Where does body odor come from?

In this post: What’s body odor, and can it change? Why do you have a B.O. despite good hygiene? Why do you still smell after a shower? Which parts of the body are the stinkiest? 

The scent is a strong driver in our everyday choices, food, and mate preferences. Yet, we often can’t objectively describe it, manage or even completely understand what produces body odor and how smelling works.  

There is more than the notorious “B.O.” when it comes to how you smell. Regardless of hygiene, you have a unique scent signature that other humans pick up. When things go awry, your scent can also change. 

Body odor comes from bacterial and yeast activity

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While your unique scent print is very slight and ever-present, the stronger body odor comes from bacterial and yeast activity and could be mitigated.

Bacteria in and on us

Of course, when you hear that bacteria cause B.O., a knee-jerk reaction is to reach for antibacterial soap. But don’t rush to lather yourself with hand sanitizer; this could make matters worse.

“Bacteria – bad” seems to be the message we get from childhood. However, our skin, gut, and most of our internal organs host trillions of little bacterial friends. The combination of our native bacteria is called the human microbiome.

“Bacteria – bad” seems to be the message we get from childhood.

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The human microbiome is a complex ecosystem driving many health processes. And the health of your skin depends on your skin microbiome. When the bacterial ecosystem is out of natural balance, you can see and smell problems.

What’s body odor?

We call “body odor” (aka B.O.) any unpleasant scent we can detect on another human being, specifically odors associated with sweat and poor hygiene. 

Typically, any strong bodily scent is called “body odor” without differentiating where it’s coming from. 

what is responsible for body odor?

There are quite a few sources of body odor. In a nutshell, most body odors result from bacterial activity in a specific part of the body or clothing.

Typically, the body odor appears when bacteria consume whatever your skin has to offer sweat, sebum, etc. The bacteria then release volatile organic compounds that we can smell – or simply put – an odor. 

skin Sebum and body odor

The sebaceous glands that are found nearly everywhere on the skin, release sebum. Sebum is a pretty complex cocktail of triglycerides, fatty acids, wax esters, and a bit of squalene. Your skin oil has no smell, but its bacterial breakdown can produce a bad smell. 

And if you were wondering if hormones affect body odor, then the answer is yes.

Hormones during puberty increase the amount of produced sebum, becoming a part of the infamous teenager’s B.O. 

And when you are in your 30-40s, sebum mixed with sweat is responsible for a particular way middle-aged folks smell. 

Sebum makes itself known again in older age. On older skin, the lipids oxidize faster (due to naturally fewer antioxidants present on the skin of the elderly) and produce a very particular “old person” smell. Japanese even have a name for it: kareishū.

how to fight sebum odor:

  • Consume less fried and oily foods
  • Eat less meat
  • Do not use drying products like alcohol to clean your skin; this will only increase oil production.
  • Use loofa for every shower to get rid of the dead skin cells and sebum. 

B.o. from sweat

Humans have two sets of sweat-producing glands: eccrine and apocrine

Any part of your skin can sweat due to eccrine glands. The eccrine glands release mostly water with electrolytes to cool you, so there is nothing in eccrine sweat for bacteria to eat. Thus, you typically don’t have to worry about your back or face becoming a source of B.O. even when drenched in sweat.

Apocrine sweat glands, on other hand, are concentrated in a few hairy places: armpits, chest, and groin.

These glands “turn on” during puberty since their primary function is to produce pheromones that play a role in mating behavior. Pheromones are part of your unique, ever-present scent print. While our brains pick up on pheromones, the apocrine sweat doesn’t have a strong odor. 

Apocrine sweat glands are concentrated in a few hairy places: armpits, chest, and groin.

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However, apocrine sweat is lipid-rich and full of proteins and sugars that some bacteria love to consume. 

Once the apocrine sweat is metabolized by microorganisms such as Micrococcaceae, PropionibacteriaStaphylococcus, and Corynebacterium species, it develops its characteristic odor.

how to get rid of sweaty b.o.

Paleo-approach: keep skin microbiome healthy

I bet you always thought that to be B.O.-less, you have to shower and apply deodorant religiously. Apparently, there is another way. To get rid of B.O. naturally, stop using soap and deodorants and wait for the skin microbiome to get back to its natural equilibrium. 

To get rid of B.O. naturally, stop using soap and deodorants and wait for the skin microbiome to get back to its natural equilibrium. 

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Sarah Ballantyne, a medical biophysicist, turned Paleo Mom, has been skipping soap and adopting a cave-woman approach to her personal care routine. She claims that after some adjustment period, her skin felt better, and B.O. went away. 

Same did many other folks who came to understand that their skin is an ecosystem of human and bacterial cells, and the less you mess with the natural balance, the better. Those who quit showering with soap tell about improved immunity, optimal skin moisture, zero body odor, and other wonderful results.

