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Everything you wanted to know about smells

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Armpit odor

Dr. Alon Amit

29.01.10, 06:59

Everyone knows that sweat is the cause of body odor. Or is it?

Perspiration by itself is scentless. Our sweat can sometimes carry the odors of certain food ingredients we ate, such as cumin or garlic, but this smell is transient and at most, will last for a few hours.

The B.O. (body odor) we produce is actually not the smell of sweat, but what bacteria do to it. Perspiration creates conditions for bacteria to flourish, and the scent we carry is the byproducts of this bacterial activity – as if our skin is just one big petri dish. Body odor mostly concentrates in the axillary region (the armpits), and is a smell specific to the particular individual.

Armpit odor starts at puberty, at about ages 13 to 15 (the age of sexual puberty has decreased in the past couple of decades, so it might happen earlier), when the apocrine glands start developing. There are two kinds of sweat glands in our body – the eccrine glands, which secrete a mixture of salts and water to cool our body (when the autonomic nervous system signals that our body is hot) are the source for most perspiration. The second type of glands is the apocrine glands, which secrete a fluid from the hair follicles. The sweat secretions of the apocrine glands contain fatty substances (“sebum”), and the bacteria we have on our skin break down the organic compounds in the sweat and produce odor.

Over 30 chemicals have been identified to contribute to body odor, and the main compound among them is 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid.

The body odor we display is mainly derived from bacterial growth, but can also be affected by:

  • Diet: food, such as garlic, curry and onions, may temporarily alter our smell. Dietary imbalance (zinc deficiency, for example) may also change our natural scent.
  • Gender: Women's body odor changes following menopause, mainly due to excessive perspiration.
  • Genetics: Family members tend to have related smells.
  • Health: Diabetes, kidney or liver disease and other illnesses.
  • Medication: Pericyasine, Topiramate and other drugs and toxins may alter our body odor.
  • Personal habits: Smoking (or other form of tobacco consumption), caffeine (from coffee or soda drinks) and alcohol consumption.
  • Apparel: Non-breathing fabrics can make us sweat more, and prevent sweat from vaporizing, thus make our smell more prominent.
  • Emotional status: Stress and anxiety.
Body odor is influenced by our genetics, and specifically by the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. The MHC molecules are genetically determined and play an important role in our immune system. Our olfactory system contains cells sensitive to those molecules. Our reproductive behavior is influenced by our body odor, and has been shown in recent studies to be connected to our sexual preference.
 
Read more about deodorants and antiperspirants, or go into our forum and ask our specialists about body odors.
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