All the smelly people

Where DO they all come from?


I went to a great performance at one of our local art museums the other night. We found our seats, sat down and anticipated the show we were about to see until, suddenly, I was overcome by a very pungent, sour smell which seemed to be emanating from the young guy a few seats ahead. His curly hair was kind of messy and his fingers were constantly twisting one lock of hair, as if he were creating future dreads.

My “knee-jerk” reaction was familiar, since I had experienced this smell many times before. I wondered to myself why he couldn’t just take a shower like everybody else. Couldn’t he smell himself? And what about his girlfriend to his right? What did she think about all his smelliness? Sure, I have some friends who bathe less who have that ever-present natural hair oil smell or a subtle, shall we say, mustiness. But this sour smell was most likely the result of not bathing for weeks, if not months.

I wanted to get down to the bottom of this curious state of being, so I Googled it. I typed in the key words, “stink punk body odor people who don’t bathe”, anxious to find the physical and perhaps the psychological reasons for not bathing regularly. The first page of results turned up the usual rants and judgements from a multitude of people complaining about the issue, but nobody really came up with a reason for why people would choose not to bathe.

“I’ve known plenty of punks who did not shower. I think the reasons for this is kind of obvious — environmentalism, rejection of consumer culture or wasteful Western-centric habits, mostly rich kids who wanted to piss off their parents…”

“I noticed a lot of people in art school went almost overnight clean-cut kids to fixed-gear riding, bike messenger idolizing, PBR drinking, tattooed, smell-you-from-a-block-away non showering types.”

“To me, it is common courtesy not to offend the olfactory senses of those who surround me.”

“There’s a big difference between normal human scent and stale, skanky scent. To really build up a good stink, you need a few days accumulation and a not-so-great diet, possibly including a lot of booze. It means your personal hygiene is lacking to the point you may be sticky to the touch.”


In the animal kingdom, some species produce a strong body odor to confuse a predator into perceiving that the prey animal has been dead for a long time and is already in the advanced stages of decomposing. There are several possible reasons for humans having noticeable body odor.

First of all, we all perspire, but perspiration itself does not smell, however the growing bacteria in it does. Bacteria feeds off of the moisture and heat found in armpits which can leave a distinctive aroma as it decomposes, leaving that odor known as B.O.

If someone has a serious medical problem, no amount of personal hygiene care will cure the body odor problem. Intrusive body odor can also be caused by hormonal changes in children who are going through puberty or women with menopause.

Diabetes. People suffering from untreated Diabetes may have an ammonia body odor and a sweet, fruity breath. This is particularly true when a person’s blood sugars are not controlled with medication and they develop the condition called ketoacidosis.

Kidney Disease. Bad body odor can also be a sign of liver or kidney disease. This means that the body cannot process or remove certain toxins due to the affected organ.

Thyroid Disease. Sometimes an overactive thyroid can cause body odor due to the tendency of the person to sweat excessively as a result of the overactive thyroid gland.

Trimethylaminuria, a.k.a. Fish Odor Syndrome. Trimethylaminuria is a rare disorder that causes a defect in the normal production of an enzyme called flavin. When this enzyme is lacking, the body loses the ability to properly convert compounds in food to aid normal digestion. As a result, the person’s sweat, urine, and breath give off a strong fishy odor.

Alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver. Alcohol-induced cirrhosis is the phrase used to describe deterioration of the liver that has been caused by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, usually over many years. The liver normally produces bile, which helps digestion, regulates glucose, helps clot blood, regulates iron, produces amino acid and cholesterol and converts body wastes. Signs of liver disease include excessive sweating, foul body odor, red and swollen eyes, acne, a coated tongue, itchy and irritated skin. This body odor has a distinct smell of rotten eggs.

Tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is an infectious bacterial disease characterized by the growth of nodules in the tissues, especially in the lungs. Untreated Tuberculosis can produce a body odor that smells like stale beer.

Hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating. We have two types of sweat glands. Eccrine glands produce odorless sweat, made up of mostly water and salt, which helps cool the body. The other glands are called apocrine glands, which secrete a fatty sweat inside the gland, close to hair follicles on the scalp, underarms, and genitals. This type of sweat is excreted on the skin’s surface when we exercise, feel stressed, or become over-heated. Bacteria feed on this kind of sweat, and the odor comes from the breakdown of chemicals.


Ablutophobia. Some people suffer from this disorder which is an extreme and irrational fear of bathing, washing or cleaning.

Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar Disorder is characterized by alternating periods of elation and depression. During the depressed state, the person may not get out of bed for days or weeks, cannot concentrate, and often avoid showering or changing clothes for days.


Eating certain foods like onions, garlic, spicy foods, fried foods, baked goods that contain rancid fats and oils, and drinking coffee and alcohol cause body odor.

Garlic and onions contain a substance called allicin that cause their odor to linger on for hours after we eat them.

Spices such as cumin and curry may also cause body odor and bad breath. The oils from the spices are absorbed in the bloodstream, are released through our pores and from the lungs when we breathe.

Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. These vegetables contain sulfur, which the body breaks down into compounds that are similar to those responsible for the smell of rancid butter.

Red meat can contribute to body odor. A study published in the journal Chemical Senses, in 2006, found that people on a vegetarian diet had less intense body odor than those who ate meat. The amino acids in red meat leave a residue in the intestines during digestion. Intestinal enzymes break down that residue, which then mixes with bacteria on the skin during perspiration and intensifies body odor.

Processed food. Refined sugar in processed foods, as well as their high glycemic index are contributors to body odor. Sugars in the blood alter the make-up of perspiration in some people when combined with bacteria on the skin. Processed foods also lack chlorophyll, the chemical that gives vegetables their color and neutralizes the bacteria that causes body odor.

Fried foods. Fats and oils in foods that are fried and fatty become rancid over time, and can lead to poor digestion. Just think how many times that oil is used to fry french fries and other deep-fried foods.

Excessive alcohol. When you drink alcohol, most of it is metabolized in the liver into acetic acid. But some of the alcohol is released through sweat and the respiratory system. So if you overdo it, not only will your breath smell, but the odor may also come out of your pores.

Medications and supplements

There are a number of antidepressant medications that can cause sweating and subsequent body odor.

Other medicines used to reduce a specific type of fat in the blood and shut down the production of certain hormones for cancer treatment, as well as medications to treat seizures and epilepsy may cause body odor. Some people take supplements such as garlic, which may also cause body odor and bad breath.

Smoking. Cigarettes are a major cause of body odor, and not only does it come back through the lungs, it also comes through the skin. Nicotine, and the resulting smoke, mixes with the body’s chemistry to create a distinct odor.

Cleansing Reduction Trend

In modern day Western society, the idea of showering less than every day is unpalatable for most people. In the past, it was acceptable to bathe only once a week. While it may offend some of us who are accustomed to the scent of our overly perfumed bodies, showering less has been found to improve our skin and boost health benefits.

Better for your skin. Instead of bathing every day, some folks bathe once or twice a week on the grounds that too much cleansing can strip the skin and hair of essential natural oils. It has been said that we are also stripping ourselves of “good” bacteria that may have beneficial healing properties.

Better for the environment. A study conducted in the UK by consumer-goods giant Unilever patented a device attached to the shower heads of 100 households to monitor water flow and study the duration of 2,600 showers over a period of 10 days. They found that people who showered used a lot less water than those who took baths.

As for the hair-twisting guy two rows up at the performance, I still don’t know the reason why he was smelly. Was he suffering from a mental illness? Was he taking medication? Was he part of the cleansing reduction trend? Did he just have a spicy Thai curry? Or was he smoking and drinking all night long? I guess I’ll never know.

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