Published March 21, 2014
Most Americans spend at least a portion of every day trying to prevent body odor – showering, applying deodorant and even sniffing their armpits to detect any trace of an off-putting smell.
For most people, body odor is completely normal; it’s the simple result of the interaction between sweat and bacteria on a person’s skin.
“Body odor doesn’t necessarily signify anything, and you know a lot of our perceptions of body odor have to do with society norms,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told FoxNews.com.
But while the average person can easily control his or her body odor with proper hygiene, for others it isn’t so simple.
Do some diseases make body odor worse?
Certain rare diseases can alter the way a person’s body odor smells, according to George Preti, an organic chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, who focuses on the nature and origin of human odors. One such condition is trimethylaminuria (TMAU), which affects just 1 in 200,000 people.
“Metabolic diseases like trimethylaminuria will lend a very different odor to the individual,” Preti said. “It’s out of the ordinary. In the bad cases, the individual will produce a rotting fish or garbage-y smell perceptible at social distances.”
This rare condition is characterized by the body’s inability to properly metabolize trimethylamine, a byproduct of gut metabolism. As a result, individuals with TMAU develop an excess of trimethylamine within their body, causing them to give off a strange odor. TMAU is typically diagnosed in young people, and unusual body odor is the primary outward symptom of the disease.
Other metabolic conditions, like advanced kidney and liver disorders or diabetes, can also produce strange body odors – usually in the form of bad breath. However, this typically only occurs at very advanced stages of disease. While bad smells or bad breath are not used to diagnose any of these conditions, some organizations are considering training dogs to detect these diseases by their smell.
“There are groups looking to fund research with dogs as detectors because dogs can pick up the odor in people, particularly children who are not properly regulating themselves, type 1 diabetic children,” Preti said. “They can be trained to pick up this peculiar odor on the breath at an early stage and warn people that they are having a low or going into a high of blood sugar.”
Does stress make you smell worse?
If you’re worried about B.O., consider taking action to reduce your stress levels.
“Stress-related odor will be normal odor on steroids,” Preti said.
When people are stressed, they produce more apocrine secretions from the apocrine glands in their armpits, causing an elevation of body odor that may be perceptible to others.
“Without apocrine sweat or secretion you cannot produce underarm odor. It’s not just bacteria and moisture; it’s that plus this apocrine secretion,” Preti said. “Under stressful conditions you produce more apocrine secretions.”
Luckily, most body odor can be controlled with the help of over-the-counter antiperspirants and deodorants.
“Antiperspirant decreases the amount of sweat that reaches the skin. A lot of them contain aluminum salts, and what those do is form a plug, and it prevents the sweat from reaching the surface of the skin, and that helps keep you dry,” Zeichner said. “Now, totally separate from that are deodorants, and those are basically products that have masking fragrances. When you go to the store to purchase a product, most are antiperspirants and deodorants.”
If you are concerned about excess sweating, a doctor may be able to recommend prescription-strength antiperspirants, oral medications that can reduce sweat, or even Botox injections in the armpit.
Can the food I eat affect my body odor?
It’s a popular rumor that spicy foods or curry-flavored dishes can produce strange body odors. However, this theory is still being debated.
“There has been no good study demonstrating that diet affects body odor,” Preti said. “Though I believe it can, because components in a lot of aromatic spicing are very fat soluble. So they’ll get stored in your body fat and get into your sweat and saliva and they’ll influence body odor over time.”
Another reason people may think their diet is affecting their smell is that it is often difficult to distinguish between breath odor and body odor.
“For example, if you eat a meal with a lot of garlic, it will emanate from the breath for 48 hours, and a lot of people don’t distinguish between underarm odors and breathe odor,” Preti said.
For people who feel self-conscious about their scent, Zeichner often recommends peppermint oil as a natural solution.
“This is anecdotal data, just based on the experience I and some of my colleagues have had, but peppermint oil gets absorbed and excreted and can change the smell,” Zeichner said. “Two drops on the tongue three times a day.”