Everyone has their own scent, but sometimes, that scent isn’t necessarily pleasant. Body odor is a normal occurrence, and when it’s not connected to a larger problem, it’s a sign of your body’s healthy symptoms working properly. Most body odor can be attributed to the mixture of sweat, bacteria, and environmental dirt that accumulates on your skin, Joshua Zeichner, MD, board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Allure. “Body odor becomes stronger over time, as more bacteria and sweat build up on the skin, and they interact with each other,” he explains. “This is not harmful, as healthy bacteria live symbiotically on our bodies.”
Then, there may be a bad body odor that falls outside of this norm. Some are totally benign, while others might signal that something is up with your health. “Many health conditions have signature odors associated with them,” whether those smells are “breath odors, body odors, urine odors, or stool,” Tamara Duker Freuman, a registered dietician in New York City, explains. “In some cases, a particular body odor can give us insights about our health.”
Doctors are really only beginning to scratch the surface of what body odors can tell us, says Dr. Zeichner. For example, recent reports have detailed how “certain cancers of the skin thought to give off volatile organic compounds” have been detected by canines’ noses, he says. The same principle of using hyper-sensitive sniffing devices is also being applied to studying compounds in gasses that could be used to diagnose certain diseases, Freuman adds. If all you have is your own nose, though, and you’ve noticed that your B.O. is smelling off, how can you figure out what’s going on and what should you do about it? Here’s what the experts have to say.
Meet the experts:
- Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
- Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist.
- Niket Sonpal, MD, an adjunct assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City.
- Rebecca Marcus, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Maei MD based in Dallas, Texas.
- Lian Mack, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at GlamDerm and assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
- Nitin Kumar MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist in Effingham, Illinois.
- Afton Cobb, MD, FAAB, FAC, a board-certified dermatologist of Advanced Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in Jackson, Wyoming.
In this story:
What are the common causes of body odor?
Body odor — or bromhidrosis as it’s medically referred to — occurs when sweat, which is produced by the apocrine glands, mixes with the bacteria on the skin. “Apocrine glands are those that are associated with hair follicles, and they are concentrated in the axillae and groin,” explains Rebecca Marcus MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Maei MD. “The sweat produced by these glands is made up of water, salt, lipids and hormones, and when this type of sweat mixes with bacteria on the skin, body odor follows.” The other glands, the eccrine glands, are located throughout the body. These glands tend to produce sweat without any odor.
“Sweat in and of itself does not have a foul odor,” Lian Mack, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at GlamDerm and assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, further explains. “When bacteria on the skin begin to break down the sweat, it results in a foul-smelling odor.”
What your body odor is telling you?
When your body odor smells, well… off, it can often be attributed to three things: diet, stress, and/or underlying medical conditions. That said, there are many myths about sweat, so here’s the B.O. breakdown.
“Diet isn’t the only source of new or different body odors, though it’s never a bad place to start,” Freuman says. “These odors typically result from metabolic processes that produce volatile compounds (VOCs), which are molecules that evaporate, causing an odor in their wake.”