Body odor 101: What is body odor? Why we smell — and 3 simple tips to tame it

animated people with one person having bad breath and the other covering the nose

Everyone’s familiar with body odor, whether we enjoy talking about it or not.

But what exactly is body odor? Does it tell us anything about our health? And are there any healthy ways to control it?

WellTuned spoke with Dr. Lakisha Crigler, a medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to find out.

Why does body odor happen?

Dr. Crigler: Body odor comes from a breakdown of bacteria on your body when you perspire.

Sweat is sterile and has no odor, but when it comes in contact with bacteria on your skin, that produces an odor.

Body odor can also be caused by infections or a lack of hygiene in certain bacteria-breeding areas.  These areas include armpits, feet, mouth, belly button, genitals.

How is body odor related to our health?

Dr. Crigler:

Most of the time it’s a byproduct of living. Other times it’s linked to physiological changes like:

  • Medications
  • A shift in hormones
  • Foods you eat
  • Infections of different body systems

Infection is likely if you experience body odor along with:

  • Redness
  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Abnormal discharge

See your primary care provider (PCP) if you experience any of the above symptoms, or if you notice any persistent odor that doesn’t go away.

Are some people more likely to have body odor?

Dr. Crigler: Not really. Yet, people may experience body odor more during certain times of life:

  • Females may experience changes in body odor during menstruation, menopause or pregnancy. They may also put off pheromones that make them smell more attractive to potential mates at certain times in their reproductive cycle.
  • Prepubescent teens experiencing changes in hormones may have a stronger scent.
  • People who have diabetes may have a fruity scent to their breath from extra ketones formed by uncontrolled blood sugars. That scent can be a sign that your diabetes isn’t yet under control, so see your PCP.
  • People undergoing cancer treatment may have metallic- or chemical-smelling odor.
  • People who have hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) may have more body odor simply because they sweat more. If you think you may have hyperhidrosis, talk to your PCP. There are many treatments on the market that can help, such as prescription deodorant, Botox or anticholinergic drugs.

People called excretors may experience pungent smells when they eat certain foods such as broccoli, asparagus, cabbage, garlic and onions.

What are safe and healthy ways to control body odor?

Dr. Crigler: It’s simple:

  1. Soap and water should be your first line of defense.
  2. Make sure you get into crevices such as armpits or between toes.
  3. Trim hair in any areas you notice producing more odor.

Hair traps and holds onto odor. Especially if that hair is growing in a crevice or anywhere that doesn’t get much airflow. In general, air is the enemy of odor, so try not to keep smell-producing body parts cooped up all the time if you can help it.


Dr. Crigler: If you wear close-toed shoes with socks and your feet sweat, they won’t get enough air. That can lead to athlete’s foot and odor.

Prevent it by:

  • Keeping your feet clean and dry
  • Wearing shoes that fit well and aren’t too tight
  • Changing socks often, especially if they get wet
  • Taking your shoes and socks off when at home


Dr. Crigler: As a small, moist area, your mouth is likely to breed bacteria. To combat that, brush not only your teeth but also your tongue twice a day, for 2 minutes at a time.

7 foods and drinks that are good for your teeth and breath


Dr. Crigler: People have different views about antiperspirant or deodorant. Aluminum is used in many products as an oxidizing agent for odor. But some people feel it’s not healthy due to a possible breast-cancer connection. However, the American Cancer Society has found very little scientific evidence to support this claim, especially for people who don’t shave their underarms. You can read about it and make the best decision for your family.

You should look out for powders females use in genital areas. Talcum-based powders have been linked to ovarian cancer, so choose cornstarch-based powders instead.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Mind & Body


Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).