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Body odor is seldom a topic for polite conversation, even though nearly everyone at some time in life will have to deal with it. Most of the time body odor can be relieved with simple hygiene, it can become a medical condition known as bromhidrosis.

Can body odor be controlled with a simple hygiene?

Chronic, persistent, hard-to-treat body odor can becomes overpowering to the person suffering it and interfere with the activities of daily life.

The bodily excretion most associated with natural body odor is sweat. In adults, there are two types of sweat glands, eccrine and apocrine. The eccrine glands appear all over the body and produce perspiration to keep the body cool. The apocrine glands have no role in regulating body temperature, but they produce odors and pheromones that are particular to the individual. Concentrated under the arms, near the genitals and breasts, and also around the eyes and ears, these produce a small amount of oily fluid. The fluid is odorless when it reaches the skin surface, but bacteria can decompose it to become potently odoriferous. Apocrine sweat contains complex chemical markers based on the activity of the immune system.                                                        

Not everyone reacts to other people's body odor the same way. Scientists have found that some ethnic groups find bacterially degraded sweat from people who have the same basic immune system markers inoffensive, while they find bacterially degraded sweat from people who have different immune system markers very unpleasant. Other ethnic groups react to bacterial decay, not the individual immune system markers. In general, people with ancestors from Europe tend to disregard body odors from genetically similar individuals, while people with ancestors from Asia tend to be sensitive to the odor itself, not the genetic markers.      

One research study found that people who are anxious about their body odor give visual cues that cause people to turn away. Men were asked to rate the effectiveness of their deodorants, and then their pictures were taken. When women were shown the photographs-with no possibility of sensing any body odor-the men who were most concerned about their smell were rated as the least visually attractive.1 Women who are on the contraceptive Pill, incidentally, are less responsive to body odor in men. Sensitivity to body odor also varies by sex and gender orientation.2

When Body Odor Is a Serious Medical Condition

There are times when body odor is an early symptom of a serious metabolic disorder. These particular body odors, when they cannot be traced to an outside cause, call for medical care:

  • The smell of rotten eggs on the breath and in the urine is a sign of liver failure.
  • The smell of urine even after bathing is a sign of kidney failure.
  • A garlicky smell on the breath without eating garlic is a sign of selenium poisoning.
  • A smell on the breath or skin like fingernail polish remover (acetone) is a sign of dangerously high blood sugars.
  • And smelling fishy is a sign of a metabolic disorder that prevents the normal processing of protein.3
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  • Martins Y, Preti G, Crabtree CR, Runyan T, Vainius AA, Wysocki CJ. Preference for human body odors is influenced by gender and sexual orientation. Psychol Sci. 2005 Sep: 16(9):694-701
  • Whittle CL, Fakharzadeh S, Eades J, Preti G. Human breath odors and their use in diagnosis. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2007 Mar,1098:252-66
  • Guillet G, Zampetti A, Aballain-Colloc ML. Correlation between bacterial population and axillary and plantar bromidrosis: study of 30 patients. Eur J Dermatol. 2000 Jan-Feb: 10(1):41-2