6 Sneaky Reasons Behind Your Body Odor

Updated: Nov. 17, 2019

Sometimes odors can’t be tackled only with soaps and scrubs. Here are a few surprising factors that can give you B.O.—and how to fix them (fast, we promise!).

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bottles of pills in a pharmacy

A new Rx

You take medicine to feel better. But some medications can increase sweating and dry mouth which can lead to major body odor and breath—which definitely doesn’t make you feel good, says Sherry Ross, MD, a women’s health expert and author of She-ology. The most common culprits are morphine, antihistamines, decongestants, certain antidepressants, pain killers, and muscle relaxers, she says. Ask your doc about switching to a different medication or if you absolutely must stay on it, try using a clinical-strength antiperspirant/deodorant—just make sure you’re avoiding these 11 common deodorant mistakes everyone makes. 

variety of spices on worn wooden cutting board

A spicy food addiction

Sulfur-containing gases are what causes body odor after you eat certain foods. Foods heavy in garlic, curry, or other spices release these gasses when your body breaks them down, says Marie Jhin, MD, dermatologist and author of Asian Beauty Secrets. These smelly gases are released through your pores, leaving you with body odor for a few hours post meal, she says. To avoid this kind of body odor, be smart about meal timing. “Don’t eat these foods before an important meeting or a date,” she says. Already hit the Indian buffet for lunch? Don’t panic. Drink plenty of water, take a shower if possible, and apply a deodorant-antiperspirant, she says. It’s not just spicy foods: check these common foods that can cause body odor, too.

woman looking stressed in front of a computer monitor

Sky-high stress levels

Sweating is a natural response to stress but even worse, the smelliest sweat actually happens when you’re stressed, Dr. Jhin says. “Stress” sweat comes from apocrine glands and is odorless until it mixes with your skin’s bacteria, causing a pungent body odor, she explains. (Sweat from heat or exercise is made more of water and electrolytes and so has a different odor, she adds). To head off a stress-sweat emergency, proactively wear a clinical-strength antiperspirant/deodorant so you’re covered when stress strikes. If this doesn’t do the trick talk to your doctor about a prescription antiperspirant or Botox which is FDA-approved for underarm sweating, she says. Also: Keep up with your laundry. “Washing clothing regularly decreases the number of bacteria available to break down our sweat into odor-causing byproducts,” says dermatologist Lauren Ploch, MD, of the Georgia Dermatology & Skin Cancer Center in Augusta.

closeup of hands holding shot glasses

A boozy night out

As your body breaks down alcohol and it goes through your bloodstream, some of it comes out of your breath and sweat, which is why you can often smell the booze on someone before you even know they’ve been drinking, says Dr. Ross. This effect is magnified by alcohol abuse because when the liver becomes damaged it metabolizes less of the alcohol, leaving more to come out through your body odor, she says. This one has a fairly simple fix: Don’t drink or drink less. Try alternating alcoholic beverages with water and limit yourself to one or two servings, she says. Dr. Jhin also suggests putting on fresh clothing and taking a long soapy shower when you get home from the bar. Here are some things your body odor can reveal about your health.

bra on a wooden surface

Forgetting to wash your bra

Admit it: Do you wear the same one or two bras days in a row? A bra’s fabric touches beneath your arms, across your back and between your breasts and chest, all areas prone to sweat, Dr. Ross says. And to that the fact that bras are often made of fabrics that don’t wick away moisture and you’ve got a situation ripe for body odor. “The moisture can make bacteria and fungus overgrow,” says Dr. Jhin. That trapped sweat and moisture cause bad odor and rashes, too, she says. Consider this an excuse to go shopping: Buy three to five of your favorite bras that you can rotate, says Kimmay Caldwell, a professional bra fitter with 11-plus years in the industry. “Don’t wear the same bra two days in a row,” says Caldwell. “Not only will this stretch out the elastic, but overwear also leads to more oils and odors.” Avoid synthetic fabrics (like spandex), which trap sweat as they rub against the skin, causing odors to linger. Opt for breathable fabrics like cotton, sheer mesh, or lightweight lace, suggests Caldwell.

pair of woman's shoes

Skipping socks

Ever slip your bare feet into heels at work, or wear ballet flats or casual sneakers sans socks? You’re asking for foot odor. “Wearing closed shoes without socks [to absorb the moisture] means feet are essentially bathing in their own sweat and bacteria,” says Dr. Jhin. “That buildup can cause bad foot odor.” Before you put shoes on in the morning or at night, apply some antiperspirant to your feet, she says. If you can, take your shoes off beneath your desk to give them some fresh air, which helps ward off bacteria growth. Once you’re home after a long day in shoes, put feet in a bacteria-killing bath of one part vinegar to two parts water, she recommends. And don’t wear the same shoes two days in a row. Rotate pairs so they can air out a little. Next, find out about the body odors you should never ignore.