Ugh. If the weather or the room is hot, or you've been exercising, or you feel nervous or excited, you might innocently raise your arm -- and be nearly knocked out by the odor from your armpits. And if you're grossed out, imagine how those poor people around you must be reacting. Underarm odor can be embarrassing. What's more, it can cause problems in social and professional relationships.
Some scientists believe that long ago, underarm odor helped attract humans to their mates [source: Feldman]. But it's obvious that for most of us, any such attraction has vanished from our culture. In fact, underarm odor is such a turn-off that a large amusement park in Surrey, England, recently banned customers from raising their arms when riding scary roller coasters during hot weather.
Today, there's a vast and sometimes confusing array of products and home remedies to fight underarm odor. For 10 ways that work -- and to neutralize the smell of your armpits -- read on.
In generally healthy people, it's not the underarm sweat itself that stinks. The culprits are the bacteria that feed on the sweat that's manufactured by the specialized apocrinesweat glands found in the armpits, the scalp and in the groin area. Bacteria love this fatty sweat that's released when people get hot, work out or become stressed. The longer your armpits stay warm and moist, the more the bacteria will feed -- and release foul odor in the process.
The medical term for having chronically smelly sweat is bromhidrosis. Producing too much sweat is called hyperhidrosis, and that condition may make the odor problem worse. The obvious first line of defense is to get rid of bacteria and the sweat they dine on.
Showers or baths are crucial to the destruction of these bacteria -- maybe more than once a day when the weather is hot or you're especially active. Deodorant soap that contains antibacterial ingredients also may help. Damp towels and washcloths are other favorite homes for bacteria, so use freshly laundered ones when you bathe or shower.
As badly as some of us may want to, we can't spend all day in the shower. Most of us feel more confident about our body odor with a little extra protection. What is it? Find out on the next page.
Deodorant and antiperspirant products are big sellers for a reason: They work for many people. It's hard to argue with the ease of being able to roll on or dab or spray after your shower and trust that you won't smell, at least for several hours.
These products don't all work the same way. Deodorants fight the bacteria that feed on your sweat. Many add scent to make you smell fresh and dainty, or manly and rugged. But their main job is to make the skin under your arms inhospitable to bacteria.
Antiperspirants stop the production of sweat that the bacteria feed upon. They have ingredients such as aluminum salts that plug the sweat glands. Many of them also contain some bacteria-fighting ingredients and/or some scent, but their main aim is to keep underarms dry.
The directions on some extra-strength antiperspirant products recommend that they be used at bedtime. During sleep, a person's skin is more receptive to the protective ingredients. Because the ingredients are absorbed, the effects last all day -- even after showering in the morning.
Although no clear link has been found, some people worry that aluminum salts in antiperspirants can cause health problems. The scents and other ingredients in deodorants irritate some people's skin. Deodorant products marketed as "natural" or "green" are less likely to irritate skin, and can be found in health food and other stores.
Home remedies that are likely to be in your medicine cabinet can be effective in fighting underarm odor. Some people swear by them.
Witch hazel is a large shrub or small tree that's native to eastern North America. It's long been believed to have magical powers, perhaps because its small yellow flowers appear in fall, then close up when the weather gets cold, and then open again on warm winter days [source: Niering]. Native Americans and early settlers used witch hazel in many home remedies to treat bruises, aching muscles and skin inflammations.
Witch hazel isn't magic, but its astringent properties make it an effective odor fighter. It contracts tissues, thus helping to reduce the production of sweat. The naturally refreshing scent of distilled extract of witch hazel leaves, bark and twigs also helps fight unpleasant armpit odors.
The other ingredient in commercial witch hazel extracts is typically rubbing alcohol, which also fights those sweat-eating, odor-causing bacteria. Some people fight odor by wiping underarms with straight rubbing alcohol after bathing. Others find that alcohol irritates their skin, especially after shaving.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) has long been used as a natural cleanser and deodorizer. We use it to get burned gunk off pots and pans, to clean stainless steel without scratching it and to clean microwaves without leaving unpleasant chemical traces. It also cuts odors in cat litter boxes, and people often leave an opened box of baking soda in the refrigerator because it absorbs nasty odors. In addition, baking soda was one of the first tooth cleaning products. Many people also add it to bath water for gentle, relaxing cleansing.
So it only makes sense that some people have found that baking soda also cuts through armpit odors. It doesn't stop you from perspiring, but its neutralizing and buffering properties break the sweat down from bacteria food into something more like water. Some people dust liberally with baking soda after showering. Others suggest putting baking soda on a clean, wet washcloth and then applying that to the underarms.
Others report success with baby powder, supplemented by baby wipes during the day. Baby powder can help reduce wetness, and it has a pleasant smell. Be careful, though, to avoid remedies that suggest mixing baking soda with cornstarch, or using baby powders made with cornstarch rather than talc. Those odor-causing bacteria love to feed on starch [source: Feldman].