More than 85% of bacteria that reside on your skin at any time are beneficial

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You are covered with an invisible shield – billions of bacteria that support the health of your skin. More than 85% of bacteria that reside on your skin at any time are beneficial. When the natural balance is disturbed, things go awry, and “stinky” bacteria dominate. Therefore, bringing your skin microbiome back to its natural balance is one of the ways to fight sweat-related body odor.

…bringing your skin microbiome back to its natural balance is one of the ways to fight sweat-related body odor….

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Aluminum salt antiperspirants 

Aluminum salts and triclosan-based antiperspirants quickly kill stinky bacteria. Moreover, they block the pores, so you do not produce sweat- the food for bacteria. Unfortunately, these antimicrobials do not differentiate between “good” and “bad” guys. You are carpet-bombing your underarm bacterial community with repeated assaults. 

The antibacterials disrupt the natural balance of bacteria on your skin and make it so that the only way to constrain BO-producing bacteria is to keep using these products. Once you stop, the bacterial population regrowth rapidly, with the stinky bacteria typically gaining the upper hand.

The antibacterials disrupt the natural balance of bacteria on your skin and make it so that the only way to constrain BO-producing bacteria is to keep using these products.

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Per a research study: Antiperspirant usage led toward an increase of Actinobacteria, which is an unfavorable situation with respect to body odor development”. Therefore, conventional deodorants are hard to quit because they rid you of your natural B.O.-protection and create a vicious cycle.

are Natural deodorants better?

Natural deodorants are safer for your armpit skin microbiome but watch out for alkaline ingredients such as baking soda, clays (kaolin, bentonite), and magnesium hydroxide. 

A healthy skin pH is between 4.5 and 5.5. When pH is low, the skin cells and bacteria protect you from various skin conditions and infections. Most skin problems (irritation, inflammation, acne, psoriasis, etc.) are correlated with an increased skin pH.

Most skin problems (irritation, inflammation, acne, psoriasis, etc.) are correlated with an increased skin pH.

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Increasing your skin’s pH is terrible for your acid-mantle and exposes your skin to damage and infection. 

The use of soda as a deodorizer was pioneered in 1946, but now there is a better understanding of the role bacterial communities play and the importance of skin pH.  

The current scientific outlook is that “the versatile role of pH requires delicate, well-orchestrated regulatory machinery that is controlled by a multitude of endogenous mechanisms – this is especially true for the skin whose pH is quite unique within the body.” 

Idk about you, but increasing your skin pH by 100-fold (the pH scale is logarithmic, and an increase of an integer value changes the concentration by a tenfold) doesn’t seem like a good idea.  

Alkaline deodorants irritate, discolor, and make your skin drier and more sensitive to light. 

Measure the pH of your deodorant or try zerotaboos fragrance-free CREAM with a pH of 4.3 that keeps your skin mantle happy. CREAM also contains probiotics and postbiotics that increase natural cell turnover. CREAM goes on as a typical cream would, and you can use it underarms and groin. Rebalancing your skin microbiome to build a solid foundation for a stink-free future.  

Alkaline deodorants irritate, discolor, and make your skin drier and more sensitive to light. 

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Body odor hack: Shave off your armpit and groin hair. Hair is a convenient surface for bacteria to build their residence on. So the less hair, the easier the task of controlling B.O. 

zerotaboos CREAM is a perfect after-shave since its BHA/AHA acids help prevent razor bumps and ingrown hair. 

why do I still smell after a shower?

Alright, so you took a shower, put on deodorant (or better, zerotaboos CREAM), and grabbed a shirt from the dryer just to sense a familiar B.O. coming from your armpits an hour later. 

How come you have a B.O. right after a shower? The secret could be in the fibers of your clothing. 

Bacteria, originating from your armpits, build a biofilm in the threads of your favorite gym clothing. The biofilm is a particular slime that bacteria release to reinforce their communities. Detergents and fabric-saving-warm washing temperatures fail to remove it. 

When you put on your “clean” clothing, your body temperature and skin moisture trigger the bacteria to come out of their hiding places and restart their stinky business. 

get the stink out of your clothes

  • Try enzyme-based pre-wash or spot-treatment spray. Apply to the parts of the clothing that come in touch with the armpits and groin. 
  • Wash at the highest temperature setting allowed for the fabric. 
  • Use bleach (chlorine or activated oxygen), especially for warm cycles.

After washing something very stinky, do a hot-water + bleach cycle with an empty drum. Otherwise, bacteria stick to the inner parts of the washing machine and then can transfer to the next batch of clothing.

