Sweaty pits can stink, sure — but what if the smell is clear-the-room bad?
It might surprise you to know that sweat itself is usually odorless, says Pauline J. Jose, MD, a specialist in family medicine and a member of the pH Labs health team, a nonprofit health information company. It’s the bacterial breakdown of fatty acids and amino acids in sweat that gives it its tell-tale stink, she says.
If things have gotten pretty stinky as of late, don’t just slap on extra deodorant and hope for the best; pay attention to this putrid perspiration.
“Changes in hormonal balance, metabolic disorders, bacterial skin infections and consumed food may have an impact on how much and what kind of sweat we produce,” Dr. Jose says.
Smelly sweat has an official name: bromhidrosis, and it occurs mostly in the genital area, armpits and feet, Dr. Jose says. Your sweat can tell you a lot about your health. But if you’re asking yourself: why does my sweat smell so bad, here are a few things to consider.
The Smell: Ammonia or Urine
The Culprit: A Protein-Rich Diet
Low-carb, high-protein or keto diets might be popular, but one weird side effect is that you might notice your sweat smelling like ammonia. (Urine can also have a strong ammonia odor. Meaning: You might instead think your sweat smells like urine.)
“Ammonia is a product of protein breakdown,” Dr. Jose says. “It may help to reduce protein intake to alleviate ammonia-smelling sweat,” she adds.
The Smell: Onions
The Culprit: Last Night’s Dinner
Did you recently sit down to a garlic-y pasta dish? Or eat a stir-fry with lots of onions? These foods can affect the way sweat smells, Dr. Jose says.
So, if you think your sweat smells like onions, that curry dish you ordered last night might be the answer.
Some people also have bacteria hanging out in their pits that might make their sweat smell like fresh onion, according to January 2015 research in Microbiome. Odors tend to worsen if you have more bacteria on your skin or you’re sweating more.
The Smell: Sour or Skunky
The Culprit: Your Skin Bacteria
“We all have our own microbiome, or bacteria that reside on our skin, specifically in areas like the armpit and groin,” Dr. Jose says. “These bacteria dictate the smell sweat produces after it breaks down those sweat precursors.”
If you’re wondering why your sweat smells sour or like vinegar, you may have more of a specific bacteria, Corynebacterium, in your armpits, which produces putrid fatty acids, she explains.
Underarms tend to have more nasty compounds, including thiols, which smell like skunk, says Joe Schwarcz, PhD, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. (FYI, many people equate skunk with marijuana, so if you think your sweat smells like weed, there’s a clue.)
The Smell: Fishy or Rotten
The Culprit: A Metabolic Disease
Foul-smelling body odors can also be indicative of a metabolic disease. These are rare, but one example is trimethylaminuria — aka “fish odor syndrome” — where the body is unable to breakdown trimethylamine, a compound found in certain foods. If you have this disorder, your sweat will smell like a rotten fish, according to the
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