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Do I Smell? - Lifting the Lid on Body Odour at Work

on Monday, 27 August 2012. Posted in Occupational Health

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Ever experienced the following? Your body has silently “passed wind” and you make a hurried exit from the scene of the crime leaving someone else to discover the evidence!

Or maybe this has happened to you? Last night you ate a lovely garlic-loaded meal and this morning some of our work colleagues aren’t that keen about having close conversation with you?! These sorts of slightly embarrassing moments are probably familiar to all of us and can be frustrating, reducing our enjoyment of work.

In this article we lift the lid on a subject that is rarely broached in polite circles: Body Odour. We take a look at the causes of Flatulence, Halitosis and general Body Odour, as well as making some practical suggestions to help you manage these issues.

First let’s get the facts on body odor!

1. Flatulence.

Before we start pointing the finger at others, we need to remember that every one of us “breaks wind” from time to time.

a. What causes flatulence?

“Wind” is produced by the digestive system as enzymes and bacteria break down carbohydrates and proteins in your food. After food has been broken down and mixed up in the stomach, it is digested and absorbed in the small intestine. Anything that is left over, such as dietary fibre and some carbohydrates, pass into the large bowel. When the bacteria present in the colon attacks these undigested materials, the resulting gas gives the flatus its characteristic odor.

Another very common cause for flatulence is swallowing air. This is because each time we swallow; we take air into the stomach. Eating too fast, gulping food and drink, drinking with meals, chewing gum, can all contribute to swallowing excess air. The air normally leaves the body as a belch (burp) but sometimes it can travel further into the intestines and can only be released at the other end of the digestive system as flatulence.

Any change to your usual diet can also cause your body to produce more wind than usual. This is because the bacteria that live in our bowels get used to coping with whatever you eat on a regular basis, and they have a bit more difficulty handling anything you’re not used to.

Stress is also known to trigger and aggravate the flatulence. Have you noticed how your abdominal muscles tighten when you are under a great deal of stress? The gastrointestinal tract is closely connected to the brain and is extremely sensitive to anxiety, anger and depression.

b. Are some foods worse than others?

There is no doubt that some types of food are worse than others. Foods such as beans, cauliflower and cabbage contain insoluble fibre and take a long time to break down in the bowel, which can trigger excess wind.

Certain foods such as kidney beans and artichokes cause an overproduction of bacteria in the stomach, which can in turn lead to excessive flatulence. Other foods that can cause flatulence in some people are lettuce, apples, cabbage, cauliflower, turnip, lentils, parsnip, swede, onions, brussel sprouts, beans, garlic, leeks, and products made with malt extracts (beer).

Foods which are rich in sulphur, like cauliflower, eggs and meat are more likely to make the gas smelly. Bacterial fermentation in the colon can also cause smelly wind.

c. How I can reduce the amount and “potency” of flatulence?

An average person passes approximately 400 to 2,000 milliliters of either oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane gas out of the anus every day, without being noticed. However, this only holds true when there is no offending odour or sound that goes along with it! Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Here's some suggestions to reduce the incidence and potency:

  1. Keep an eye on your diet. Be aware that Beans, Bran, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Onions, Beer and carbonated beverages are considered the top Flatus producers. Mildly flatulogenic foods are Apples, Apricots, Bananas, Carrots, Celery, all citrus fruits, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Lettuce, Potatoes, Prunes and Raisins, Radishes, Soybeans, Spinach, Bread, pretzels and coffee
  2. Work at reducing your stress levels.
  3. Chew your food slowly and purposefully, thus avoiding swallowing excessive air.
  4. If you have excessive “gassing” and it is becoming an embarrassing problem, then see your Medical Practitioner for further advice on this issue.

Lastly remember that we all pass wind and so don’t take your flatulence too seriously. Passing gas 14 to 20 times a day is considered perfectly normal.

2. Halitosis (Bad Breath)

Once again, the “good” news is that bad breath happens to everyone once in a while. Bad breath, sometimes called halitosis, refers to an unpleasant smell on your breath that other people notice when you speak or breathe out. A big problem with bad breath is that the only person not to notice it is the person affected!! Often, the only way to know if you have bad breath is if a person comments on it. However, most of the time people are “too polite” to comment on another person's bad breath.

a. What causes bad breath?

There are several common causes of Halitosis:

  1. From within the mouth. Most cases of bad breath come from bacteria that build up within the mouth. As the bacteria break down proteins and other debris in the mouth, they release foul smelling gases. This may be due to food stuck between teeth, plaque, tartar or gum disease.
  2. Morning bad breath. Most people have some degree of bad breath after a night's sleep. This is normal and occurs because the mouth tends to get dry and stagnate overnight. This usually clears when the flow of saliva increases soon after starting to eat breakfast.
  3. Foods, drinks and medicines. Chemicals in foods can get into the bloodstream, and then be breathed out from the lungs. Most people are familiar with the smell of garlic, spicy foods and alcoholic drinks on the breath of people who have recently eaten or drunk these. This type of bad breath is temporary and easily cured by not eating these types of food.
  4. Some medicines can also cause a smell on the breath. If a medicine is causing the problem then discuss possible alternatives with your doctor.
  5. Smoking. Most non-smokers can tell if a person is a smoker by their breath which 'smells like an ashtray'. Stopping smoking is the only cure for this type of bad breath. Smoking also increases the risk of developing gum disease, another cause of bad breath.
  6. Crash dieting or fasting. This can cause a 'sickly sweet smell' on the breath. This is due to chemicals called ketones being made by the breakdown of fat. Some ketones are then breathed out with each breath.
b. How can I reduce bad breath?

