5 Surprising Reasons You Stink

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February 13, 2019
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Discover the root of the problem—then ditch the stench for good.

Why You Stink

You expect to be slightly pungent after an intense workout class or a garlicky meal. But sometimes, B.O. can catch you off guard—and with no way to freshen up fast.

“There are many causes of body odor,” says Lauren Ploch, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “Everything from what you eat to how you dress to certain health conditions can affect your smell.”

The good news? Once you know what’s causing an unpleasant scent, you can almost always control it. Here are five lesser-known sources of body odor—and what you can do about them.

Smelly Source #1: A Very Low-Carb Diet

You may have heard great things about the trendy ketogenic diet—a weight-loss plan that’s extremely low in carbs and high in fat. But there’s a potential unpleasant side effect that no one really talks about: weird-smelling breath.

When you’re not ingesting enough carbs, your body starts metabolizing compounds called ketones instead of glucose for fuel, explains Nathan Myers, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a clinical dietitian at James J. Peters VA Medical Center in New York City.

“Ketones are not something you’d normally metabolize, and they have a distinct, fruity odor that comes out in your breath,” he says.

It’s worth noting that simply cutting back on carbs 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.

For reference, one medium-sized banana has about 26 grams of carbohydrates, so even that would put you over the daily limit.

How to fight it: Talk to your doctor before trying the ketogenic diet. Besides causing the weird breath issue, going full-monty keto has been shown to increase the 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.

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Most people are better off eating a more balanced diet rich with healthy, whole foods instead of cutting out any particular group. However, if your health care provider has specifically recommended a ketogenic diet, ask about the best ways to stay hydrated and about any other concerns you have in advance.

Smelly Source #2: Unchecked Stress

Feeling stressed or nervous won’t necessarily cause a stench, but the sweat that often comes along with it will.

“Stress produces a particularly smelly kind of sweat,” says David M. Pariser, M.D., of Pariser Dermatology.

It’s different from the sweat your body produces when it needs to cool itself—say, from a hot a day or a tough workout. When that happens, your eccrine sweat glands produce a watery sweat that evaporates on your skin’s surface, cooling you off. On its own, that watery sweat generally doesn’t produce odor, Dr. Pariser says.

Stress, on the other hand, triggers your apocrine sweat glands, which produce an oily kind of sweat. And that oily substance tends to have a particularly pungent odor to it, he says.

How to fight it: To stop the smell before it starts, find ways to reduce your stress levels.

One easy strategy: Take a long, deep breath. Harvard researchers found that practicing controlled breathing can limit the production of stress hormones, help the body slow down its heartbeat, and trigger the relaxation response. And you can do it anytime, anywhere!

Or sweat to de-stress: Exercise is a proven stress-blaster. And when you sign up for a flip50 membership, you also gain access to 17,000-plus locations for massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic services designed to keep you calm and limber.

Smelly Source #3: Cotton Workout Clothes

The type of sweat that’s produced by exercise (eccrine sweat) 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.

“Bacteria and yeast begin to grow in that moist environment, leading to odor,” Dr. Pariser says.

How to fight it: Try to leave enough time to shower after your workout, he says. That’s the best way to stay fresh and odor-free.

Whether you shower or not, make sure you’re choosing activewear made from moisture-wicking fabrics, like nylon. This will help absorb moisture away from your skin faster than something like cotton. That’s good, since sweat that’s left in skin folds, like under the breasts or in the groin area, is especially vulnerable to developing a bad smell.

Smelly Source #4: One Too Many Cocktails

Drinking too much may come with a slew of unpleasant consequences, but emitting a unique smell is one of the lesser-known side effects.

It’s simply a result of your liver doing its job, which is to break down the nutrients and other substances you take in, including alcohol. Your liver prioritizes alcohol metabolism since it could be toxic, Myers explains.

“If you take in a lot of alcohol, your liver is going to work to clear it out of the body,” he says, “but in the meantime, its other work is building up.”

This results in an accumulation of nitrogenous wastes like urea, which can lead to a strong, ammonia-like smell.

How to fight it: You don’t have to avoid alcohol completely. 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.

When it’s not a special occasion, try to limit yourself to one drink a day, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The health benefits of moderate drinking start to disappear between one and two drinks, depending on the person.

In addition, your blood alcohol level may rise more quickly as you get older, thanks to a change in body composition, including a decrease in muscle mass. One drink might start to feel like two or three.

Smelly Source #5: Going Sockless

If you’ve been searching for a reason to embrace the socks-with-sandals look, this might be it: Wearing shoes without socks can be a pretty significant cause of odor, Dr. Ploch says.

This happens for a couple of reasons: First, 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.

Second, according to Dr. Ploch, we rarely clean our shoes, so bacteria can accumulate.

How to fight it: It starts before you ever put on shoes or socks, with thoroughly drying your feet—including between the toes—after showering. Putting on any kind of clothing while your skin is still damp can lead to yeast overgrowth, which can increase odor, Dr. Ploch says.

Once your feet are nice and dry, make a habit of pulling on socks. “Open shoes, or shoes with ventilation, can help,” Dr. Ploch explains, “but wearing socks is the better solution.”

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