The Real Stink on Adolescent Body Odor


This week’s post is from the Parenthetical Archives posted in June 2015. Check back next month for the second part of the Adolescent Body Odor Series.

Have you ever walked into a youth locker room or a sporting event and thought you might be in danger of passing out from the smell? Or, while blissfully fulfilling car pool duty had one of the boys take his shoes off in the back seat only to immediately bring tears to your eyes?

If you live or work with teens, you have likely encountered the delicate problem of rampant body odor. Body odor is a frustrating and miserable problem for parents and teens alike. Why are the teen years so smelly? And what can be done to reduce the problem?

 What Causes Body Odor to be so Intense During the Teens Years?

  1. Teens sweat more

One consequence of puberty is an increase in new hormones. These hormones, in turn, cause an increase in the amount of moisture that teen’s sweat glands produce.

However, any parent who has had their six-year-old come into the house dripping with sweat from a game of tag with neighborhood friends knows that there is a big difference in the odor of a sweaty child and a sweaty teen, regardless of the actual volume of moisture.

  1. Teens begin to sweat in new places on their bodies

Everybody sweats. In childhood (and throughout our lives) glands found all over our bodies act as a cooling system by producing salty water when we exercise, have a fever, experience stress, or just get overheated. However, during puberty, hormones cause a different type of gland to become active. These glands, found primarily under the arms and in the groin area, produce oils in addition to sweat.

  1. Sweat alone doesn’t actually smell

All of us have bacteria living on our skin and clothing. It is the bacteria breaking down the oily sweat found under the arms and in the groin area that produce body odor.

While feet do not have the sweat glands that produce oily sweat, socks and shoes hold in moisture allowing bacteria and yeast to grow on feet causing a different type of bad smell.

  1. Teen sweat contains different chemicals

The new hormones produced during puberty also cause teen sweat to contain different chemicals that are not present during childhood. These new chemicals produce stronger odors when they are broken down.

 This may explain why body odor is so much more intense for many youth at the beginning of puberty and why it often becomes less offensive as their bodies adjust to the changes brought on by puberty and transition toward physical maturity.

How to Manage Teen Body Odor?


The obvious first line of defense is to encourage youth to wash their armpits and groin area at least once a day and after vigorous exercise. Washing removes the smelly bacteria as well as the sweat and oils. Youth should wash the rest of their bodies regularly as well. Hair and skin also produce additional oils during adolescence and will not look or smell great without regular cleaning either.

Use Antibacterial Soap, Deodorant, and Antiperspirant

Antibacterial soap kills bacteria that interact with sweat to cause body odor. Deodorant contains aluminum, which stops bacteria from growing. Antiperspirant blocks sweat ducts producing less sweat, which also equals less bacteria.

The amount different individuals sweat varies greatly. Not all teens will need anti-bacterial soap in order to prevent body odor. A lucky few may not even need antiperspirant or deodorant.

Dry feet thoroughly after washing

Young people having trouble with foot odor should use cotton socks to absorb moisture and avoid wearing shoes without socks.

One tip for preventing smelly feet is to use deodorant/antiperspirant on the bottom of dry feet before putting socks and shoes on.

 Change clothing frequently, particularly if it smells.

When sweat gets into clothing or shoes, bacteria can begin to grow there as well, causing clothes to smell bad. Clothing belonging to adolescents may need to be washed immediately after wearing to remove bacteria and sweat. Shoes should be alternated if possible and allowed to dry out thoroughly between wearing.

Sometimes a body odor smelll sets into the underarm of shirts and continues to smell despite washing. When your teen’s clothing smells, it will smell offensive, even when the teen is actually clean. Once the smell is set, the bacteria will be reactivated with body heat. If this is a consistent problem for your teen, you may have no choice but to throw shirts away when they smell particularly offensive and buy new ones.

What to Do if None of Usual Stuff Seems to Work?

See a doctor for help.

If a teen does not seem to be able to get body odor under control, there are prescription remedies that can address the problem. Young teens should not face the potential embarrassment and avoidance by others that can result from unchecked body odor. While increased body odor is a normal part of early adolescence, being able to manage the issue is an important part of growing up.

For an engaging synopsis of the above information, check out this video narrated by pediatrician Lewis R. First of Vermont Children’s Hospital.

Next month’s post will tackle the sensitive topic of talking with your teen or others’ teens and parents when body odor seems to be unchecked.


Article by Becky Mather

Becky is an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of her work centers on parenting education and adolescent development. She and her husband are the parents of two young adults and an adolescent. Becky is a Certified Family Life Educator.