I Can Smell Myself Through My Pants

All kinds of body odor originated below the belt. Toilet paper doesn’t do much to prevent the accumulation of sweat, fecal, urine, and vaginal secretion on your genitalia and clothing throughout the day. Enter bacteria.

How to prevent groin odor

Additional hygiene steps could play a crucial role in how you smell by mid-day or after a workout. 

  • Acidify the skin around your genitals to promote healthy bacteria. Try zerotaboos CREAM
  • Shave off or trim as much groin and pubic hair as your personal style allows.
  • Opt for performance wool sweatpants instead of synthetic fabrics and skip underpants for your workouts
  • Wash your groin, balls, and all the crevices daily with a microbiome-friendly WASH
  • Turn your toilet paper into wet wipes with fragrance-free WIPEGEL.
  • Use WIPEGEL as a leave-on on your groin and balls (if you have any). Witch hazel is a wonderful astringent. It minimizes sweating and promotes healthy bacteria;

Are wet wipes good for you?

Wet wipes seem to be great unless you develop a rash and chaffing, given the rough texture of most brands. Don’t exfoliate the tender skin of your genitals and keep wipes for special occasions. 

Moreover, wet synthetic fibers of the wipes are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, and fungi. To counteract the growth of bacteria, manufacturers load wet wipes with preservatives. Since you do not rinse your skin after using wet wipes, all these preservatives stay on your skin, affecting your skin microbiome. 

Check out WIPEGEL with skin-mantle-friendly pH of 4.6, antiinflammatory witch hazel, prebiotics, and postbiotics. Squirt it on a piece of toilet paper when you need to wipe clean and support a healthy microbiome. Feel free to spread some of the gel on and around your groin to acidify the skin and support healthy bacteria.

Why does my scalp smell?

Right after you wash your hair, the sebaceous glands are hard at work to rebalance the oil on your scalp. Bacteria, yeast, and fungi feast on the sebum, and the results of their metabolic activity are what you can smell. 

what to do with a smelly scalp

  • When your scalp is overproducing oil, choose gentle shampoos or try co-washing. Counterintuitively, you need to stop washing your scalp squeaky-clean to slow the sebum production.
  • Use a rubber scalp massage brush while washing hair to remove dead skin, a favorite bacteria food.
  • Brush hair regularly (even if it’s really short) to distribute the sebum away from the skin. 

Feet!

Smelly feet

Oh man, please don’t take off your shoes in public places unless it’s a beach.

Lots of bacteria inhabit your feet, and they love dark, damp places like the insides of sweaty synthetic shoes.

tips for smelly feet

  • Do a pedicure regularly to remove dead skin. The bacteria have more to eat when you skip pedicures.
  • Favor leather shoes, not synthetic or man-made materials.
  • Choose cotton or ultra-slim wool socks (check out Smartwool) and allow your feet to breathe.
  • Acidify your skin. Kyetococcus sedentarius, the bacterium associated with stinky feet, prefer an alkaline environment. Apply zerotaboos CREAM to your feet to soften and acidify the skin and prevent the odor.

Why do I have body odor suddenly?

You can smell someone’s fear, disgust, happiness, and even some diseases. So when you suddenly notice a change in your smell, a few things might be at play,

Hormones and metabolic processes trigger the release of volatile organic components (VOCs) directly into your blood. Next, the VOCs leach through the pores of your skin and with breath. These compounds affect your overall body odor, and other humans (and animals) pick up on them consciously or subconsciously. VOCs are to blame for garlic and onion breath, too.

what to do about a sudden change in b.o.?

A sudden change in body odor always warrants further investigation.

First, think about any changes in your diet. Then, consider if you have been particularly stressed in the days prior to the change of your B.O. After that, do an inventory of your general health and list any new symptoms.

If your base scent changed to the point that friends and family noticed, check in with your doctor. Changes in how you smell could be an indicator of certain diseases

Once health conditions are ruled out, focus on the diet and emotions.

Meditate before a meeting to smell more confident and attractive. 

Stick to a vegetarian diet but low on spices and take a break on sulfur-packed products

How do I know if my body odor is bad? 

Everyone has a distinctive scent. Many factors, starting from your genes, hormones, diet, level of stress, and health, impact that baseline smell. Your scent could be attractive to one partner while another might find it unpleasant. We don’t know how our brains interpret these scents, but this is an ongoing process. This is not something you can change, though. So just hope your potential mate will approve of your pheromones.

The odor originating from the bacterial activity, on the other hand, is typically more noticeable and originates in a few spots: 

  • Underarms, groin, chest (for men)
  • Genitalia
  • Scalp
  • Feet

To know how you smell, perform a sniff test of your own clothing that comes in touch with your body in these locations. Identify problem areas, make adjustments to your hygiene, and you should be golden!

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