Bromhidrosis (body odour)

Introduction

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

How common is body odour?

All people who have passed the age of puberty can produce body odour. Puberty usually occurs between 14-16 years of age in girls, and 15-17 years of age in boys. Factors that can make body odour worse include:

  • Being obese.
  • Eating a diet that is high in spicy foods.
  • Having certain medical conditions, such as diabetes.

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

Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis)

Around 1% of the population have a condition called hyperhidrosis, which causes them to sweat excessively. 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.

Bacteria


Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that live in the body. Some can cause illness and disease and some others are good for you.
Last updated: 04 October 2011

Causes of body odour

Sweating and sweat glands

The human body contains between 3-4 million sweat glands. There are two types of glands which are outlined below.

  • Eccrine glands - are distributed across your skin, and are responsible for regulating your body's temperature by cooling your skin with sweat when you get hot.
  • Aprocrine glands - are concentrated in your 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 other people react towards you. For example, you may find a person sexually attractive because you are 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.

Smelly feet

The reason that feet can become smelly is because most people wear socks and shoes. This means that the sweat cannot evaporate properly, which gives the bacteria the opportunity to break the sweat down.

The moisture that accumulates around your feet can encourage the growth of fungi, which can also produce an unpleasant smell.

Glossary

Testosterone
Testosterone is a male sex hormone, which is involved in making sperm and sexual characteristics such as the voice getting deeper. Testosterone is also found in small amounts in women.
Bacteria
Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that live in the body. Some can cause illness and disease and some others are good for you.
Thyroid
The thyroid is a jointed piece or cartilage that enclosed the vocal cords and forms the ‘Adam’s apple’ in men.
Last updated: 04 October 2011

Diagnosing body odour

In most cases of body odour, you do not need to see your GP because you should be able to successfully treat the problem by adopting a few self-care techniques. See the 'treatment' section.

When should you see your GP?

There are a number of medical conditions that can cause a change in how much you sweat, or how your sweat smells. For example, the menopause or an over-active thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) can increase the amount you sweat. While diabetes or liver or kidney disease can produce a change in your body odour.

These conditions can occasionally be serious so you should see your GP if you experience any of the symptoms listed below:

  • you begin to sweat at night,
  • you suddenly start sweating much more than you used to, and for no apparent reason,
  • you experience cold sweats,
  • you notice a change in your body odour; a fruity smell could indicate diabetes, while a bleach-like smell could be caused by liver or kidney disease.
Last updated: 04 October 2011

Treating body odour

Your armpits contain a large concentration of arocrine glands. Therefore, you should try to keep them clean and free of bacteria in order to help control the symptoms of body odour.

The self-care advice listed below should help.

  • 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. Deodorants make your skin more acidic, which helps to repel bacteria. Antiperspirants block your sweat glands so that you sweat 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. 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

If the above advice does not help to improve your body odour, you may require an antiperspirant that contains a larger amount of aluminium chloride. Aluminium chloride is the active ingredient that is contained in most antiperspirants. Your pharmacist should be able to advise you about a suitable product.

Most strong antiperspirants can damage or discolour clothing, so they are usually designed to be used once a day, before you go to bed.

Botulinum toxin

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 your armpits. 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 the 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 have to visit a private cosmetic clinic. Prices can vary from clinic to clinic, but the average price is around £300-£400 for each armpit.

Treating smelly feet

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 you are at home with a partner, family member, or other loved one.

The advice listed below may help you to control the symptoms of smelly feet.

  • Wear socks that are a combination of man-made fibres and wool because they allow the sweat to evaporate. Make sure that you wear a clean pair of socks every day.
  • Avoid wearing trainers, or shoes, that have plastic linings for long periods of time because they will trap the sweat around your feet. Shoes with a leather lining are better.
  • Bathe your feet in warm water every day. You may want to add a few drops of tea-tree oil to the water because it has anti-bacterial properties. After washing your feet, dry them thoroughly, making sure to include the spaces between your toes. Never apply tea-tree oil directly to your skin because it can cause severe irritation.
  • If you have patches of dead skin on the soles of your feet, remove them using a pumice stone. Dead skin provides an ideal environment for bacteria to breed.
  • Special foot deodorants and antiperspirants are available from your pharmacist. However, their use is not recommended if you also have a fungal infection such as athlete's foot. You should treat the infection first using an anti-fungal foot spray, which is also available from your pharmacist.
Last updated: 04 October 2011