Humans sweat. We can be smelly creatures. Sweat is our personal air conditioning system. When we are hot or exerting ourselves we produce sweat to cool our bodies. Body odour happens when the bacteria on our skin surface breaks down the sweat. As a result, they produce waste materials that have an odour. Sweat itself is actually odour free.
We all use some kind of deodorant or antiperspirant to control body odour. They contain antibacterials to control the bacteria causing body odour or aluminium salts to control the amount of sweat.
What causes body odour?
Bacteria and Sweat: Our skin is covered with a layer of bacteria that feeds on our sweat. They produce acid compounds that have an odour.
We produce two different kinds of sweat. There is the sweat that covers your skin when you are exerting yourself or when you are hot. The other kind is produced in our armpits, groin, feet, pubic hair / other body hair, some areas of the face and back.
The first kind is produced by the Eccrine sweat glands found all over the body. They produce sweat that cools you down. It is mostly water and the glands secrete eccrine sweat directly onto your skin. It’s the thin film of moisture on the surface of your skin when you are hot.
Apocrine sweat glands are in specific areas of the body like the armpits, groin, feet, around the nipples and genital areas. The glands are larger and sweat produced is thicker and contains more of the compounds that the bacteria will feed on. The bacterial load in these areas is also much larger than on other areas of the skin. They remain dormant until we reach puberty which is usually when we start to experience body odour.
When the bacteria break down the sweat on our skin they produce two different kinds of acid compounds. The propionic acid which has a vinegar or “sour” sweat smell and Isovaleric acid that has a “cheese” smell.
Food & Alcohol:
If you’ve ever had a very spicy meal or a little too much alcohol the night before, you have woken up smelling a little “ripe”. Certain foods contain sulfides and compounds that will produce strong odours in the body. These compounds are expelled through sweat. Some of the foods that produce strong odours: spicy foods and curries, red meat, too much alcohol, seafood, egg yolks, beans, cabbage, asparagus and onions among other things.
Stress makes you smelly. You know when they say in horror movies ” they can smell your fear”…well…there’s a little bit of truth in there. The sweat produced when you are stressed comes from those apocrine glands in your groin, armpits and feet. There is a lot of bacteria in these areas and they produce odours.
Puberty: As I said before when we reach puberty the apocrine glands become active and produce sweat in the armpits and groin area.
Menopause: The hormonal changes that occur when women go through menopause will cause hot flushes and more perspiration as a result. More sweat for bacteria to break down and produce odour.
Hypogonadism: Some men will have very low testosterone levels because their testicles do not function properly. This can cause menopausal symptoms like hot flushes. More sweat, more odour.
Hair: Excessive hair in the armpit and groin area can trap bacteria and produce more sweat for that bacteria to feed on. If you don’t want to shave these areas then it is important to use antibacterial soap to keep them as clean as possible.
Underwear: Your bras touch your skin in the underarm area, under your breasts and between your breasts. These are areas where you sweat and where there are more bacteria. We don’t wear our panties more than one day in a row but some women will wear their bras twice in a row or even more. If you already have body odour problems you should avoid doing this.
Shoes and socks: If you wear plastic shoes or shoes with plastic linings they can trap bacteria and make your feet sweaty. Socks made out of synthetic fibres can also trap sweat and cause odours. Damp feet for extended periods of time can also cause fungal infections that produce odours.
Fitness clothing: They are usually made out of fabrics that allow sweat to evaporate but they are also quite fitting and would be in contact with areas that produce apocrine sweat and that are full of bacteria.
Some mental health medications and the overuse of aspirin products can increase perspiration.
How to prevent body odour:
Food: If you are quite a sweaty person, you might want to avoid spicy foods, garlic, onions, asparagus and even red meat. Try eating more fruits and leafy vegetables as part of your diet.
Drink plenty of water to flush any odour causing materials out of your body.
Personal hygiene: It is important to keep your body clean. We all sweat during the day but there is nothing worse than the smell of OLD sweat. You should bathe or shower at least once a day, preferably in the evening to get rid of the day’s sweat and dirt.
If you are prone to body odours you should use an antibacterial soap or shower gel and wash the underarms, groin and feet properly.
Most of us use some kind of antiperspirant or deodorant daily. There are some natural alternatives without the chemicals. There is a great huffingtonpost.com article about them here.
There are many recipes out there for making your own deodorant or antiperspirant spray and even a few using beeswaxes, cocoa butter, tea tree oil and cornstarch to make an antiperspirant stick.
For an easy deodorising spray:
1.5 teaspoons alum powder – antiperspirant, deodoriser and antibacterial
2 cups water
1/2 cup rose water – antiseptic and antibacterial – also smells lovely
3 drops rose, lemon, lavender, ylang-ylang or sandalwood essential oil – for a fresh fragrance
Mix the ingredients together in a spray bottle (you can get them from boots, Superdrug or most supermarkets) and use as a deodorant. Keep a smaller bottle in your handbag to use during the day.
More tips for fighting body odour:
- Dry off properly after your bath or shower: Bacteria thrive in damp areas. Dry your underarms, feet and intimate area carefully after every bath or shower.
- Change your clothes regularly: Don’t wear the same clothes more than one day in a row without washing them. You can get away with trousers or skirts but tops need to be washed every time they are worn.
- Take note of odour changes: If you notice that your sweat or intimate area smells different go see your doctor. Some medical issues can be detected by a change in body odour. Fungal infections tend to cause odours as well as some medical conditions like diabetes, overactive thyroid or liver dysfunction.
