Americans spend hundreds of dollars a year on personal care products designed to battle bad breath, stinky arm pits and, ahem, more personal aromas. But the fact is, odors are human. As long as you bathe, brush and floss regularly, there's no need for high-priced sprays or washes. But occasionally, even if you’re doing all the right things, you may sniff out a stinky problem.
We spoke with family medicine physician Gretchen Dickson, MD, of Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas, to find out why your personal aroma may be off -- and how you can fix it.
What stinks: Your breath
Ever notice people backing away when you approach them for a chat? They may be reacting to an unpleasant smell wafting from a sticky film of bacteria at the back of your tongue.
Why it may smell: For most people, halitosis, a.k.a. bad breath, is nothing more than a nuisance that stems from poor oral care. However, for some, bad breath may be a side effect of a sinus or bad lung infection. In more uncommon cases, chronic illnesses -- like kidney and liver failure or diabetes or GERD -- may also contribute.
The fix: In addition to proper oral care -- brushing your teeth and tongue daily along with flossing, using mouthwash or chewing gum in case you’re without a toothbrush -- eating a healthy, high-fiber diet helps too. “High sugar foods and high fat foods that break down in your mouth smell worse than if you eat something high in fiber,” says Dr. Dickson. She also recommends drinking eight glasses of water a day, as your breath can worsen if your mouth is dry.
What stinks: Your pits
If you think you smell there, assume it's not your imagination. Stress, food, and hormonal shifts can trigger a population explosion among natural skin bacteria that call your armpits home.
Why they may smell: Your armpit is warm and moist, and as a general rule, you sweat there more than other places in your body. The chemical breakdown of that sweat triggers the stinky pit smell. There are a number of reasons a person’s smell may be worse than normal. Physiologically, a person’s body composition may just cause them to sweat more. In other cases, even if you sweat the same amount as someone else, if your armpit bacteria are more active in that region, it’s going to be more unpleasant. In some cases, people just haven’t found a good antiperspirant or deodorant that helps ease the overproduction of sweat and lock down the smell.
Related: 5 Down and Dirty Facts About Sweat
How to fix: Wash frequently and use different kinds of deodorants or antiperspirants until you find one that works for you, says Dickson. And if you sweat excessively, know that there are medications you can take to help cut back on the sweating -- just talk to your physician to see which may be your best bet.
What stinks: “Down there”
In women, vaginal aromas ebb and flow naturally with your monthly hormonal cycle. “I think most people can kind of have a sense of what's normal for them … but if they notice a change like a stronger or more unpleasant smell, that's something that they should see their doctor about,” Dickson says.
Why it may smell: A strong fishy odor, especially after you've had sex, is a tell-tale symptom of bacterial vaginosis (BV), an overgrowth of bacteria. Other potential stink-bombs: sweating, leaving in a tampon too long (Dickson recommends no more than four to six hours), infections, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and allergic or irritating reactions to things like scented soaps or body washes. In older women, bladder problems like urinary incontinence may bring about unpleasant odors.
The fix: Your first instinct may be to douche, but don’t. “You want to get to the cause and treat [that] rather than douching,” advises Dickson. Before you start self-medicating, see your doctor or visit urgent care, as treating yourself for a yeast infection can make it harder for your doctor to detect the root cause. And while Dickson says good hygiene is important -- like showering after a sweaty gym session -- overdoing it may actually take away your good vaginal bacteria and actually worsen the smell. Other tips for staying odor free: Wash with mild soap, rinse well and wear cotton underwear during the day and none at night while you're sleeping. (You want air circulation.) Give the tight, skinny jeans a rest, too, and change out of wet or sweaty clothing promptly.