Changes in Body Odor as We Age
Body odor is present in all animals including humans. In most cultures, the human body odor is considered to be an unpleasant smell. Although most people associate body odor with poor hygiene, this is not always the reason.
Your body odor changes throughout your lifetime: an infant’s smell differs from a teenager and then that of a senior. Maybe you have noticed how the human body smells actually does change over time.
In this article, let’s first look at the origins of human body odor so we can better understand what causes the smell and what can be done about it.
Origins of body odor
As humans, we have three different types of sweat glands: the eccrine sweat glands, apocrine sweat glands, and sebaceous glands. Since birth, our eccrine glands are active whereas the apocrine and sebaceous glands are activated during the onset of puberty.
Body odor results mostly from the apocrine sweat glands. These glands secrete chemical compounds needed for the skin to metabolize them into odorant substances. Specifically, as the chemicals break down in the body, and more so as we age, there is a significant byproduct that is not water-soluble. That means it stays on the skin despite using various hygiene projects or bathing and showering.
The most probable chemical is omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids that are degraded through oxidation. And the major byproduct of this chemical is the compound 2-nonenal. So, it is the compound 2-nonenal that typically remains on the skin, causing the odor.
This process can happen anywhere on your body’s skin, but most often in the armpit region, underside of your feet, mouth and throat, belly button, and genitals. The smell also can linger on fabrics that the individual has come in contact with like pillowcases, sheets, shirt collars, etc.
What can you do to help minimize the presence and the odor of the compound 2-nonenal?
There are several things you can do to reduce body odor:
- exercise regularly (minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise weekly)
- avoid and cope with stress
- eliminate smoking
- drink in moderation (limited to one 12-oz. beer or 5 oz. of wine daily)
- eat a healthy diet (plenty of fruits and vegetables; vary protein choices – fish, beans, and peas; eat 3 oz. of whole-grains daily – cereals, breads, crackers, rice or pasta; low-fat or fat-free dairy fortified with vitamin D – 3 servings of milk, yogurt or cheese
- drink a sufficient amount of water (minimum eight 8-ounces of water daily)
- get enough rest (minimum 7-8 hours a night)
Additional actions to reduce body odor
Although good personal hygiene and consistent household habits along with the use of specialized products (e.g., antiperspirant, perfume/cologne, face wash, lotion, room deodorizers) are not 100% effective in eliminating or neutralizing 2-nonenal, they may play a role in minimizing the odors and also in preventing related health problems.
These are some helpful suggestions:
- Open a window to let in some fresh air and clean your house regularly and effectively
- Spritz your hairbrush with your favorite scent before brushing your dry hair
- Moisturize your skin with scented creams and lotions (to make the smell last longer, you can apply it to your skin right after you get out of the shower or bath)
- Shower more frequently or do a sponge bath and focus on the body parts with the most sweat glands
- Keep a travel-size version of antiperspirant or deodorant on hand
- Carry individually wrapped wipes
- Apply talcum-free powder where the skin rubs against each other
- Refrain from wearing polyester clothing which can harbor bacteria and sweat
- Wash your hair thoroughly with a lather shampoo
- Keep your teeth healthy by brushing with toothpaste a minimum of two times/day for several minutes at a time and floss daily
- Brush your teeth after eating foods with strong odors like onion, garlic, tuna, and radishes
- Drink a lot of water to avoid bad breath
- Chew on mint leaves or sugar-free mints or gum as needed
- Take a shower and use scented soap, body wash, or shower gel
- Wash your clothes regularly with a fragrance laundry soap
- Use a fragrance booster or dryer sheets when drying clothes
- Hang dried lavender in your closets or make a sachet for your drawers
- Put cotton balls or tissue paper sprayed with your favorite scent in your drawers
Body odor and possible causes
A smell may be noticeable from your urine or stool, earwax, or genital discharge. The smell could be bitter, sour, fishy, foul, or even sweet. If the change in odor stems from an infection, the smell may also be accompanied by itching, redness, a rash, or some type of oozing or discharge.
Some common skin infections include trichomycosis axillaris, a bacterial infection of underarm hair follicles; erythrasma, a superficial bacterial skin infection; intertrigo, a rash in a skinfold; and candidiasis, yeast infection.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies and malabsorption
Sometimes when your body doesn’t get the right amounts of vitamins and minerals in your daily diet or if your body can’t absorb the nutrients you eat, a body odor may develop. There may be a smell to your stool or urine as well.
Sudden changes in body odor
In addition, there may be any number of underlying conditions that cause body odor. It is advisable to see your medical professional if you notice any sudden changes in body odor.
- Some people who are under stress or experience anxiety sweat more which often leads to a stronger body odor.
- Diabetes mellitus, a condition occurring when your body doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t effectively use what it makes, can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis, resulting in a fruity odor to your breath.
- Several vaginal infections can cause a change in vaginal odor and even a bad-smelling discharge.
- Athlete’s foot is a common fungal infection that causes your feet to smell.
- Individuals with advanced cancer have indicated unpleasant body odors.
- Pneumonia, as well as tuberculosis, can cause bad-smelling breath.
- A smell of ammonia from your breath or urine may indicate uremia, a sign of kidney failure.
- There may be intestinal obstructions, whereby vomiting can cause fecal-smelling breath.
- Smelly earwax and other symptoms of itching, redness, pain, balance and hearing issues, and discharge of pus may indicate an infection.
Despite the opinion that body odor is a direct result of poor hygiene and unsatisfactory cleaning habits, there can actually be many reasons for this smell. Not surprisingly, the smell of body odor changes as we age. The smell of an infant is different from a teenager’s body odor and quite different from someone over age 60. There are many simple actions you can do daily to minimize the unpleasant odor. It is important to know that some of these body odors are associated with infections, deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, and other underlying conditions. It is best to see a medical professional if your body odor changes to rule out related health conditions.
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