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Body odour

Introduction

What is body odour?

Body odour, also known as bromhidrosis, is the unpleasant smell that can occur when you sweat. Human sweat is mostly odourless. However, the bacteria that live on the skin can break down the sweat into acids, which produces an unpleasant smell.

Sweat glands

The human body contains 3-4 million sweat glands. There are two types of gland:

  • eccrine glands – spread across your skin, these are responsible for regulating your body's temperature by cooling your skin with sweat when you get hot
  • apocrine glands – concentrated in your armpits, genital area and breasts, these glands develop during puberty and release scented chemicals known as pheromones

Eccrine sweat is usually odourless but can start to smell if bacteria get a chance to break down the stale sweat. It can also take on an offensive odour if you consume certain things, such as garlic, spices, alcohol and certain medications, such as some antidepressants.

But it is the apocrine 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. Body odour is worse if you have a high level of apocrine sweat production, or there is lots of bacteria on your skin.

Who is affected

All people who have passed the age of puberty (and therefore developed apocrine glands) can produce body odour. Factors that can make body odour worse include:

  • being overweight
  • eating a diet that is high in spicy foods
  • having certain medical conditions, such as diabetes (see the Body odour warning sign section in Body odour - treatment)

As men tend to sweat more than women, they are more likely to have body odour.

Managing body odour

You can manage a body odour problem by getting rid of any excess skin bacteria and keeping the affected skin as dry as possible. This can often be achieved through simple hygiene measures.

Surgery is available for more severe sweating that cannot be treated by self-care measures and over-the-counter products. See Body odour – treatment for more information.

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Treatment

Managing body odour

A body odour problem can be managed by:

  • getting rid of any excess skin bacteria, which are responsible for the smell
  • keeping the skin in the affected area (often the armpits) as dry as possible

The below advice focuses on managing armpit odour, the most common problem.

Self-care advice

Your armpits contain a large concentration of apocrine glands. Keeping them clean and free of bacteria can help to keep odour under control.

  • Take a bath, or shower, once a day. The warm water will help to kill the bacteria on your skin. On hot days, you may want to consider bathing, or showering, twice a day.
     
  • Wash your armpits thoroughly using an anti-bacterial soap.
     
  • Use a deodorant, or an antiperspirant, after bathing, or showering (see below).  
  • Shave your armpits regularly so that the sweat evaporates quicker, giving the bacteria less time to break it down.
     
  • Wear natural-made fibres, such as wool, silk, or cotton. They will allow your skin to breathe, which means that your sweat will 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.

Aluminium chloride

Aluminium chloride is the active ingredient in most antiperspirants. It helps to prevent the production of sweat .

If the self-care advice above does not improve your body odour, you may require a stronger antiperspirant that contains a larger amount of aluminium chloride.

Examples of aluminium chloride solutions include Anhydrol Forte and Driclor. These are usually applied every night before you go to bed, then washed off in the morning. This is because you stop sweating in your sleep, so the solution can seep into your sweat glands and block them. This reduces how much you sweat the next day.

As the product starts to take effect, you can use it less often – every other night or once or twice a week. Your GP or pharmacist should be able to advise you about a suitable product and how often you should use it.

Deodrant vs antiperspirant

Deodrants work by masking the smell of sweat with fragrance. Antiperspirants contain aluminium salts, which help to reduce the amount of sweat that your body produces.

Roll-on antiperspirants tend to be more effective for heavy sweating.

Surgery

There are surgical options for severe sweating that cannot be treated by self-care measures and over-the-counter products.

A small area of skin and the tissue just below it can be removed from the armpit. This destroys the most troublesome sweat glands. Sometimes, the sweat glands can be drawn out from the deeper layers of skin using liposuction.

Another option is a type of surgery called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy, which uses keyhole surgery to destroy the nerves that control sweating. A tiny incision (cut) is made into your underarm, through which a thin electrode is passed and electrical current used to kill off the nerves.

For more information on surgical treatments for excessive sweating, see the section on treating hyperhidrosis.

Botulinum toxin

Botulinum toxin, commonly known as Botox, 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.  Around 12 injections of botulinum toxin are given in the affected areas of the body, such as the armpits, hands, feet or face. The procedure should take about 30-45 minutes. The toxin works by blocking the signals from your brain to the sweat glands, reducing the amount of sweat that is produced.

The effects of botulinum toxin usually last between 2-8 months, after which time further treatment will be required.

Treatment using botulinum toxin is not usually available on the NHS, so you may  need to visit a private cosmetic clinic. Prices can vary from clinic to clinic, so make sure you find out the cost before you start treatment.

Body odour warning sign

There are a number of medical conditions that can cause your sweat to smell differently. For example, a fruity smell can sometimes indicate diabetes, while a bleach-like smell can indicate liver or kidney disease.

See your GP if you notice a change in your body odour.

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