How Do I Know If I Smell Bad?

Good news: Most of the time, you shouldn’t worry about whether you have B.O.

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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 bad breath, but most of us have wondered, every now and again, 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, how can we be sure we’re not that one stinky guy that everyone talks about?

The good news is that, these days, most of us don’t need to worry. “People in America or Western Europe, we shower every day and bad hygiene is at a pretty low level,” Dr. George Preti, formerly of the Monell Chemical Sense Center, told us when we interviewed him in 2016. “Most folks don’t produce odor 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 odor doesn’t permeate the room.”

Preti further explained to us that 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 more involved daily grooming regimen, he should at least appreciate how much better our public spaces smell as a result. “Things are much different from when I used to ride public transportation as a kid in New York — you don’t pick up a lot of bad odors nowadays,” Preti told us. “Armpit odor 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 odor 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, of course, is simply to ask someone.

This, in fact, is true of any concern you have regarding your various bodily odors, be it mouth, foot, armpit or even groin (okay, maybe not groin. Just wash it). “Find somebody you know and trust and ask them,” was Preti’s advice. “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.