In This Article
In a time when we have an unprecedented number of valid anxieties, I’ve found myself fixating on the little things: my disorganized bookshelf, for example, or whether I should be reading something deeper into the cute acquaintance who watches all my Instagram stories. One worry in particular has landed at the center of the venn diagram between my professional interest in wellness and my personal interest in low-stakes neuroses: Is quarantine making me smelly?
Arguably, the issue of body odor is particularly insignificant right now, when filtered masks and mandatory distancing protects us from stinkiness as well as airborne illness. More and more, however, I’ve caught a whiff of my freshly showered body and noticed I didn’t smell, well, fresh. I asked around and found anecdotal evidence from friends that they, too, had felt extra grimy for no reason—especially as strenuous outdoor activities have been limited, sanitization is in vogue, and ostensibly we should be cleaner than ever. Armed with this validation, I had to know—is our increased sense of smelliness a moment of collective hysteria, or something real? What does it mean if quarantine has the ability to fundamentally change our body chemistry? And if my suspicions are true, how can I alleviate myself of B.O. and B.O. anxiety, for the inevitable day when I do get to hug someone? In search of answers, I turned to two experts to get the truth on quarantine body odor. Read on to find out what I learned.
Is it Possible for the Pandemic to Affect How We Smell?
First things first: Is it even possible for the pandemic to affect how we smell? Absolutely, says doctor of physical therapy and trauma practitioner Dr. Alice Kerby: “During the pandemic, we have all been living in a higher level of fight or flight activation. Since we are globally in a state of trying to identify and respond to a threat we cannot see (the virus), we are living in a hyper aroused state, with elevated cortisol levels and an increased vigilance in our stress response. This triggers many factors that aren’t great for our mental and physical health, ‘stress sweat’ and an increase in body odor, being one of them.”
What Is Stress Sweat?
I’d figured that due to limited activity, I’d be sweating less and smelling better. Kerby points out, however, that it’s not actually about the amount of sweat we’re producing —it’s the type of sweat. “Our body has two types of sweat glands that are in place to regulate our body temp and keep us in a state of relative homeostasis and close to 98.7 degrees,” she says. “The eccrine sweat glands are activated and produce sweat when we are active or when we are in a hot environment and need to cool off. The sweat produced by these glands is comprised of water and electrolytes, and typically doesn’t smell bad. Sweat produced by stress, however, is produced by the apocrine glands found mostly in our armpit area, and can reek.
The reason this sweat smells bad is because of the hormones released from an activated sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response, produce a mix of lipids, proteins, and fat that bacteria like to feed off of. The higher concentration of bacteria accounts for the increased smell.” Not only does anxiety-induced sweat smell worse than activity-related perspiration, but one study found the scent of this sweat can cause a neurological anxiety response—suggesting the potential for a physical-psychological fear feedback loop. Because our brains respond to stress scents from other people, and not just ourselves, it also makes sense that we’re collectively smelling bad as we panic en masse.
Changes in Lifestyle Can Also Result in Changes in B.O
That being said, quarantine B.O. isn’t just due to emotional dysregulation—upsets to our routines are also affecting how we smell. Dermatologist Marisa Garshick MD, FAAD says that B.O. is a common side effect of folks not having to dress up for the office or follow a normal morning routine, or simply “forgetting to use an antiperspirant or deodorant as they are no longer leaving their house. Some individuals may not be showering as frequently to eliminate sweat or buildup. They may also wear certain clothing that may predispose them to more sweating.” (While it’s purely anecdotal, I can personally confirm that I’ve been living in less-than-breathable Spandex bike shorts for the past five months.)
Garshick believes, however, that quarantine B.O. is likely due to a combination of reasons, and agrees that stress is most likely the greatest contributing factor to increased odor: “Given all the life changes that have come with this pandemic and quarantine, stress is likely to play a greater role… As indicated, there are likely multiple variables influencing whether the pandemic affected body odor.”
The Solution: Your Habits
Is there a solution to what I’m now semi-affectionately referring to as “stress stench” and its ensuing anxiety? Garshick suggests looking to your environment and habits to eliminate any easily-remedied smell exacerbators. She says, “My number one piece of advice is to stick with a routine. Even if you’re not leaving the house to go to work, it is still important to commit to a normal routine, including showering and applying antiperspirant or deodorant. Having a routine is also likely to help create stability and reduce stress.”
Changing up when you apply your deodorant can also be a powerful fix, she adds: “I advise my patients whosuffer from hyperhidrosis to use their antiperspirant at night. While sweating and B.O. may be most noticeable during the day, it is best to use an antiperspirant at night so it can be most effective. This is because when an antiperspirant is used at night, the sweat glands won't be active or filled with moisture at that time. This allows the sweat ducts to absorb more and therefore be more effective.”
I’ve always applied my deodorant after showering—when I was cleanest and thus, in my mind, preserving my freshest scent. But it turns out this strategy may backfire. Garshick notes, “Applying [antiperspirant] immediately after a shower minimizes the effectiveness. Additionally, a person’s skin must be dry prior to application to minimize the chance of irritation.”
The Solution: Stress Relieving Rituals
For additional quick fixes, Kerby notes that “for smell reduction, you can use an antibacterial soap under your armpits, try drinking less coffee and alcohol, maintain good hydration, and wear breathable fabrics.” That being said, stress relief is probably the only way to return to our pre-pandemic body chemistry. Knowing that I wasn’t going crazy alleviated some of my anxiety, but to truly reduce stress stench, Kerby recommends doubling down on self soothing practices. To up our resilience in moments of stress or trauma, she endorses mindfulness: “Noticing when we are becoming activated and how this is affecting our physical body is a good place to start.
Conversely, spending time in moments when we feel calm, relaxed, or pleasant and actually sinking into and feeling the sensations associated with these moments is quite effective in restoring our system to a baseline state, and reducing the fight or flight activation. I also recommend practices like meditation, qi gong, time in nature, and an exercise practice.” Kerby also touts the benefits of routines, both hygienic and emotional: “Create normalcy in your routines as much as possible, and remain connected with friends and family, even if it is just via video chat.”
The Bottom Line
If the smell is persistent and feels dramatically different from your usual scent, Garshick recommends seeking a professional opinion: “If you are noticing an increase in sweat or body odor, a board-certified dermatologist can present you with different management and treatment options to better address your needs. He or she may recommend topical antiperspirants, oral prescriptions, botulinum toxin injections, iontophoresis, or microwave heat energy devices.”