Choose your clothing carefully to help keep underarm odor away. Natural fabrics, such as cotton and wool, are an excellent choice because they are known for their ability to keep air circulating and wetness away. Cotton T-shirts and dress shirts help keep you comfortable, looking good, and feeling confident throughout the day.
When you're heading to the gym or the running trail, even traveling in warmer climates, workout wear and clothing made from breathable synthetic fabrics can help minimize underarm odor, even during the sweatiest workouts or temperature changes. These fabrics work because they wick moisture away from your skin, spreading across the fabric where it evaporates quickly.
The latest innovation in stink-free athletic wear is the addition of silver, known for its ability to neutralize bacteria. Without odor-causing bacteria, you and your clothing stay fresh and odor-free!
If underarm odor is really getting you down, consider removing or trimming your underarm hair. The hair that grows naturally under there can trap sweat, supporting the growth of odor-causing bacteria.
Throughout history, shaving underarms for men and women has been closely tied to cultural standards of attractiveness and religious preferences. Even in ancient times, women went to great lengths to keep their bodies smooth and hairless, while men generally went along with the hair growth that nature provided. Today, most women keep their armpits clean-shaven. Thanks to the metrosexual movement, more and more men are including underarm hair maintenance as a part of their daily grooming habits.
In fact, there's new evidence that clean underarms are more attractive to the opposite sex. A study from the Czech Republic reports that when females sniffed odor samples from shaved armpits and armpits with hair grown for six to 10 weeks, they preferred the smell of hairless pits [source: Shortsleeve].
Even if you choose not to shave your armpit hair, make sure that you wash that hair thoroughly to prevent odor-causing bacteria from multiplying and resulting in an unpleasant aroma.
Let's face it: Long runs, hours in the gym and marathon tennis matches can result in smelly workout clothes. Sometimes, the odor is so strong, it's hard to get out of fabrics, whether you're wearing your favorite cotton T-shirt or pricey high-tech athletic gear. Even clothes with anti-odor or antimicrobial properties are no match for the fiercest odorous contenders.
Head to the laundry room for some practical ideas to keep your workout clothes smelling clean and fresh. Before washing, pre-treat your gym clothes with baking soda, leaving it on for about an hour before laundering to remove perspiration odor. Since oily sweat can build up on clothing and become difficult to remove, add a cup of white vinegar to your wash along with your regular detergent to help cut through the oils and leave your clothes clean and fresh. And if you can, hang your clothes up outdoors instead of tossing them in the dryer -- fresh air and sunlight help make your clothes last longer and filter out any odors. If you can't hang your clothes outdoors, line dry them inside by placing hangers on a shower rod or use a laundry rack by a sunny window [source: Main].
The old adage says that you are what you eat, and it turns out that your food choices may have an impact on the way you smell! If you're trying to fight body odor, stay away from foods that are heavy on garlic, curry and onions. They include a volatile sulfuric substance that you can carry in your sweat. Blue cheese, cabbage and vinegar may also contribute to an unpleasant body odor. In fact, if a food has a strong aroma before you eat, chances are it may linger in your system long after your meal [source: WebMD].
Eating red meat can also result in a distinctive body odor. According to a study published in 2006 in "Chemical Senses," men who followed nonmeat diets smelled better than those who did not [source: Saad].
If you want to do everything you can to prevent underarm odor, load up your plate with fish, chicken, vegetables and fresh fruits, avoid strong spices, and be sure to drink lots of water. You'll be glad you did!
Humans sweat to regulate body temperature, so it makes sense that keeping cool and comfortable is one way to prevent underarm odor. As your body temperature rises, your nervous system stimulates the eccrine glands to secrete fluid onto your skin, where sweat -- made up mostly of water and salt -- cools the body as it evaporates.
In addition, apocrine glands secrete a fatty sweat, and emotional stress can push the sweat to the surface of the skin. While sweat itself is practically odorless, bacteria on the skin can break down apocrine sweat, resulting in an unpleasant odor.
So how can you use this information to prevent underarm odor? Try to keep room temperatures a few degrees cooler if possible, especially in areas where you're sleeping or working. Wear light, breathable layers that are easy to remove as you feel your body temperature rise. If stress makes you break out into a sweat, make stress management techniques a part of your routine. Habits such as regular exercise, meditation, improving time management and organization, and maintaining a strong emotional support system will help you stay calm, cool, and collected – and fresh!
Top 10 Tips for Preventing Underarm Odor
Persistently bad underarm odor may call for medical help. Body odor can be a sign of various medical conditions including liver and kidney disease [source: White]. Persistent body odor, however, can be a warning sign that needs a doctor's attention.
If the problem is the sweat/bacteria interaction on the skin, dermatologists can often help. If excessive sweating -- hyperhidrosis -- is contributing to the bad smell, dermatologists can prescribe prescription-strength antiperspirants. They also may prescribe pills to reduce sweating. In cases of severe hyperhidrosis, surgery may be used to remove the sweat glands or the nerves that stimulate the sweat glands.
