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Children's Wisconsin primary care teen body odor

Smells like teens and tweens: How to deal with body odor

In many of the families I see where puberty is approaching for their child, I often hear from parents who are noticing that their child’s physical appearance is changing — but something else has changed, too. To put it bluntly, their kids stink. Are they wearing dirty clothes? Did they get into something smelly? What is causing this child, whose smell they delighted in as a baby, to smell like a locker room after a big game? 

Both boys and girls deal with body odor, so don’t be alarmed, even when it can be overwhelming. It’s completely natural and there are things you can do to help. Body odor typically starts in the tween years, between 8-12 years old, and can linger through the teen years. 

Why do tweens and teens smell?

Let’s start with why it happens. As your child approaches puberty, everything changes. Your child’s hormones are changing, which stimulates their glands and increases perspiration, especially in the underarm and groin areas. That increase in perspiration combines with the bacteria that live on the skin creating the odor. To be clear, we all have bacteria that live on our skin. For a person who bathes daily, it’s not a hygiene issue. 

Believe it or not, your child may not be able to smell their odor, although sometimes they can. If they are aware of it through their own noses or become aware of it from someone telling them, it can cause embarrassment. Tween and teenage years are filled with various social issues, so be understanding and use this as a teaching opportunity with your child about puberty and the changes they are going through. 

What to do? 

Understanding the physiology behind the body odor and showing your kids a little love and empathy, you can get through this somewhat smelly time by following these simple tips. 

Shower regularly

Younger kids don’t need to bathe so frequently, as my colleague Boyd Miller, MD, wrote in this blog post. But as kids approach their tween years, a daily shower with soap is important. If your kids are involved with sports, a second shower will help keep odors away. 

Make sure kids are properly cleaning themselves with soap, paying attention to their armpits, groin area and feet (more about feet later). 

If you’re getting resistance from your kids about bathing regularly, let them pick out soap, shampoo or body wash in a scent they like. Hopefully involving them in the process will encourage more frequent bathing.

Wear deodorant and/or antiperspirant

By the time a child is about 10 or 11, it’s time to start using deodorant or an antiperspirant. Sometimes, kids may need to start even sooner, and that’s perfectly normal in most cases. 

It’s important to understand the differences. Deodorant help with the odor coming from the armpits while antiperspirant help minimize sweat. Decide with your child what will work best (there are some combo options, as well). Both come in a variety of fragrances. Let your child choose what they prefer, for a little extra buy in. Some kids have sensitive skin, so you might want to try a fragrance-free deodorant or antiperspirant. 

It’s a good idea to reapply if your kids are involved in physical activities. I recommend kids keep a stick of deodorant in their sports bag to reapply as needed. Some kids keep one in their backpacks for after gym class. 

Wash clothes

While clothes may look clean, looks can sometimes be deceiving. Perspiring from playing outside or even just getting hot, combined with the natural bacteria on the skin, can lock odors into fabrics. So make sure clothes are washed after each use. Also, make sure your kids are wearing clean underwear and socks each day.

I’m not suggesting parents need to be responsible for the laundry. Kids can pitch in! Show your kids how to do the laundry, including sorting, how your washer uses detergent, appropriate wash cycles for the clothes and how to use the dryer. It might take a little practice, but making your kids self-sufficient is a life skill that starts when they are young. Laundry is just another step along the way. 

Defeat the feet

Odors from smelly feet can be overpowering, but there are a few things you can do to reduce or eliminate the smell. First of all, make sure your child is wearing socks. So many kids are rushing out the door to school or to play with their friends and forget (or choose!) not to wear socks. Here’s the deal: feet sweat. So when they sweat and are trapped inside a shoe, things get stinky. Those smells can get into the shoe materials. 

Part of the solution is making sure your kids wear socks. Cotton socks or moisture wicking socks are best. Of course, feet will still sweat and shoes can absorb the odor. So depending on the material of the shoes, you can throw them in the washer, or use a deodorizing shoe powder or spray, baby powder or baking soda. Also, I’ve seen inserts made from charcoal that will help cut down on the odors. A few patients have told me about a product called sneaker balls that they stick in their kid’s shoes after playing to help eliminate smells. 

When to talk to the doctor

Sometimes you can do everything right and odors still persist. It’s best to talk to your child’s pediatrician to make sure there isn’t something underlying going on. Some diseases and illnesses can cause a distinct smell, such as diabetes, kidney or liver disease, or hyperhidrosis, which is an issue that causes excessive sweating. Although rare, your child’s doctor can test for these and other issues and help decide on the best way to treat your child. 

The tween and teen years can be trying for both kids and adults. Understanding and dealing with the inevitable issues with body odor is one way to ensure these years go a little more smoothly. As always, if you have questions about your child’s body odor or any other issue, talk to your child’s pediatrician. We are always here for you.