Guy making stinky face

—Jason M.*, University of Wisconsin­–Oshkosh

Certain odors are natural, and just how bad they are is a matter of opinion. I remember reading a study about bad breath a few years ago, and it seems more people perceive themselves to have bad breath than actually do.

This is also the case with body odor: Some people are hypersensitive to their own odors and others may be less sensitive than the rest of us would want them to be.

Why’s it smell so weird?

It’s normal for the genitals to have some odor, sometimes described as musky or yeasty. Most of this odor is associated with a particular type of sweat gland called the apocrine glands. These are concentrated in the armpits, genitals, and breasts. They secrete pheromones and respond to the sympathetic nervous system, and are stimulated by heat, exercise, and emotion. That’s why hot weather, extensive exercise, and strong emotion (especially fear) can cause us to get pretty stinky. Generally speaking, though, we can get back to normal after taking a shower.

Additionally, women who menstruate (have a period) may have fluctuation in discharge depending on their point in the menstrual cycle—which can also change the odor.

Sometimes, especially in the case of a sudden or dramatic change in smell that doesn’t get better with relaxation and bathing, there could be a problem causing the smell, such as an infection. For example, bacterial vaginosis, an alteration of the normal balance of bacterial flora, can cause a fishy odor. Fungal infections in the genitalia can cause a strong yeasty odor. Some people may have a condition called bromhidrosis, which can produce a strong foul odor in the armpits. Such cases require medical attention. If you notice a stronger-than-usual odor that doesn’t go away after bathing, give your health care provider a visit.

One last cause of off-putting odors: Not wiping yourself well after going to the bathroom. Using good-quality toilet paper or disposable wet wipes can help. Just don’t flush the wipes!

How to get rid of the stink

  • Wear breathable clothing. These include wicking base layers, which prevent trapping of moisture close to the skin. Cotton is also a good option because it’s a more breathable fabric than synthetics such as nylon and polyester.
  • Don’t over-wash. Long, hot showers with strong soap can be counterproductive because they upset the balance of normal skin bacteria. Also, remember that vaginas should only be washed on the outside. Never douche or put soap inside the vagina—this can lead to infection.
  • Try a powder. Ask your health care provider about using powders such as cornstarch or baking powder, or other products that can help.

If body odor is preoccupying you, making you uncomfortable about interacting with other people, or preventing you from seeking intimate relationships, you should talk about it with a medical professional.

In most cases, though, the task is about accepting yourself and your body for who and what you are. It’s best to think of the odor of our genitalia as part of our particular body chemistry, just like our height or eye color.

*Name changed

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Dr. Davis Smith is a practicing internist and a staff physician at the University of Connecticut. He specializes in the care of transgender, gay and lesbian, and adolescent patients. Previously he worked at Trinity College and Wesleyan University.