The Best – and Healthiest – Ways to Combat Sweat and Body Odor

Dr. Janet Zand

July 19, 2019

We pay a lot of attention to how our skin looks and feels. But another sense can quickly overpower the feel and look of even beautiful, soft skin: smell.

You probably know that you need to be careful with fragranced products. And you’re likely aware that many conventional antiperspirants and deodorants can be full of dangerous chemicals. But I bet you don’t want to just live with body odor. Don’t worry – you don’t have to. And you don’t have to sacrifice your looks, your skin, or your health to smell fresh either.

To understand the best – and healthiest – ways to combat sweat and body odor, it’s important to first understand both why you sweat and why it stinks. You might be surprised to learn that sweat itself is often basically odorless. In fact, when you sweat because you’re hot or exercising heavily, basically all that sweat contains is water and electrolytes. 

The smell comes in when you mix sweat with bacteria. As I’m sure you know, our skin plays host to millions of these microscopic creatures. And many of them love sweat. In fact, sweat helps them multiply, leading to the smell. This is why your gym clothes smell quite a bit worse after a week left in your bag than they do when you first peel them off after a workout.

Why Sweat Smells Worse When You’re Nervous

However, you may have noticed that your sweat seems to smell worse when you’re nervous. No, this isn’t because bacteria thrive on your fear. It’s because your body actually produces sweat in a couple different ways. So the composition varies. In fact, your skin has two kinds of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine.

You’ll find eccrine glands pretty much everywhere. These are the glands that allow that watery electrolyte mixture to escape when you’re hot. The goal of this sweat is to cool down the skin as it evaporates, so you need these glands all over your body.

The apocrine glands, however, concentrate in areas where you also have a lot of hair follicles, like your armpits. The sweat that you release from these glands is usually a result of emotional stress or hormonal fluctuations. It’s denser than the watery sweat that comes from the eccrine glands and has a stronger smell on its own. 

Making matters worse, the areas that contain apocrine glands are also a preferred home of many bacteria. In particular, a type called Micrococcus sedentarius loves these places. And this bacteria is particularly potent. It produces acids and sulfur compounds that amp up the stink factor significantly.

The amount you sweat can be a function of age, genetics, and lifestyle. Some people are genetically predisposed to sweat more. Hormonal changes that vary depending on age and health affect the amount of sweat as well. Sweating is also a way that the body detoxifies. So it stands to reason that fewer toxins in your body might help decrease how much you need to sweat. But you certainly don’t want to block this process!

Which Works Best, Deodorant or Antiperspirant?

That brings us to strategies to deal with body odor and stinky sweat. Many people concentrate all their efforts on the underarms. This is often a prominent source of smell. But it’s not the only place we sweat. And focusing too much on this small area of the body can lead us to use toxic solutions that are overkill for this area but ignore other sources of the problem.

For their armpits, people often choose between deodorants and antiperspirants. According to one study, if all you're concerned about is killing off bacteria and keeping sweat-free, antiperspirant is probably your best bet.

Researchers evaluated the bacteria of 17 participants' armpits over the course of eight days. For the first day, the participants followed their normal habits – five used deodorant, seven antiperspirant, and five no products at all. For the next five days, none of the participants used any underarm products. Then they used antiperspirant for two days.

The researchers found that when everyone started using antiperspirant, their bacteria count dropped quite a bit. Those who used deodorant or no products at all had a lot more bacteria.

Destroying bacteria might sound like a good thing. But it makes you wonder what's in those products that makes them so powerful. Many deodorant and antiperspirant products contain endocrine disrupters such as aluminum and parabens, chemicals, and toxic ingredients like ethanol. These ingredients do kill bacteria. But they also get absorbed into your body through your skin, where they can cause damage. There are safer ways to deal with smelly sweat.

Safer Ways to Smell Fresh

For starters, make sure bacteria and sweat aren’t lingering for too long on your skin. We don’t need to take a scorched-earth approach to getting rid of bacteria. But showering every day with some natural bacteria fighters is a good start. For example, tea tree oil can fight bacteria without being overkill.

