Smelly Me

I’m smellier than usual these days due to an unfortunate series of event that took place under my arms. It started last month when I came across a very fancy, but very old bottle of perfume that had belonged to my mother-in-law. I’m not much of a fragrance user, since most have alcohol that wipes out delicate skin microbes, but for some inexplicable reason, one night I decided to spray it all over my freshly shaven armpits. It stung a bit, which made me think maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, but the next morning I knew it was actually a terrible idea. I woke up with angry-looking welts under both pits and severe itching and burning. A bad case of contact dermatitis that over the next few days morphed into eczema.


If you’ve read any of my books you know I’m all about living dirty and eating clean, which means avoiding things like anti-perspirants. That normally works out pretty well for me since I’m constantly running, spinning, or doing heated Vinyasa flow, all of which involve a lot of cleansing sweat and keep me smelling pretty good (or more accurately, not smelling bad). But now I had inflamed, itchy, weepy lesions under my arms and sweating made it burn even more, so my workouts were on hold, and things were definitely getting a little funky.


Stressed about why my under pit eczema wasn’t clearing up and worried it was here to stay only made things stinkier. If you’ve ever wondered why stress makes you smell bad, here’s how it works: You actually have two kinds of sweat glands; eccrine glands, which are located all over your body and open to the skin, and apocrine glands, which release their contents into areas with hair follicles like your armpits and groin. Eccrine glands secrete odorless water and salt onto your skin when it’s hot or when you’re exercising, which helps cool you off as it evaporates (cleansing sweat). Apocrine glands release a milky white substance when you’re stressed that combines with bacteria in your armpits and groin to create smelly body odor (stinky sweat).


With no sign of getting better, “does this make my butt look big?” was quickly replaced by “do my pits smell really bad?” along with an armpit thrust to the face, which my poor husband and daughter had to endure on an hourly basis. In desperation, I decided to break another cardinal live dirty rule: I got out the soap. What happened next, of course, is that my pits got even smellier (which I didn’t think was even possible). The soap was altering the microbiome of my armpit—and not for the better. The two main types of bacteria that inhabit our armpits are Staphylococci and Corynebacterium. Staph tends to be the dominant species in women and has very little smell, while more odor-producing Corynebacterium predominates in men, probably because they secrete more fat in their sweat, which is the preferred food of lipid-loving Corynebacterium. Things like harsh soaps and aluminum salts in antiperspirants have a greater impact on Staph, disproportionately depleting their numbers and leading to an increase in the population of smelly Corynebacterium. And that’s exactly what was happening to me.


The story, fortunately, does have a fragrant ending. After about 3 weeks of really dirty living, including no underarm shaving or personal hygiene products of any kind (namaste to anyone who was next to me at yoga during that pungent time); and super clean eating that involved twice-daily green smoothies, the eczema finally started to heal, and I started to smell like my old self again (i.e., not smelly)!


By: Dr. Robynne Chutkan