The other day I got a hearty whiff of myself after a workout, only to come to the terrifying realisation that I now have the same body odour as my father. I have vivid memories of walking by my dad’s soiled jogging clothes as a kid, and doubling over because of the stench. He smelled like he was sweating malaria water. And now, I inflict the same olfactory terrorism on whomever is unfortunate enough to stand next to me at the gym.
Ashamed at the current state of my body odour, I wondered whether my smellprint was inherited from my father and thus encoded in my DNA, and if there was anything I could do to reverse my fate.
The answer to both questions is “kind of.”
Here’s a fun tidbit for your next cocktail party: Sweat itself is actually odourless; body odour is caused by the bajillions of tiny microorganisms that live on our skin. “Our microorganisms drink our sweat as their food source and produce the odours we smell as body odour,” says Julie Horvath, a professor at North Carolina Central University and expert in evolutionary genomics.
Those microorganisms are indeed determined by our genes, but the extent to which a person’s B.O. is inherited from their parents isn’t exactly known. Horvath guesses that “less than 50 percent” of our body odour can be attributed to our genetic makeup (and ultimately, our parents).
And that’s just a rough estimate. There’s still a lot scientists don’t know about the nature of our skin microorganisms, Horvath admits, so it’s hard to pinpoint any one factor that gives a person their distinct smell.
The remaining percentage (whatever that is) is determined by hundreds of other factors, including diet, age, hygiene and whether you were born vaginally or by C-section.
One of the most popular pieces of advice on how to mitigate body odour is to eat healthier, and there’s some truth to that, Horvath says. “At some level, you can influence body odour through diet.”
Not surprisingly, more aromatic foods such as onions and garlic are going to make your body as pungent as your breath. On the other hand, fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods will create a diverse mix of microorganisms in your stomach (or your “gut microbiome,” as it’s often referred to). A healthy gut microbiome has been linked to everything from weight loss to slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s, and the benefits extend to your skin and body odor, as well. When you have a diverse set of microorganisms on your skin, you might smell a little better, essentially. (Maybe this is why I smell mainly of beef and day-old cheese.)
As for how you came into this world: In a natural birth, a baby picks up microorganisms from the mother’s vaginal canal, whereas with a C-section, the baby’s skin microbiome is determined by the first pair of hands to touch it. There’s debate in the medical community, however, as to whether these effects last only a few years, or into adulthood, Horvath says.
And then there’s age. “When you hit age 40, your smell and body odour changes,” Horvath explains. That must’ve been then the smell of rotting death that emanated from my dad’s body.
The only thing more disturbing than knowing my body odour will only get worse in the future is knowing the effect it will have on the women I attract. Smell plays a huge role in mate selection for humans. Women, specifically, are naturally drawn to the body odours of men with vastly different genetic make-ups than theirs. Procreating with someone with different genes creates greater genetic diversity in their children, which equates to a stronger immune system. It’s all part of our evolutionary impulse to continue the human species.
But if I smell like my dad, wouldn’t that mean I’m going to attract women similar to my mum?
“Ha, maybe,” Horvath says.
Which isn’t as smelly, but it is kind of creepy.