Botox injections, which reduce the activity of muscles and overactive glands, also are used to fight armpit odor [source: Feldman].
Another approach is iontophoresis, in which a mild electric current is passed through the skin while it's submerged in water. This method disrupts the production of sweat [source: Rehmus].
A more common solution is to reduce the bacteria that cause the odor. Dermatologists may prescribe oral or topical antibiotics. Researchers are finding that some medications commonly prescribed to treat acne also help with underarm odor [source: Feldman].
There's help available for those noxious odors at the drugstore, around your home or in a doctor's office. Raise your hand high if you know the best solution!
Humans have tried for centuries to mask the scent emanating from their bodies, so what do deodorants do differently?
- Arm & Hammer. "What is the deal with ARM & Hammer Baking Soda and pH?" (Sept. 10, 2009) http://www.armhammer.com/basics/magic/.
- Baker, Donald J., M.D., and Warren R. Heymann, M.D. "Eccrine and Apocrine Glands." (Sept. 3, 2009)http://www.aad.org/education/students/glands.htm.
- Columbia University. "Go Ask Alice: Body Aroma." (Sept. 3, 2009)http://www.goaskalice-cms.org/scripts/printerfriendly.cfm?questionid=637.
- Columbia University. "Go Ask Alice: What can I do about my strong body odor?" (Sept. 3, 2009) http://goaskalice-cms.org/scripts/printerfriendly/cfm?questionid=3645.
- Discovery Trekking.com. "Moisture Wicking Clothing." http://www.discoverytrekking.com/moisture-wicking-clothing.
- Duke, James A. "The Green Pharmacy." Rodale. 1997.
- Feldman, Steven R., M.D., Ph.D. Professor of Dermatology, Pathology and Public Health Sciences, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, N.C. Personal interview. Sept. 9, 2009.
- Gillette.com. "Gillette's Guide to Body Shaving." (Feb. 9, 2012.) http://www.gillette.com/en/us/mens-style/body-shaving.aspx.
- Health2009. "Can zinc or magnesium stop body odor?" (Sept. 3, 2009)http://www.health2009.com/Alternative-Medicine/35266.html.
- Hyperhidrosisweb. Eliminate Underarm Odor -- Naturally!" (Sept. 3, 2009) http://www.hyperhidrosisweb.com/underarm-odor.html.
- Main, Emily. "Why "Anti-Odor" Clothes Stink." Rodale News. March 11, 2010. (Feb. 9, 2012.) http://www.rodale.com/silver-nanoparticles?page=0,0
- Mayo Clinic. "Hyperhidrosis: Hyperhidrosis Surgery." (Sept. 11, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.org/hyperhidrosis/surgery.html
- Mayo Clinic. "Strong Body Odor Can Often Be Diagnosed and Treated." (Sept. 5, 2009) http://www.mayoclinic.org/medical-edge-newspaper-2009/aug-28a.html.
- Niering, William A. and Nancy C. Olmstead. "Witch Hazel." National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers: Eastern Region. Knopf. 1979.
- Pyatt, Jamie. "Thrill rides cause a stink." The Sun. (Sept.10, 2009)http://www.thesun.co.uk/so1/homepage/news/2594001/Thrill-rides-cause-a-stink.html?.
- Rehmus, Wingfield, Katherine Brown and Nelly Rubeiz. "Bromhidrosis: Treatment & Medication." eMedicine Dermatology. (Sept. 10, 2009) http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1072342-treatment.
- Saad, Gad, Ph.D. "You want to smell better? Don't eat red meat!" Psychology Today. February 22, 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/homo-consumericus/201002/you-want-smell-better-don-t-eat-red-meat.
- Segelken, Roger. "Armpit effect distinguishes kin from strangers." Cornell Chronicle. http://www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/00/4.13.00/hamsters.html.
- Shortsleeve, Cassie. "Should you groom your armpits? Men's Health. January 12, 2012. http://news.menshealth.com/should-you-groom-your-armpits/2012/01/12/#respond.
- Shosteck, Robert. "Witch Hazel." Flowers and Plants: An International Lexicon With Biographical Notes. Quadrangle. 1974.
- "Strong Body Odor Can Be Diagnosed and Treated." Medical Edge, MayoClinic.com. August 28, 2008. http://www.mayoclinic.org/medical-edge-newspaper-2009/aug-28a.html.
- Swain, Liz and Rebecca Frey. "Witch Hazel." Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Gale. 2005.
- The People's Pharmacy. "Stopping Underarm Odor Without Antiperspirant." (Sept. 3, 2009)http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2008/01/18/stopping-undera/.
- Unilever. "Degree Women Dare to Feel." (Sept. 3, 2009)http://www.degreeclinical.com/Women/women-Clinical-Protection.aspx
- Weil, Andrew. "Natural Health, Natural Medicine." Houghton Mifflin. 2004.
- White, Linda B., Steven Foster and the staff of "Herbs for Health." "The Herbal Drugstore." Rodale. 2000.