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How to Get Rid of Body Odor

Are you stinky? If you are, this is your lucky day! Dr. Rob has the low-down on BO.

By
Rob Lamberts, MD,
December 9, 2009
Episode #026

One of the most popular articles I did was the one about bad breath. I am not sure of the comment this makes on our society, but it certainly gives good reason to invest heavily in breath mint stock. Today I am covering a similar topic, and so expect to see a huge bump in my popularity.

The topic comes from an anonymous reader:

“One of my armpits smells all the time. I scrub and scrub with soap and even right afterward, it still smells. I have tried all kinds of deodorant, even prescription strength, [as well as] baking soda, vinegar, lemon, tea tree oil and tea tree soap, etc. I do not sweat excessively, so it is not that I sweat too much. I just SMELL too much.  Any suggestions?”

How to Get Rid of Body Odor

So if you haven’t guessed, today’s topic is bromidrosis, known by non-Latin people as body odor or B.O.

I have to confess to you that I had to do a lot of research on this problem. I have not really had many patients coming in about their odor. I guess I can be thankful for that. Heck, I didn’t even know it was called bromidrosis! Add another Latin word to the arsenal.

What Causes Body Odor?

I am sure you are all asking yourself: “Dr. Rob? Where does bromidrosis come from?“ The root cause of the socially handicapping odor is our old friend, bacteria. But bacteria aren’t always very friendly; in fact, they are often impolite guests on your body, leaving waste products that are anything but hospitable. The more bacteria there are, the more waste; and the more waste, the more the stink.

 Recalling what we learned from earlier articles, bacteria grow when certain conditions are met:

  • Moisture

  • Food to eat

  • Warmth

  • Proper environment, including things like sodium concentration and pH.

Can you guess where on your body bacteria consider prime real estate? Applying the “sniff test” you would guess: armpits, groin, and feet. You would be right! 

The Relationship Between Sweat and Body Odor

The more bacteria there are, the more waste; and the more waste, the more the stink.

Your body supplies a single substance that supplies both moisture and food: It’s called sweat. But not all sweat does the trick; there are two types of sweat: the typical salty variety, called eccrine and an oily variety, called apocrine. There are two main reasons you sweat: to cool yourself off, and in response to stress. The eccrine sweat glands are present all over your body and they are responsible for cooling you off. The apocrine glands are only present under your arms, on your palms and soles, and in your groin area.

Just why it would benefit you to secrete a certain kind of sweat from your feet, hands, groin, and pits as a response to stress is a mystery to me. Some seem to think it may have to do with pheromones--an airborne chemical message put out by the body. Some studies suggest that a different kind of excitement, ahem, causes these glands to put out chemicals that may have to do with attracting a mate. I remember in junior high having sweaty palms when that one girl walked by…

Why Does Body Odor Smell?

Anyway, it’s the substance from the apocrine glands gives the bacteria in those places an all-you-can-eat buffet and hence causes them to put out chemicals like propionic acid and isovalonic acid, which are real stinky molecules. So somehow controlling the environment in which these bacteria live is key to controlling those odors.

Quick and Dirty Tips for Getting Rid of Body Odor

Make life miserable for these bacteria! Be a bad host! How do you do that? Here are my quick and dirty tips on how to deal with body odor: 

B.O. Tip 1:  Bathe
It is my experience as a physician that people who do not bathe smell significantly worse than those who bathe regularly. I am not just talking about running water over yourself. Use soap! Soap makes the oils on your skin soluble in water, removing that oil that the bacteria like to feed off of. 

Soap also kills off bacteria. All soap does, not just antibacterial soap.

B.O. Tip 2: Stay Calm
The apocrine glands are stimulated by stress, which means that anxious people are stinkier than the calm, cool, and collected. I have not personally done research on the subject, so I’d love to hear any ambitious listener’s research on the subject.

B.O. Tip 3:  Stay Dry
Antiperspirants are the first step to staying dry. They block the output of the apocrine glands, reducing the food for the bad bacteria. If the typical antiperspirant is not enough, there are actually prescription strength antiperspirants that work most of the time.

Another way to stay dry is to wear clothing that will soak up moisture. Cotton undershirts for men will help. Women, being no expert in women’s clothing, I can’t give specific advice; I do know that women never smell bad, so this really is irrelevant anyhow.

B.O. Tip 4: Watch What You Put in Your Body
Strong foods like garlic and onions can come out in your skin. Certain medications, especially some anti-depressant medications can increase the output of apocrine glands. Smoking makes you stink in general, but actually can change your sweat as well. Finally, certain diseases like diabetes can cause you to change smells.

Now, if all else fails, you should go to a dermatologist. Botox injections have been successful in helping people with perspiration problems (and your underarms have no wrinkles as an added bonus). Even surgery has been attempted to fix this problem.

Stay tuned, because I'll cover other potentially embarrassing problems like bad breath, urinary incontinence, bowel problems, hemorrhoids, and "male" issues in other episodes.

That’s it.  I don’t know a whole lot more about B.O. I hope that helps!

If you have questions you want answered, send them to housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com.  You can find me on Twitter as @housecalldoc and on Facebook under “House Call Doctor.”

Let me remind you that this article is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Catch you next time!  Stay Healthy!


Body Odor image courtesy of Shutterstock

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