Once you shower, dry off quickly and thoroughly. Bacteria love damp environments. So get areas like underarms as dry as possible before you apply any products. I’ll tell you about one of my favorite deodorants for odor control in a moment.

You can also consider whether your diet is causing you to sweat – or to have stronger-smelling sweat. Foods that make you gassy may also make your sweat a bigger issue. Garlic, onions, beans, refined sugars, fried foods, and dairy can all be culprits. Foods that produce sulfur compounds, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli can be a problem as well. If spicy food makes you sweat, it might also make you stink. And some people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol or caffeine. If strong-smelling sweat is an issue for you, it’s worth experimenting with your diet to see if some tweaks will help.

Make sure your clothes aren’t contributing to the problem either. Shoe insoles can be a major culprit. In fact, your feet have more sweat glands than your underarms! Check to see if you need to wash or replace your insoles. I put my sneakers out in the sun every week and wash them on the delicate cycle from time to time. If my sneakers are really misbehaving, I pour baking soda into them for 24 hours and that usually does the trick. And of course, make sure you’re washing your clothes, including undergarments like bras, on a regular basis.

Don’t let sweaty clothes sit too long before you wash them. This can make lingering odors harder to remove. I’ve gotten into the habit of just throwing them into the washing machine as I rip them off. If you’re struggling to get stink out of your laundry, look for a natural antibacterial laundry detergent. Don’t just cover up the odor with scented soaps or fabric softeners. And your nose will likely register both the fragrance and the sweat smell, which can be even worse than body odor alone. These often contain more toxins. Once again, just tossing white vinegar or baking soda or both will often get rid of unwanted smells.

The Overlooked Cause of Smelly Sweat

Finally, evaluate whether you have too many stressors in your life. We talk a lot about stress as a driver of inflammation. But it can also cause you to sweat more. And, as I mentioned, this type of sweat can be stinky. That’s because it contains more protein and fat than other types. And bacteria love to feed on that protein and fat. Believe it or not, working out can help you fight both stress and stinky sweat. It will boost your endorphins and help get your sweat back into that mostly water mode.

Simple Solutions

While these strategies can help reduce odor, you will probably still want a dedicated product for your underarms. I think deodorants are a better bet than antiperspirants. You can make your own natural solution by mixing ½ cup of coconut oil, ½ cup of baking soda, and 40 to 60 drops of the essential oil of your choice. Choose one that you enjoy the scent of, such as sage, lavender, or lemon. Store the mixture in a glass jar in a cool place (remember that coconut oil liquefies when it gets warm). You can easily apply the mixture with your fingers. Just let it dry for a couple minutes before you finish getting dressed. Coconut oil will nourish your skin, while the oils will safely keep odor in check.

If you’d rather not go the DIY route, there’s another product I can suggest. A patient actually recommended this product to me. I was a bit skeptical at first, but I ordered one, and I was pleasantly surprised. It's made of healthy, safe, organic ingredients that actually benefit your underarms rather than damaging your body.

This product is called Agent Nateur. It’s a remarkable 100% natural product. It has baking soda and lavender and is GMO and pesticide free. What’s impressive is that at the start some people I’ve spoken with say that it did not work all that well for them, but they stuck with it and after the first week the microbiome of your skin under your arm is actually transformed and the nasty bacteria causing odor seems to be replaced by more healthy bacteria. For me, it worked from the very first day I used it. Note: I’m not financially associated with this company. I’m just a fan and the deodorant is one of my “favorite things.” Every single ingredient in the deodorant is even edible. I like being able to apply ingredients to my body that I am willing to consume in a different form.

Women who have dense or cystic breasts or a history of breast cancer should be particularly careful about what they apply to their underarms. This product allows you to stay odor-free without dangerous chemicals. You can purchase it at I wish them the very best because they are supplying women with not only a safe solution but an effective one too!

I know that body odor can be embarrassing. But don’t risk your health to address it. There really are safe, natural solutions that can help you keep smelling fresh. And you won’t have to sweat when you think about the ingredients list!



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