wipe-down before heading out.