The African elephant has the strongest sense of smell in the animal kingdom. It possesses 2,000 special genes that help them identify odours as far as 20 kilometres away. Luckily for this pachyderm, it gets to roam the wide savanna instead of navigating open sewers, walking past garbage dumps or being stuck in a lift with 20 sweaty humans on a humid day.
And let us warn you, Colonel Hathi’s Kenyan cousins are a discerning lot. They can distinguish between members of the Maasai and Kamba tribes based purely on their body odour. So they can definitely tell if you’ve skipped a shower because you woke up late and just used a wet tissue to dab your underarms. But what if you’ve bathed, powdered and sprayed enough deodorant to singlehandedly destroy the ozone layer, yet your armpits refuse to cooperate?
Blame it on puberty. According to Dr Rinky Kapoor, cosmetic dermatologist and dermato-surgeon, The Esthetic Clinics, sebaceous glands present in the face, scalp, underarms and groin become active due to hormonal changes. Their secretions are odourless by themselves, but when they breach the surface of the skin, they come in contact with bacteria which breaks down these compounds, emitting an aroma that can make your toes curl, and not in a fun way.
Another reason for unpleasant body odour is a vicious cocktail of sweat and bacteria. Sweat is largely produced by two glands- eccrine and apocrine. While the former covers most of the body and acts as our personal air conditioner by cooling us down and maintaining body temperature, the latter is present where there are a large number of hair follicles, your armpits, scalp and the genital area.
Like the secretions from the sebaceous glands, sweat too is odourless. That is, until it interacts with the bacteria on our skin.
But just because someone smells like they fell into a pile of muck, doesn’t mean they need to hit the shower. Sometimes, there is an underlying issue that is suddenly causing your pits to double down on the mind-numbing scent.
Kapoor says, “Foods that can cause changes in body odour are usually spicy like chillies. Foods like onion and garlic, rich in phenolic compounds, can also cause alterations in body odour. Even strong tea or strong coffee has a similar effect.”
Cruciferous vegetables, despite their nutritional value, contain large amount of sulphur, which our bodies can’t completely break down. The compounds then evaporate off our skin, leaving behind an odour.
At least now you have an excuse to give your mother when she is forcing you to eat the dreaded aloo gobi ki sabzi.
Whether you’re stressed about that call with your boss or the pimple that has taken hold of your cheek before a big date or are simply a compulsive overthinker like me, remember that when your stress levels are skyrocketing, your body’s sweat engines go into overdrive.
A 2016 study showed that people who developed a hyperhidrosis disorder (uncontrollable sweating) suffered from high levels of stress.
When the apocrine glands are triggered, they secrete excess sweat that emits a foul odour when mixed with the bacteria on your skin. Your surging stress levels are like a pool party with free cocktails for those bacteria.
Medical conditions affecting body odour
Although it’s quite rare, excessive sweating leading to body odour could also be indicative of an underlying medical condition. For instance, Kapoor talks of a condition called bromhidrosis. “The body odour is so bad that someone can’t stand next to you,” she says.
Another medical condition that is often linked to strong body odour is a rare genetic disorder called trimethylaminuria. This leaves the body unable to break down compounds found in fish, soy and cruciferous vegetables leading to a foul smell emitting from the body.
Medical conditions like kidney failure, liver disease, and diabetes can also change the composition of sweat and alter the smell.
Of course, to avoid smelling like a three-day-old banana peel, we must also pay close attention to personal hygiene. That much is a no-brainer. But what are the problem areas?
In 2015, a group of researchers conducted a study that showed that body odour was caused by a bacteria called Staphylococcus Hominis. These bacteria are part of the microbiome of the underarm and are effective at breaking down sweat molecules into compounds known as thioalcohols and releasing unpleasant aromas.
The underarms provide a warm, moist, and dark environment that proves to be an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. When we sweat, it’s like a free-for-all breakfast buffet for these bacteria who in turn, thank us with the fishy odour.
Kapoor explains that the armpits smell because the sebaceous apocrine gland concentration is very high here.
Prevention: While it’s typically not a cause for concern, foul-smelling body odour is not ideal in certain social scenarios nor is it hygienic. A study from 2016 showed that shaving or waxing the armpits significantly reduced armpit odour. No hair means cleansing is more effective. Your parlour didi was right all along.
Avoiding spicy food, using an antiperspirant and trying stress-reducing exercises like meditation might also do the trick.
Dr. Debraj Shome is Director and Co founder of The Esthetic Clinics. He has been rated amongst the top surgeons in India by multiple agencies. The Esthetic Clinics patients include many international and national celebrities who prefer to opt for facial cosmetic surgery and facial plastic surgery in Mumbai because The Esthetic Clinics has its headquarters there.