Underarm Odor Examined

female boxer
Sports makes you feel great but also increase body odor.
Peter Dazeley /Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

In 1984, the Gillette Company came up with one of the catchiest ad campaigns in recent memory: "Never let them see you sweat." It was the tag line for the company's Dry Idea antiperspirants. Backed by a steady lineup of contemporary stars ranging from fashion designer Donna Karan to comedian Elayne Boosler, Dry Idea became a household name. The ads were bold, sexy and to the point. Of course it didn't hurt that the message the campaign was sending was one most of us can relate to.

It's hard to imagine anything more embarrassing than walking around in a shirt with two soaked armpits. The Gillette ad played on the notion that our nerves lead to profuse underarm sweat, and in order to stay cool under pressure, Dry Idea was an essential element. And while there is some truth to that (nerves do make us sweat), the ad played more on the social stigma related to sweaty armpits. But sweaty pits are just what others see. What about the smell associated with them?


The truth is sweating is a natural process the body uses to regulate our temperature. Without sweat, our bodies would overheat. But that doesn't mean underarm odor is necessary, or that all sweat is smelly. This article sheds some light on underarm odor, what causes it and what you can do to prevent it. First, we'll look at what we can do to prevent underarm odor.




Preventing Underarm Odor

man using deoderant
Using deoderant will help mask underarm odor.

To understand underarm odor you must first understand where it comes from. The short answer is, body sweat and bacteria. The human body contains two types of sweat glands: eccrine glands, which are all over your body and open directly into the skin, and apocrine glands, which are found in areas where hair follicles are abundant. When your body temperature rises, it releases sweat as a cooling mechanism [source: Mayo Clinic].

For the most part, sweat itself is odorless. But sweat released from the apocrine glands is considered a fatty sweat. When you become nervous, your body contracts tubules or small tubular structures in the glands and forces the sweat to the surface. The odor is a result of this bacteria breaking down the fatty apocrine sweat, biodegrading so to speak. So what can we do to prevent or at least curb this?


The best way to prevent underarm odor is to prevent sweat. But that's easier said than done. Antiperspirants do help. An antiperspirant containing active ingredients (ingredients that are activated by the body), such as aluminum zirconium trichlorohydrex gly and aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly prevent sweat from accumulating. Without sweat, the bacterial biodegrading can't occur, therefore minimizing underarm odor [source: Mayo Clinic].

Deodorants are also useful in masking underarm odor. While they won't prevent perspiration, fragrances in deodorants cover up the smell left behind by the bacteria. Body sprays are popular but don't do anything for perspiration. Most antiperspirants also contain deodorants so they play a dual role -- staving off odor while fighting off sweat.

If regular deodorants are not enough, doctors can prescribe clinical strength antiperspirants high in aluminum chloride. Some over-the-counter alternatives such as Gillette Clinical boast prescription-strength results.

Since we're aiming to stay dry as a preventative measure to underarm odor, consider your wardrobe. Clothing made from natural fibers, such as cotton and bamboo, allow your skin to breathe better than synthetic materials, like polyester and spandex. More air circulation means drier armpits.

Personal hygiene -- washing your armpits and body -- is another critical element in preventing underarm odor. It goes hand-in-hand with odor prevention.

But preventing underarm odor is one thing. Eliminating it once you have it is another. Let's get into that in the next section.


How to Get Rid of Underarm Odor

The key to getting rid of underarm odor starts with personal hygiene. As a general rule, men suffer from underarm odor more than women. Since most women shave their armpits, they get rid of more of the bacteria that cause underarm odor [source: WebMD]. If you're not shaving your armpits, washing this area regularly will cut down on odor-causing bacteria.

Showering once a day may not be enough. You may need to shower in the morning and the evening and use an antibacterial soap or body wash. When you're done washing, towel off thoroughly, then apply an antiperspirant. Remember, we're going for two things here: getting rid of bacteria and keeping your underarms dry.


Personal hygiene doesn't just stop at washing your body. If you're prone to sweating, chances are your clothes soak it up. That makes your clothes a breeding ground for bacteria. Wash your clothes frequently and don't wear something more than once between wash cycles. If you exercise, wash your workout clothes as soon as possible. Your clothes may dry after soaking up all that sweat and not seem to smell that bad, but the bacteria are still there. Keep your sheets clean, too. Wash them regularly and don't hop in the sack after a sweaty day and no shower.

Diet is something else to consider when fighting underarm odor. Believe it or not, fatty foods and foods heavy in garlic, curry and onions can contribute to body and underarm odor. These foods can seep through your pores and add to the bad smell the bacteria produce. Research has also led some to believe red meat can add to offensive underarm odor. Finally, foods like red peppers that make you sweat don't help in your goal of staying dry [source: WebMD].

While prevention is essential, some with chronic underarm odor need more help. We'll get into that in the next section.


Chronic Underarm Odor

Most of the time, good hygiene and an antiperspirant are effective enough in fighting underarm odor. But some people suffer from chronic underarm odor, a condition called bromidrosis. While this is rare, it does tend to run in families. It is caused by excessive secretion from the apocrine or eccrine glands, but more commonly the apocrine glands (the ones responsible for the "smelly sweat"). Poor hygiene and conditions such as obesity further contribute to developing bromidrosis [source: emedicine].

While some of the methods we described earlier (like regular bathing, removing sweaty clothes and applying deodorant) are also helpful here, doctors may recommend regular shaving or electrolysis to minimize bacterial growth. They may also prescribe topical antibiotics such as clindamycin and erythromycin. In extreme cases, surgery or liposuction may be preformed to remove the apocrine sweat glands [source: emedicine].


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Health2009. "Can zinc or magnesium stop body odor?" (Oct. 4, 2010) http://www.health2009.com/Alternative-Medicine/35266.html
  • Mayo Clinic. "Strong Body Odor can Often be Diagnosed and Treated." Aug. 28, 2009. (Oct. 4, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.org/medical-edge-newspaper-2009/aug-28a.html
  • Mayo Clinic. "Sweating and body odor." (Sept. 18, 2010) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sweating-and-body-odor/DS00305/DSECTION=causes
  • NPR "The 'Dirt on Clean' in an Oversanitized World." November 17, 2007. (Oct. 8, 2010) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16305411
  • This Day in Quotes. "'Never let them see you sweat' was launched into our language on this day in 1984." June 7, 2010. (Sept. 18, 2010) http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2010/06/never-let-them-see-you-sweat-was.html Rehmus, Wingfield MD, MPH, , Carol E Cheng, Boston University School of Medicine; Katherine Brown,, Stanford University School of Medicine. Bromhidrosis http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1072342-overview
  • WebMD. "Body Odor? Home Remedies Can Help." (Sept. 19, 2010) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/body-odor-home-remedies-can-help
  • WebMD. "Preventing Body Odor." (Sept. 19, 2010) http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/preventing-body-odor