What causes body odor?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

There is a bouquet of odors wafting from all corners of the human body. These scents are purposeful chemical signals that either attract or detract a potential partner, predator, pest, or pal. Your propensity to seduce a mosquito or a lover depends on hundreds of volatile organic chemicals (VOC) that naturally percolate out of glands situated all over the body. For the most part these chemicals are undetectable to the human nose. Sweat is just water and doesn't smell. But when the VOCs meet up with bacteria living on the skin, in hair follicles, on teeth and tongue they can change the chemistry enough to produce some distinctively unpleasant odors.

The potency of body odors is influenced by personal hygiene, body temperature, body ecology, genetics, gender, and age. There is an inherited metabolic disorder called trimethylaminuria (TMAU), sometimes called fish-odor syndrome, caused by the inability to break down a chemical found in choline-rich foods - eggs, soy, kidney beans, wheat germ, saltwater fish, and organ meats - but the condition is extremely rare. And there are some infectious diseases, skin conditions, other health conditions, and medications that cause pronounced or distinctive body odors. But otherwise healthy people can smell too.

To nose down odors you need to look in moist dark areas that have a high concentration of glands and hair follicles.

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Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
If you smell funkier than a Rick James album, then there's probably a good explanation. Our major sweat glands (they're called eccrine glands, in case you're ever on Jeopardy) release a sterile solution that attract smelly bacteria in some people. These secretions are stored in coiled circular glands 4 feet long and covering our entire skin surface.

But the actual composition of your sweat is based on your genes and your food. Garlic will quickly pass into your skin and quickly share itself with others. Washing frequently helps, but sometimes a quick course of topical antibiotics from your doctor is the best anti-smell solution.
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Researchers have concluded that body odor isn't found in the body, but on the skin. Sweat excreted by apocrine glands (especially in the underarms) contains fats and proteins that are consumed by microorganisms that live on the skin. Odor is a byproduct of these organisms feeding on the sweat.


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.