Commonly, most people who have passed puberty produce body odour. It can be assumed as one of the secondary sexual characteristics in the grown-ups at puberty. Puberty usually occurs between 12-16 years in girls, and 13-17 years in boys.
Although, human sweat is mostly odourless, micro-organism like the bacteria that live on the skin can break down the sweat into acids, which produces an unpleasant odour. Medically, this condition is known as bromhidrosis, apocrine bromhidrosis, fetid sweat or malodorous sweating.
Body odour can be made worse by the following conditions/situations: Obesity, Eating a diet that is high in spicy foods and having certain medical conditions, such as diabetes. Also of relevance here is the fact that body odour is commoner in men, since men tend to sweat more than women.
Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis)
A minority of individuals in the population have a condition called hyperhidrosis, which causes them to sweat excessively. Ironically, however, those with hyperhidrosis tend not to develop body odour because the sweat that they produce is too salty for the bacteria to break down.
Sweating and sweat glands
Our body contains between 3-4 million sweat glands. There are two types of glands:
1. Eccrine glands - are distributed across your skin, and are responsible for regulating body’s temperature by cooling the skin with sweat when one gets hot.
2. Aprocrine glands - are concentrated in the armpits, genital area, and breasts. Aprocrine glands are scent glands because they release scented chemicals known as pheromones.
Pheromones are thought to be able to subconsciously influence how people react towards the others. For example, one might find a person sexually attractive because one is drawn to the smell of their pheromones.
It is the aprocrine glands that are mostly responsible for body odour because the sweat that they produce contains a high level of protein, which bacteria find easy to break down. As the sweat that is produced by eccrine glands is saltier, the bacteria are unable to fully break it down.
Feet become smelly because most people wear socks and shoes. This means that sweat cannot evaporate properly, which gives the bacteria the opportunity to break the sweat down. The moisture that accumulates around the feet can also encourage the growth of fungi, which can also produce an unpleasant smell.
Handling body odour
Body odor may be reduced or prevented or even aggravated by using deodorants, antiperspirants, disinfectants, special soaps or foams with antiseptic plant extracts such as chlorophyllin ointments and sprays. Although body odour is commonly associated with hygiene practices, its presentation can be affected by changes in diet as well as the other factors discussed earlier.
There are a number of medical conditions that can cause a change in how much we sweat, or how sweat smells. For example, the menopause or an over-active thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) can increase the amount we sweat. In the same vein, diabetes or liver or kidney disease can produce a change in one’s body odour.
These conditions can occasionally be serious so it is important to see the doctor if one experiences any of the symptoms listed below:
• Inappropriate sweating at night,
• Sweating much more than one used to, and for no apparent reason,
• Experiencing cold sweats,
• Notice a change in the smell of the body odour; a fruity smell could indicate diabetes, while a bleach-like smell could be caused by liver or kidney disease.
Body odour and personal hygiene
Our armpits contain a large concentration of apocrine glands. Therefore, it is necessary to keep them clean and free of bacteria in order to help control the symptoms of body odour by ensuring that:
• Take a bath, or shower, once a day. On hot days, consider bathing or showering twice a day.
• Wash the armpits thoroughly using an anti-bacterial soap.
• Use a deodorant, or an antiperspirant after bathing or showering. Deodorants make the skin more acidic, which helps to repel bacteria; whereas, antiperspirants block the sweat glands so that one sweats less.
• Shave your armpits regularly so that the sweat evaporates quicker, and gives the bacteria less time to break it down.
• Wear natural-made fibres such as wool, silk, or cotton. These will make sweat to evaporate quicker.
• Limit your consumption of spicy foods such as curry or garlic because they can make your sweat smellier. There is also some evidence that people who eat a lot of red meat tend to have worse body odour.
Treating body odour
Aluminium chloride is the active ingredient that is contained in a number of antiperspirants If the above advice does not help to improve body odour, one may require an antiperspirant that contains a larger amount of aluminium chloride. Most strong antiperspirants can damage or discolour clothing, so they are usually designed to be used once a day, best before going to bed.
Botulinum toxin is a relatively new treatment for people who experience excessive underarm sweating. Botulinum toxin is a powerful poison, which can be used safely in minute doses.
The treatment involves receiving around 12 injections of botulinum toxin in the armpits. The procedure should take about 30-45 minutes. The toxin works by blocking the signals from the brain to the sweat glands, reducing the amount of sweat that is produced. The effects of the toxin usually last between 2-8 months, after which time further treatment will be required.
Smelly feet are not usually as big a problem as armpits because the smell is usually masked by wearing shoes and socks. However, they can be a source of embarrassment when at home with a partner, family member etc. The following may help control the symptoms of smelly feet.
• Socks made of man-made fibres and wool allow sweat to evaporate. They are better than the ones made of silk and nylon materials.
• Wear a clean pair of socks every day. Avoid wearing trainers, or shoes, that have plastic linings for long periods of time because they trap the sweat around feet. Shoes with a leather lining are better.
• Bathe feet in warm water every day.
• If one has patches of dead skin on the soles of feet, these should be removed using a pumice stone since dead skin provides an ideal environment for bacteria to breed.
• If a fungal infection such as athlete’s foot is present, it should be treated with anti-fungal foot spray/cream.