Make a Stink

Make a Stink: What Your Body Odor Is Telling You

What Your Body Odor Is Telling You

Body odor on a hot summer day or after a long run is common, but smelling during the workday? Not so fun. Several factors can cause body odor, but there are measures to prevent and kill odor-causing bacteria.

What is Body Odor?

Sweat itself is odorless; bacteria causes body odor. One key bacteria species, Thioalcohols, is found in underarms, and is pungent in very small amounts. The sebaceous glands—found on the scalp, face, and chest—produce an oil that can be odorous with or without bacteria. While there are fragrant products to mask odor, it’s better to discover and treat the cause.

Causes of Body Odor

Poor Hygiene

Regular bathing is the best way to wash away bacteria from the skin. Wash thoroughly with antibacterial soap and focus on areas prone to sweating. Shaving underarms can help reduce body odor as well since hair is porous and can trap bacteria. After showering, dry off completely. Bacteria thrive in moist environments so dry between toes, under breasts, and on any other areas you may sweat a lot. Keep underarms dry by using deodorant with antiperspirant to block sweat glands. (Learn more about deodorant safety here.) If you experience frequent underarm odor and wetness, apply deodorant twice daily, especially at night.


Eating garlic and spicy foods as well as limiting certain foods can cause odor issues. Consuming too few carbohydrates on a high-protein diet can cause the body to burn fat for energy, which releases ketones (acids that show up when the body lacks insulin) into the bloodstream. This can cause bad breath. If you’re trying to lose weight without ketone-induced stink, decrease calorie intake but consume at least 130 grams of carbohydrates daily. Smelly foods such as onions or cruciferous vegetables break down into compounds (typically sulfur) that circulate in the blood stream. These smelly compounds expel through sweat glands and breath.


The sweat you may experience during stressful times differs from workout sweat. It’s produced from the apocrine glands and tends to be less watery and contain more fat, which bacteria love. Try sipping on sage tea, which contains a tannin that can calm the nervous system. Steep one to two teaspoons of dried sage leaves in hot water and sip frequently in small quantities throughout the day.

Forgoing Socks

Wearing closed shoes all day without socks results in a breeding ground of bacteria. Moisture gets trapped and without socks, there’s nothing to absorb the sweat on your feet. By the end of the day, you can have some serious stinky feet. If socks aren’t an option, rub an antiperspirant on the bottom of your feet and between toes. At night, dip feet in a mixture of one part vinegar and two parts water to kill bacteria. Sprinkle baking soda in shoes and let sit overnight to kill the stink.


Form-fitting clothes, such as spandex, can trap sweat during gym sessions, causing skin irritation and odor. Opt for loose-fitting cotton or other moisture-wicking fabrics instead, and wash gym clothes frequently if you sweat a lot. Bras, which rub against sweat-prone areas, are often made of fabrics that can hold bacteria. Not washing bras enough can build odor in the fabric. Avoid wearing the same bra two days in a row to allow the elastic to rest. Hand wash after every few wears; you may need to wash after every wear during the summer due to increased sweat.

When to See a Doctor

If you sweat more than the average person on a hot day, it’s usually harmless. Sweating is your body’s way to stay cool. But if you feel you sweat heavily for no reason at all, you may have hyperhidrosis, a condition that affects about one to three percent of the population. See a doctor if excessive sweating is an issue. Prescription-strength antiperspirants can help control symptoms, and in serious cases low-level electrical treatments can temporally disable sweat glands.

Make a Stink: What Your Body Odor Is Telling You

By Danielle Emig

Danielle Emig is a freelance writer and lipstick lover living in New York City. Originally from Portland, she moved to the big city with only a suitcase full of shoes and a mind bursting with dreams. It was her desire for adventure that led her to NYC, and even working unpaid internships and odd jobs to make ends meet — like cocktail waitressing at a pirate-themed bar — wouldn’t deter her from making it as a writer and editor. Two years later, she landed at InStyle Magazine and hasn’t looked back since. When she’s not sipping out of a lipstick-stained wineglass, Danielle loves to cook, make jewelry, and hang out on her fire escape.