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Dr Phil: Body odour

Do I smell?

Dr PhilUndoubtedly. Everyone has his or her own idiosyncratic tincture, often so faint that it can only be detected by those who rub up against us. A few of us give out signals at 6 feet but whether or not these are deemed unpleasant depends on cultural norms as much as wind speed. Incidentally, the female Emperor moth (Eudia pavonia) puts out a pheromone that can be picked up by as male 6.8 miles away.

Why do I smell?

There must be some evolutionary advantage to smelling or it would have been banished from the gene pool. It's probably got something to do with keeping the flies off your tucker or tracking your partner down in the dark. Perhaps it encourages us to mate with the same species. Some couples admit to finding each other's scent a turn on, but then sex has a remarkable capacity to make erstwhile vile smells and tastes alluring, if only for 10 minutes.

I meant what makes me smell?

Sweat itself is largely blameless, unless you've pigged out on garlic, onions, curry and alcohol (hence the Sunday morning stinker). It's the colonization of sweat that's been hanging around for several hours by chemical-releasing bacteria that causes the problem. Sweat tends to congregate in areas where it can't escape from in polite society ('nads, nipples and pits). These areas are also blessed with a special type of sweat gland, the apocrine gland, which produces sticky, milky fluid containing fats and proteins. These glands become active in adolescence and their fluid is said to be pheromonal. Unfortunately, it's also a bacterial feast. The other type of sweat gland (eccrine) is most concentrated on your forehead, palms and soles. Socks, gloves and woolly pom-pom hats provide an enclosed, airless environment for sweat-rotting bugs.

Why sweat?

The average torso boasts 2 million sweat glands which churn out over 3 litres every 24 hours (2.1 ml a minute). Its function is to control body temperature and stop you overheating. Most of it evaporates easily. Hot weather, alcohol, exercise, obesity and agitation up the production, and humid conditions slow down evaporation. Some people sweat buckets even when they're cold, sober, slim, stationary and stress-free. Although upsetting, this isn't harmful unless it's combined with other symptoms that suggest something else is responsible, e.g. weight loss, weakness, trembling, increased appetite and bulging eyes (over-active thyroid gland or orgasm), night sweats, cough and weight loss (infection) or irregular periods (menopause).

How can I cut down on my B.O.?

The text-book advice to wash all over and change your grundies, socks and any skin-hugging clothes every day seems condescending in the extreme. However, only a third of men wash behind their foreskin every day, while the majority are either too lazy or actually enjoy the smell of stale smegma (most of us go through a phase of crutch rubbing and sniffing). Sadly, some people with scrupulous personal hygiene still seem to sweat or smell excessively, and accusing them of skimping on the soap isn't particularly helpful. Others lack the mobility to reach under their armpits or perhaps can't afford to heat their water. Using an anti-bacterial or anti-septic soap, particularly in your apocrine areas, can help, but avoid over-washing as it can remove healthy skin bacteria and make the problem worse. It's a good idea to dry carefully after bathing and pamper yourself with talc as bacteria prefer moist skin. Tight or synthetic clothes and night garments are out; go for baggy cottons that allow the sweat to evaporate and sleep in the raw. Shower promptly after exertion, wear cotton socks, rotate your shoes round, go easy on alcohol and try not to pile on the pork.

What about a deodorant?

Deodorants alone just mask the smell and don't cut down on sweat rot. Choose wisely; the heady mix of B.O. and cheap cologne is worse than B.O. alone. Go for one containing an anti-perspirant too. These work by either stopping the bacteria from rotting or, rather perversely, by preventing the sweat from evaporating and holding the sweat and smell in. Experiment with a few to find which type and method of delivery suits you best. Some can cause irritation and you'd be unwise to apply them to broken skin or your genitals.

What if this doesn't work?

Stronger anti-perspirants can be bought from your pharmacist and contain aluminium chloride. This reduces the amount of sweat you produce, but tends to cause skin irritation. Other options include botox, sweat nerve destruction, liposuction and surgical removal of the skin under your arms. None of these guarantee success – see the sweating page for more details.
Dr Phil Hammond is a medical doctor, comedian and commentator on health issues.


Written by: Dr Phil Hammond
Edited by: Dr Phil Hammond
Last updated: Friday, August 13th 2010

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Comments on this article

Posted by Upset Stinky Girl on 07/10/2016 at 08:35

There are diseases and conditions where none of this advice can begin to apply. Deodorant, antiperspirants, and good personal hygiene for the last 8 years have only served to enhance my smell. I've tried a lot of advice to no avail. Baking soda, detoxing, vinegar, lemon juice, alum, milk of magnesium, home deodorants, toothpaste, mouthwash, and so much more. Aluminum and aluminum chloride do nothing but extend the 15 yard range in which I can be smelled. Scents only make it worse rather than covering it. Deodorants do the same. Antibacterial soaps, castle soaps, they are just more expensive forms of soap. But I've come to realize that the problem really isn't you, me, but the lack of understanding and complete ignorance of people. They are or can be cruel and relentless I know, and cause me and everyone else in my situation a lot of mental distress. Even causing want or need of the end of suffering. Death. What's needed is forgiveness, awareness, and people willing to stand up for others and feel that it is okay to stand up for themselves. More people should know about this.

Posted by Optional on 13/12/2014 at 06:18

Dr Phil Hammond I get great knowledge from website. Please get my appreciations. Regards, MA

Posted by Privatel on 22/10/2014 at 05:04

I've noticed, and other people have remarked on this too, that changing one's nutrition can help in situations where body odor was strong. Maybe it changes what we're feeding our national bacteria, or maybe there's a more direct biochemical connection (e.g. foods containing allicin or sulfur).

Posted by Optionaljanice rooney on 10/10/2014 at 11:26

Hi I know yr doing stand up to cancer next week. My cousin has grade 3 breast cancer that has spread ti her lymph nodes. She has just had her second cycle of chemotherapy. No other treatments available. She has only just turned 31 and has 4 lovely children. She has just had to move back in with her mum to support her as she is generally feeling unwind. I would love if you could mention and support hrr as this is a trying time for the family.