How Do I Know If I Smell Bad?

An expert in human bodily odours explains why, most of the time, you shouldn’t worry about having B.O.


Every now and again, you’ll encounter someone—a colleague, a friend of a friend, a stranger on the bus—who seems somehow oblivious to the fact that holy cow, they stink. It may be overpowering B.O., wafts of cheesy feet stench or just plain old death-breath, but most of us have wondered, every now and again, hang on a minute, do I smell bad right now? More troubling still is the next question: How do I tell? Since we’re all so inured to the smells our own body makes (yes, giggle, we’re talking about farts!), how can we be sure we’re not that one stinky guy that everyone talks about?

The good news, according to Dr. George Preti, an expert in human bodily odours at the Monell Chemical Sense Center, is that these days, most of us probably don’t need to worry. “People in America or Western Europe, we shower every day and bad hygiene is at a pretty low level,” he says. “Most folks don’t produce odour that’s noticeable at a social distance. Your feet, say—generally, in social situations, your feet are not going to be noticeable because you’ve got shoes on. Unless you take them off, the odour doesn’t permeate the room.”

According to Preti, it’s not just that products for keeping smells at bay have gotten better—we’ve also gotten better at using them. While your grandad may not approve of (or understand) your daily grooming regimen, he should at least appreciate how much better our public spaces smell as a result. “I ride public transportation every day to work, so I’m pretty astute to the conditions around me,” says Preti. “Things are much different from when I used to ride it as a kid in New York—you don’t pick up a lot of bad odours nowadays. Armpit odour used to be a lot more prevalent—I used to ride the subways in the summertime in Manhattan during the late 50s and early 60s, and I distinctly remember noticing the odour much more back in those days.”

The main area that might still be cause for concern is your mouth, with chronic halitosis (that is, nasty breath) still plaguing up to 10 percent of many populations. If you’re worried you’re one of these people, one trick is to lick your wrist, wait ten seconds, then sniff the patch you licked: If it smells, chances are, so does your breath. An even more reliable method, says Preti, is simply to ask someone.

This, in fact, is true of any concern you have regarding your various bodily odours, be it mouth, foot, armpit or even groin (okay, maybe not groin. Just wash it). “Find somebody you know and trust and ask them,” says Preti. “If they tell you that you don’t smell bad, then most likely, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Just remember, if they tell you that you smell fine while backing away with their eyes watering, you may want to try asking somebody else.