This Is What's Making You Smell Bad, According to Science

Paul Thompson
·4 mins read

We've all experienced it at least one time: that horrifying moment immediately after you catch a whiff of an unpleasant odor when you realize that it's you putting out the pungent aroma. And even though your body odor, or B.O., is more than likely an occasional occurrence—albeit an unfortunate one—you at least have to wonder what is causing you to smell so bad. Well, now, thanks to scientists from the U.K., there's an answer. That unwanted funky odor emitting from your body is the result of a specific enzyme found in bacteria that sets up camp in your armpit. And for more hygiene hacks, check out The One Body Part You Shouldn't Wash in the Shower, Doctors Say.

In a July 2020 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of York were able to isolate and identify the previously unknown cause for human body odor. According to the findings, body odor in humans is primarily the result of thioalcohols, which are released as a byproduct when microbes feed on other compounds they encounter on the skin. And while it had been previously determined that most microbes on your skin cannot make thioalcohols, the researchers identified one that can—and does: Staphylococcus hominis. The bacteria, commonly found colonized in the human armpit, produces the unpleasant fumes when they consume an odorless compound called Cys-Gly-3M3SH, which is released by sweat glands in your armpit. So the more you sweat, the more powerful the odor.

"The bacteria take up the molecule and eat some of it, but the rest they spit out, and that is one of the key molecules we recognize as body odor," Gavin Thomas, PhD, a senior microbiologist on the study's research team, told The Guardian. Discovering the previously unknown culprit of body odor is a huge breakthrough, the researchers say.

"This is a key advancement in understanding how body odor works, and will enable the development of targeted inhibitors that stop B.O. production at the source without disrupting the armpit microbiome," Michelle Rudden, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in biology at the University of York, said in a statement.

With the recent discovery, we got to wondering what other factors might be at play when it comes to your smell. Read on to discover more things that are making your body odor worse. And if you're wondering what's behind your funky smell, You're Forgetting to Wash This Body Part Every Time You Shower.

1

Spicy foods

chicken curry, prince william surprising facts
chicken curry, prince william surprising facts

Spices like garlic or curry pack a powerful aromatic punch when you cook with them, so it makes sense that they also affect the smell of your skin.

"When your body breaks down garlic, onions, and herbs and spices like curry and cumin, sulfur-like compounds are produced," Dena Champion, RD, wrote in an article for The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "These compounds are pretty evident on your breath. They can also react with sweat on your skin to produce body odor." And for more fun facts about your physical self, check out these 33 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Your Own Body.

2

Stress

shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out in an office
shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out in an office

When you are in hot temperatures or in the middle of a hard workout, the sweat your body produces comes from the eccrine glands. Under stress, however, the Mayo Clinic says, your body produces a different kind of sweat from the apocrine glands. The sweat you experience as a result of stress or anxiety is a thicker, milky liquid that, when it comes in contact with the bacteria on your body, produces body odor.

3

Not bathing enough

Cropped shot of a handsome young man smelling his armpits in his bedroom at home
Cropped shot of a handsome young man smelling his armpits in his bedroom at home

Sometimes not smelling your freshest is simply a sign that you are in need of a good scrubbing. Regular bathing, especially with an antibacterial soap, reduces the growth of bacteria on your skin, the Mayo Clinic says. And for another reason you might be smelling a little riper than usual, check out What Happens to Your Body When You Don't Change Your Underwear.

4

Alcohol

cropped shot of young man holding glass of whiskey
cropped shot of young man holding glass of whiskey

According to Champion, drinking alcohol can lead to a stronger body odor, particularly in regards to your breath. "Our bodies metabolize alcohol into acetate, which has a signature sweet smell," Champion says. "The more you drink, the more acetate your body is going to produce. This contributes to greater body odor. People can breathe out the odor and it also gets secreted into sweat." And for more helpful health information delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.