Your scent can reveal a lot about your diet, habits, and health. Here’s how to get to the root of the problem so you can feel fresher.
You’re strolling along, going about your business, when you catch a whiff of something unpleasant. You take a quick look around, but there’s no one else near. Does that mean you smell?
The answer might be yes. And the cause likely isn’t as clear-cut as you think.
“There are actually many causes of body odor—everything from what you eat to how you dress to certain health conditions can affect your smell,” says Lauren Ploch, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Of course, everyone’s natural scent is partly determined by age and body chemistry at that age. Puberty, for example, brings some funky scents, thanks to hormones flooding the body. Older age has a distinct smell too, due to a chemical compound known as nonenal. It’s sometimes indelicately referred to as “old-person smell,” but no need to feel self-conscious: A PLOS One study found that the scent of older adults was regarded as less intense and less unpleasant than the scent of adults 20 to 30 years old, or those 45 to 55 years old.
Aside from your age, once you know what’s causing your B.O., you can almost always control it. Here are seven sneaky sources—and how to fix them fast.
1. You’re Stressed
There’s a reason why you might smell a little ripe after giving that toast at your granddaughter’s wedding. Stress produces a particularly smelly kind of sweat, says David M. Pariser, M.D., a physician at Pariser Dermatology in Virginia.
When your body needs to cool itself—say, from a hot day or a tough workout—your eccrine sweat glands turn on. This produces a watery sweat that evaporates from your skin’s surface, cooling you off. On its own, that watery sweat generally doesn’t produce odor, Dr. Pariser explains.
Stress, on the other hand, triggers your apocrine sweat glands, which produce an oily kind of sweat. It’s that oily substance that tends to have a particularly pungent odor to it, he says.
To ward off the smell before it starts, find ways to help reduce your stress levels. One simple option: Take a long, deep breath. Harvard researchers found that practicing controlled breathing can help slow down your heart rate, limit the production of stress hormones, and trigger the relaxation response.
The best part: You can do it anywhere, anytime. For more ideas, check out our guide to incredibly simple acts that cut stress instantly.
2. You Run Errands After Your Workout
Eccrine sweat, the kind that exercise produces, doesn’t generally smell by itself, but if you leave it on your body long enough, it can start to stink—especially if it’s covered by clothing that makes evaporation difficult. Sweat that’s left in skin folds, like under the breasts or in the groin area, are also vulnerable to developing a certain smell.
“Bacteria and yeast begin to grow in that moist environment, leading to odor,” Dr. Pariser says.
The best thing you can do is shower right after your workout, he says. And make sure you’re choosing fabrics that are moisture-wicking. Workout clothes made from nylon, for example, will absorb moisture away from your skin faster than something like cotton.
3. You Wear Shoes Without Socks
Your grandkids may tease you about your socks-with-sandals look, but wearing shoes sans socks can be a pretty significant cause of odor, Dr. Ploch says.
Most shoes aren’t moisture-wicking, so when the eccrine glands on your feet produce sweat, the sweat just kind of puddles in there. This leaves the sweat in contact with your skin for a longer time, providing the perfect environment for smelly bacteria to grow.
“We rarely clean our shoes, so bacteria can accumulate,” Dr. Ploch says. Open shoes, or shoes with ventilation, can help, Dr. Pariser says, but wearing socks is the better solution.
Also, make sure you thoroughly dry your feet—including between the toes—after showering and before putting on your socks. Putting on any kind of clothing while your skin is still damp can lead to yeast overgrowth, which can also increase odor, Dr. Ploch says.
4. You’re Not Eating Enough Carbs
Following the ketogenic diet—a trendy diet that’s very low in carbs and high in fat—can lead to an unpleasant side effect: weird-smelling breath.
When you’re not taking in enough carbs, your body starts metabolizing compounds called ketones instead of glucose for fuel, explains Nathan Myers, R.D., a clinical dietitian at James J. Peters VA Medical Center.
“Ketones are not something you’d normally metabolize, and it has a distinct, fruity odor that comes out of your breath,” he says.
Fruity-smelling “ketosis breath” is very similar to a side effect seen in uncontrolled diabetes, Myers explains. In that case, your cells are not able to properly absorb glucose to use as fuel, which triggers them to turn to ketones instead.
Simply eating a low-carb diet won’t trigger ketosis or ketosis breath, Myers says. You’d have to be limiting your carbs to the extreme, such as 15 to 20 grams per day, though the exact number depends on each person and their activity level.
Besides the breath issue, going full-fledged keto might not be the best idea for older adults. The diet increases risk of dehydration, both because the prescribed foods tend to have diuretic effects and because you limit hydrating foods like fruits and vegetables, Myers says. You’re better off eating a more balanced diet rich with healthy, whole foods instead of cutting out any particular group.
If your health care provider has specifically recommended a ketogenic diet, ask about the best ways to stay hydrated and any other concerns you have in advance.
5. You Drank Too Much Last Night
A throbbing head isn’t the only potential consequence of drinking too much. You might also notice you’re emitting a unique smell.
Your liver breaks down the nutrients and other substances you take in, including alcohol. But it prioritizes alcohol metabolism since it could be toxic, Myers says. “If you take in a lot of alcohol, your liver is going to work to clear it out of the body,” he explains. “But in the meantime, [your liver] is sort of allowing its other work to build up.”
The result? An accumulation of nitrogenous wastes like urea, which can lead to a strong, ammonia-like smell.
This doesn’t mean you can’t drink at all. Just limit yourself to no more than three drinks in one sitting (and consider that a special occasion). “The more you drink, the longer it’s going to take your liver to process it, possibly leading to a more significant odor,” Myers says.
Beyond the potential stench, consuming too much alcohol comes with some pretty serious health consequences. Learn more in our special report on alcohol misuse among older adults.
6. You Ate Too Much Broccoli
Certain cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts—can be hard to digest, leading to larger amounts of gas that tends to be particularly odorous, Meyers says.
“A lot of people’s digestive systems don’t have all the enzymes needed to break down all of the types of carbohydrates in those vegetables,” he says.
Over-the-counter fixes like Gas-X can help, since they contain enzymes to help break down the carbs. But another option is simply cutting back and then gradually reintroducing these vegetables into your diet, upping your intake little by little. This approach helps deliberately introduce some helpful bacteria in your GI tract that play a role in breaking down some of those enzymes, keeping smelly gas at bay.
7. You Sweat for No Good Reason
It’s normal to sweat when you’re working out or gardening in the dead of summer. But when you’re meandering through the grocery store? Not so much.
Excessive sweating that occurs when you’re not physically exerting yourself, or when the temperature isn’t too hot, can be a sign of a medical condition called hyperhidrosis, Dr. Pariser says. Along with noticing it under your arms, you may also find you sweat through your palms, feet, or face.
Hyperhidrosis affects the eccrine glands, so this sweat wouldn’t smell on its own. But if you let the sweat stay on your skin too long—as explained in #2 above—you might find yourself dealing with odor.
If excessive sweating is interfering with your life, make an appointment with your doctor, Dr. Pariser says. Treatments vary and can include over-the-counter or prescription-grade antiperspirants, Botox injections, or even laser therapy, according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society.
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