Everybody has body odor, but that doesn’t make it any less embarrassing. A person can take many measures to prevent and reduce it. Often, these measures focus on reducing the amount of sweat the body produces because the most basic body odor develops due to sweat glands and bacteria. However, a variety of other conditions can cause foul body odor, as well.

Basic Body Odor Causes

Human skin has two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine glands exist throughout the body while apocrine glands develop primarily in areas with many hair follicles -- in most people, the groin, armpits, eyelids, ear, nostrils, and breasts. Apocrine glands secrete fat droplets in breast milk while the glands in the ears help create earwax. In the skin, they produce an odorless liquid that contains a special protein. The process of bacteria breaking down this protein creates odor. This is why armpit sweat often stinks, but forehead sweat does not.

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Foot Odor Causes

Though bacteria and the apocrine glands cause body odor on most of the body, the feet often smell despite not having any apocrine glands. Foot odor is almost entirely the result of bacteria. Most people wear socks and shoes, which prevent sweat from evaporating. This provides more sweat for bacteria to break down, resulting in foul odors. Additionally, moist feet are particularly at risk for developing certain fungal infections, which typically have odor as a side effect.

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Medical Conditions that Cause Body Odor

Many conditions feature body odor as a side effect, including diabetes, kidney problems, liver problems, and overactive thyroid. Some people are born with rare genetic conditions that cause abnormal body odor. Sometimes, an odd body odor is a sign of a more serious issue. If a person smells like bleach or urine, it’s possible that they have a liver or kidney issue. Hyperhidrosis, excessive sweating, can cause more noticeable body odor because there is more sweat with which bacteria can interact.

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Preventing Body Odor

Barring certain conditions, basic methods can help people combat body odor. Washing the armpits frequently with an antibacterial soap can keep bacteria counts low, resulting in weaker body odor. Hair can slow down the evaporation of sweat, giving bacteria more opportunities to break it down into smelly byproducts. Shaving or waxing parts of the body that are particularly smelly may be beneficial, as well.

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Many people around the world use deodorant to prevent body odor. However, lately, there is concern over whether ingredients in the product could cause breast cancer or other serious illnesses. Some deodorants contain parabens, preservatives that tend to mimic the actions of estrogen, which can promote the growth of breast cancer cells. Despite many concerns, there are currently no links between parabens and breast cancer. Additionally, most deodorants in the United States do not contain this ingredient.

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Most deodorants contain some form of antiperspirant to help prevent sweating, and many contain fragrance-creating chemicals that can cause allergic reactions that worsen body odor. Additionally, many antiperspirants contain aluminum compounds that form temporary plugs in the sweat ducts. Some studies suggest the body can absorb these compounds and that they have estrogen-like effects. Despite this, no studies conclusively prove aluminum compounds increase the risk of cancer.

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Controlling Body Odor

It is impossible to prevent body odor fully. Thankfully, certain methods can limit and control scent. Despite popular belief, spicy foods don’t directly result in worse body odor. However, they may make a person sweat more, and their smells may cling to a person who eats them frequently. Abstaining from spicy foods can help prevent sweating, which could help decrease body odor. Avoiding stress is a key way to prevent unpleasant body odor, as well -- during stressful or nervous situations, the apocrine glands secrete more sweat than the eccrine glands. This means nervous sweat has a stronger smell than normal sweat. Finally, wearing breathable fabrics allows sweat to evaporate quickly before bacteria can break it down.

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Preventing Foot Odor

Compared to preventing body odor, preventing foot odor is a bit more complex. Socks that allow for sweat evaporation typically consist of man-made fibers and wool. Closed-toe shoes and shoes with plastic linings are the least effective for sweat evaporation. Leather linings are noticeably better at allowing sweat to evaporate. Bacteria tend to thrive on dead skin, so using a pumice stone to remove patches of dead skin can limit the presence of bacteria on the feet. With fewer bacteria, there will be less foot odor.

foot body odor Rasulovs / Getty Images


Visiting a Doctor

It’s possible for some body odors to not respond to deodorants, soaps, or other preventative methods. These are likely the result of underlying conditions such as liver or kidney issues or genetic abnormalities. If body odor is consistently foul and powerful regardless of cleanliness, it may warrant a visit to a physician. Doctors will typically conduct a physical exam. If they suspect an underlying issue, they may order blood or urine tests to confirm their suspicions.

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Medical Treatments for Body Odor

If over-the-counter body odor treatments are ineffective, a number of powerful medical options are available:

  • Aluminum chloride is the main ingredient in antiperspirants. More powerful prescription antiperspirants usually contain more aluminum chloride.
  • Clostridium botulinum is a dangerous bacterium that produces the neurotoxin botulinum. Doctors may use very small doses of this toxin to treat excess sweat in the armpits. The toxin blocks signals from the brain to the armpit glands, preventing sweating.
  • Endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy is a surgery that destroys the nerves in the armpits responsible for controlling sweat. The procedure is typically a last resort.

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