- Go with natural fibres: Man-made fibres are bacteria heaven, try wearing natural fibres like cotton, wool or linen.
- Inside out: Turn your sweaty clothes inside out before you wash them to that the detergent can reach the problematic areas more easily.
- Take it off: Take your sweaty clothes off as soon as you are done exercising or as soon as you get home. If you need to take a clean shirt to work with you, then do that.
- Fragrant stink: If you can’t seem to get the smell out of your clothes, no matter how much fabric softener and fragrance enhancer you use, those may be the things to avoid. Fabric softeners and fragrance enhancers sit on the surface of the fabric and block air circulation which means that your sweat doesn’t evaporate as easily. Add a cup of white vinegar to your wash to soften fabrics instead.
Underwear: Wash underwear regularly. They are fitting in the areas where your body produces the most bacteria and sweat. You can add 2 tablespoons of baking soda and 5 drops of tea tree oil to the basin if you hand wash your underwear. It will kill bacteria and remove any sweat staining and residue. You can add 3 drops of lavender oil to the water when you rinse your underwear to give it a fresh scent and kill any remaining bacteria. Lavender has antifungal and antimicrobial properties.
Clothes: Your clothes can hang onto odours and bacteria if they are worn for long periods of time or very regularly like gym clothing. Some man-made fabrics are even more likely to hang onto bacteria. Fitness clothing will eventually become smelly because you sweat in them quite a bit and they tend to be form fitting in all those extra sweaty areas where bacteria thrive.
Hang your clothes outside in the sunshine and fresh air to dry whenever you can. The sun is the best bacteria killer.
For a non-chemical deep clean you can wash your clothes in the following:
1 cup baking soda – behaves like soap, it cleanses and removes stains
5 cups white vinegar – kills germs and bacteria while removing stains and softening your clothes
1 cup water
10 drops tea tree oil – also kills bacteria
10 drops lavender essential oil (orange or lemon is also nice) – gives your clothes a nice fragrance.
Keep the mixture in a plastic bottle and add a cup to your wash.
If you already use a natural soap to wash your clothes you can use a cup of this solution as a fabric softener and disinfectant.
There are over 250 000 sweat glands in your feet and they can sweat up to 300ml of moisture in a day!
Wash your feet at least once a day. Use an antibacterial soap to wash your feet. You can also put tea tree oil in the water to help kill bacteria. Another easy remedy is to swipe witch hazel on a cotton pad all over your feet and between your toes. Make sure to use it on the sides of the toenails as well as bacteria and sweat can gather there.
Odour fighting foot soak:
5 drops lavender essential oil
3 drops cypress essential oil
2 drops patchouli essential oil
Add the oils to a bath/basin of warm water. You can also add Epsom salts to soothe tired or sore feet. Soak your feet and use a sponge or washcloth to properly clean around your toenails and between your toes. You can use a pumice stone to remove dead skin from your feet as well.
Tea foot soak for smelly feet:
The tannins in black tea kill bacteria and help to stop excessive sweating.
a basin of hot water
3 teabags – it can be normal tea or green tea
Let the tea bags soak in the water until the solution is quite strong and dark. The tannins in the tea will help to remove foot odour.
Antibacterial and Antiperspirant Lemon and alum powder foot soak
1/2 teaspoon alum powder – antibacterial and antiperspirant
juice of half a lemon
a basin of warm water
Mix the alum powder into the water when it is still quite hot. Add the lemon juice and throw the rest of the lemon in as well. Put your feet in the water and scrub your heels and the soles of your feet with the lemon. The alum will help to kill bacteria and prevent excessive sweating while the lemon will remove odour and dead skin cells from the soles of your feet. Bacteria can accumulate in the dead skin on your heels.
Other tips for keeping your feet fresh:
- Go barefoot as much as possible: Exposed to open air your feet will be less sweaty which means fewer bacteria.
- Use tea tree oil in your shoes to kill bacteria: You can make up a spray of 10 drops of tea tree and 100ml of witch hazel to spray in your shoes after wearing them. Leave them to dry before wearing that pair again.
- Alternate shoes: Wearing the same shoes day after day doesn’t give them a chance to dry out and you increase the bacterial load daily. Give your shoes time to dry out. If you can leave them in a sunny spot to dry, even better.
- Dead skin: Remove dead skin from your heels and toes. Bacteria love those dry patches.
- Fungal infections: If you use changing rooms and public pools, check your feet for fungal infections and treat them immediately. Fungal infections can cause itching, burning and odours.
- Socks: Wear breathable socks (wool) and change them daily! If you have a foot odour problem you can change them halfway through the day to avoid getting damp, smelly feet.
- Shoes: Try to wear open shoes whenever possible and try to keep plastic away from the skin. Plastic doesn’t allow the skin to “breathe” and traps bacteria.
We all have a natural smell. We are so used to fragrances in our detergents, deodorants, skin care and soaps that we have forgotten that we have a “skin smell”. Body odour can be debilitating for some people. We feel self-conscious and embarrassed if we sweat “too much” or have a body odour problem.
Sweating is natural, it’s just not aesthetically pleasing in this Instagram world of ours to have sweat stains showing. Apparently, we should always smell like roses and look like magazine covers. The reality is that we are human beings and some of that natural smell that is so unique to each of us is sometimes part of the reason people fall in love with us. I love my husband’s smell. OK, sometimes when we’ve been out on the bikes we smell like warthogs but there is nothing nicer than your partner’s real smell.
If body odour is a problem for you, try some of these suggestions but don’t let a perfectly natural bodily function turn you into a nervous wreck.