Don’t assume that just because no-one says anything that you don’t have Bad Breath. You may have to rely on a family member or a close friend (or work colleague) to be honest with you and tell you if you have bad breath.

Here are some suggestions to help reduce the incidence of Bad Breath:

  1. Practice regular Oral Hygiene, in particular teeth brushing and flossing. Brush your teeth at least twice a day. Spend at least two minutes brushing, covering all areas (the inside, outside, and biting areas of each tooth). Pay particular attention to where the teeth meet the gum. Get a new toothbrush every 3-4 months.
  2. Floss your teeth at least once a day after brushing, and preferably twice a day. Some people who have not flossed before are surprised as to how much extra debris and food particles can be removed by flossing in addition to brushing.
  3. Have regular dental checks at intervals recommended by your dentist (this is normally at least once a year). A dentist can detect excessive build up of plaque. Early gum disease can be detected and treated to prevent it from getting worse.
  4. Consider cleaning the back of your tongue each day. Some people do this with a soft toothbrush dipped in mouthwash (not toothpaste).
  5. Some people chew sugar free gum after each meal. It is not clear how well gum helps to reduce bad breath but chewing gum increases the flow of saliva. Saliva helps to 'flush' the mouth to help clear any debris remaining from the meal.
  6. If you smoke, try to stop. Gum disease is more common in smokers than non-smokers.
  7. If necessary speak to your Health Professional for more advice.

Remember there are tactful ways of letting a person know that he or she has bad breath. You could offer mints or sugarless gum without having to say anything. If you need to tell a friend or colleague that he or she has bad breath, you could say that you understand foods can cause bad breath because you've had it before yourself. By letting someone know that bad breath isn't something unusual, you'll make the person feel more comfortable and less embarrassed about accepting your piece of chewing gum.

If you suspect your own breath is foul, ask someone who will give you an honest answer without making fun of you.

3. Body Odours.

a. What causes body odor?

Body odour is caused by a natural process involving sweat that occurs on the skin's surface. Everybody sweats. We have to. Perspiration is the body's biological way of cooling ourselves down. Sweat in itself is odourless, but if left on the skin the bacteria that normally live there feed on it and break it down into aromatic fatty acids, which produce the unpleasant odour. Also men sweat more than women, so it's no surprise they can be the worst offenders.

Some areas of the skin, such as the armpits, are more likely to produce body odour because these glands produce proteins and oily substances that bacteria feed on. Sweat that occurs elsewhere in the body is mostly salty water, which bacteria don't thrive on so easily.

The feet produce their own characteristic odour. We tend to wrap them in socks and shoes, making them hot and humid and allowing fungi, as well as bacteria, to flourish.

Body odour may also be influenced by diet. Certain foods, such as curry, garlic and strong spices, contain chemicals that may be excreted in the skin.

Some medical conditions such as thyroid disease can cause excessive sweating. This is also a side-effects of some medicines, e.g. anti-depressants.

b. How can I reduce body odour?

Here are some suggestions to help reduce the incidence of Body Odour:

  1. Wash with soap daily, particularly your armpits, groin and feet where there are many sweat producing glands. (Washing removes sweat and reduces the numbers of bacteria that act upon it.)
  2. The use of deodorants and antiperspirants can help.
  3. Deodorants work by masking the smell of sweat with fragrance, while antiperspirants reduce the amount of sweat your body produces. Roll-ons tend to be more effective for heavy sweating. (N.B. There are now some Aluminum-Free Roll-on Deodorants available for people concerned about carcinogenic compounds getting into your lymphatic system.)
  4. Another idea is to shave your armpits. Armpit hair provides a greater surface area for sweat to adhere to and gives the bacteria a fertile breeding ground.
  5. It is also important to wash and dry clothes thoroughly, particularly clothing that comes into contact with sweaty areas such as socks, underwear and shirts. (Remember bacteria can survive in damp clothing and produce that characteristic musty smell.)
  6. If possible, never wear yesterday's clothes. However clean your body is, the clothes will retain the smell of yesterday's sweat.
  7. Avoiding very spicy foods may also help.
  8. Feet should be washed regularly, dried thoroughly. Avoid closed, sweaty shoes such as trainers when possible and wear fresh cotton socks or keep feet bare in open sandals as often as possible.
  9. As always, if you are concerned talk to your Medical Practitioner for more advice.

Conclusion, Relax about Body Odour

There is no doubt that flatulence, bad breath and general body odours are common to all of us and will catch us all out from time to time. Once we understand that they happen to everyone, then we can be a bit more relaxed about the whole issue. Feeling comfortable around colleagues, increases our fun at work. This article has discussed some things that we can do if you are worried about these issues, as well as ways that we might tactfully help a colleague at work deal with body odour issues.


Ross Thomson, a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.

Sources include:

Australian Victoria Government Better Health Website:

Jones, Hilary Dr. 2012. Body Odour. Retrieved 12 July, 2012, from

Macnair, Trisha, Dr. 2012. Body Odour. Retrieved 12 July, 2012,

National Health Services (NHS) UK Choices website. Retrieved 12 July, 2012,

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