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Body odor is a topic that can still feel taboo. While it may not seem like a topic that is in urgent need of awareness, it is a subject that is shrouded in shame. Because of this, there are several misconceptions surrounding body odor. Today, with the help of experts, we’re addressing and debunking them once and for all.
Body odor doesn’t just occur because you’re not bathing every day. Dermatologist and founder of Smarter Skin Dermatology, Sejal Shah, says that while poor personal hygiene can contribute to the problem or make it worse, it’s far from the only factor and is rarely the sole reason someone smells.
What is true, however, is that poor hygiene can exacerbate the issue. “Not bathing can facilitate the overgrowth of dirt and grime on the skin and can oxidize from air exposure, also creating a bad smell, though this is a very different type of smell,” explains Washington, D.C.-based dermatologist, Adam Friedman.
Case in point: While overgrowth of dirt and grime can play a role in body odor and how strong it can be, it’s never the root cause.
This is easily one of the most common misconceptions when it comes to body odor. But believe it or not, any dermatologist will tell you sweat itself doesn’t smell. Instead, it’s how sweat interacts with bacteria on the skin that results in an undesirable stench. “You can be sweaty, which in excess, is its own issue, but if you kill off the bacteria with an antibacterial wash, you won’t smell,” explains Friedman, who adds, “The idea that toxins, impurities, and metabolic byproducts are excreted through sweat is wrong.” For instance, when someone smells like alcohol, it’s not coming out through their sweat — it’s ejected via the liver and the kidneys.
While many foods don’t affect how we smell at all, there are certain ones — such as sulfur-containing garlic and onions — that can affect not only our breath but our body odor as well. “Some foods can change the smell of sweat because they release odorous compounds when they are metabolized by the body,” explains Shah. Additionally, Friedman says foods like broccoli, bok choy, and cabbage are common culprits.
So, this is largely true in most cases. However, Shah says there are certain medical conditions, such as liver and kidney diseases, that are associated with strong and unique odors. “This isn’t super common, but if you do notice a change in odor or a new odor occurring, you should definitely consider seeing a doctor to determine if there’s an underlying issue,” says Shah.
While antibacterial washes can aid in minimizing the odor-causing bacteria on our skin, over-cleansing is not the solution. Friedman says cleansing too often can lead to irritation and skin reactions. What’s more, he says using antiperspirants containing baking soda can cause a severe contact irritation — especially for those with existing skin conditions or sensitive skin. “I’ve seen this happen first-hand, and it’s never good,” he says.