Why can’t I smell my own body odour?

Everyone has that friend that smells. Perhaps not all the time, but they are the first to become a bit “whiffy” after a long day at work, physical exertion, or perhaps during a period of heightened stress. You might know someone who has a persistent odour, despite the fact they are seemingly clean, hygienic, and are not accustomed to wearing their favourite shirt for twelve days straight.

Body odour, or BO, is a difficult subject to broach. You are probably wondering why your smelly friend cannot recognise that they stink. How do you know that you do not smell too?

A 2014 study determined that the human nose and brain possess the ability to distinguish one trillion different odours. We certainly do not have the ability to describe anywhere near that volume. Much of this impressive feat is done unconsciously and is influenced by emotions and memories - rather than conscious awareness.

A study completed at Utrecht University in the Netherlands in 2015 determined that smelling the BO of stressed individuals causes vigilance, apprehension and causes our face to “twist in disgust”. The research required participants to sniff sweat samples (gross, I know) of people who had watched happy scenes from the family movie The Jungle Book, and scary scenes from thriller The Shining.  

There’s probably no need for science to explain that the BO of stressed individuals causes a negative reaction. But if we can detect the odour of others so readily, why can’t we tell if we smell personally?

Every person has a unique scent, according to research scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, similar to a fingerprint. Most humans sweat (even Prince Andrew…). Although, some perspire more than others. Equally, everyone can have a bad odour day, but some are more prone to problems with BO. 

When smelling a particular scent, the molecules you breath in are attached the mucus at the back of your throat. Receptors then describe and relay the scent to your brain.

The problem is that our nose and brain become desensitized to the aromas around us, a phenomenon called olfactory adaptation. We grow accustomed to our own smells, and more readily detect sudden changes in aroma nearby. The same applies to your home or office. You get used to the smell, and only detect it when you leave for some time and return. To prove this adaptation, one study investigated the ability of participants to determine the scent of air fresheners in bedrooms. After only a few days individuals became less sensitive to the same smell in other environments.

Ok, it is difficult to detect your own bodies odour. So, what can do about it? How do you avoid becoming “that” smelly person?

The basics are obvious. Bathe regularly, change your clothing, switch up your deodorant (shameless plug: try Lone Kauri Natural Deodorant).

Ask a trusted friend if you suspect you might smell bad (women are typically better at identifying BO than men). Failing that, you can attempt to reset your olfactory senses to enable you to detect your own odour. Inhale an odour that is distinctly different to your own. Then focus on assessing your stinkiest areas - your armpits and groin.

Body odour odor

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