Confession: I started smelling like a mix of curry and rotten fish (sorry for putting that in your head!) during Circuit Breaker. TMI, I know, but it got so bad that I would reek even right out of the shower without lifting a finger. I started scrutinising what I was eating, drinking and even how much I was stressing about stuff.
But the strange thing was, I didn’t eat or drink any differently than pre-Circuit Breaker days. Well, I did stop wearing my Salt Of The Earth crystal deodorant when we had to start quarantining ourselves. In my defence, I had gone without deodorant before and thought this would be a good time for me to go au naturel since I’d practically be home all day.
I also cut down to showering just once daily at night before I go to bed. Don’t judge me, it’s not like I had to go out anywhere to meet anybody. It could’ve well been me subconsciously stressing about my unemployment – I had quit my job right before Circuit Breaker kicked in – and that anxiety in my mind threw my internal system off tangent.
I mean, I know that everybody sweats but I just couldn’t wrap my head around this distinctive funk that lingers on me even when I’m not perspiring! The truth is I could pinpoint a number of reasons for the change in my body odour, but I couldn’t quite figure out the real reason for it so I decided to turn to our go-to source of information: Google.
And I came across what I think is a legitimate answer to my changing body odour: microbiome on my skin.
How your body smells depends on the bacteria living on you
You’re probably wondering, what the heck is microbiome? Well, it is essentially the community of microbes that colonise your body. Yes, we are the host of countless bacteria, viruses and fungi – in fact, they’re most present on your skin and in your bowel, lungs, bladder, and genital tract.
All together, they’re referred to as either microbiome or microbiota. Think of it this way: the microbiome is an ecosystem and it lives in an environment called “you.”
From the bacteria in our gut that help us break down our food to the ones that produce vitamin B components because our bodies aren’t capable of making those, our microbiome help us out in more ways than we could ever imagine. If you think they are just passive guests living in and on us, you are so wrong.
But when it comes to body odour which is primarily contributed by our armpits, blame it on the bacteria that take innocent, non-smelly chemicals and turn them into our human stank.
In our armpits, you’ll find apocrine glands – these groups of cells produce secretions and the only other areas that they can be found are between our legs and inside our ears. Apocrine glands secrete a substance that might be mistaken for sweat, but it’s not that salty water that seeps out from all over our bodies. No, those come from another gland called eccrine. The thick secretion released by apocrine glands is instead full of fatty chemicals called lipids.
If you take a whiff of your armpits, you might think this secretion stinks. As a matter of fact, scientists have been trying to figure out the source of our signature scent; some opined that it’s hormones while others think our aromas might have come from pheromones, chemicals that affect the behaviour of other animals. But neither of these educated guesses are correct.
What scientists did figure out though is that the thick secretions from our apocrine glands don’t smell very much on their own. But when they do have a distinctive funk, it’s the consequence of bacteria colonising our underarms to dine on the chemicals secreted by the apocrine glands. Again, sorry for putting that in your head.
The microbiome that coats our skin and lives all over our bodies is known as staphylocci (staf-ee-loh-key), or staph for short. But research has found that one particular species called staphylococcus hominis (staff-ee-loh-cock-us hom-in-iss), which only appears to grow in the underarms and other places where apocrine glands are located, are the ones responsible for the stinky effect that varies a lot from person to person.
Your body smells differently during quarantine because the bacteria living on you is changing
For those of us who were able to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, our daily lives have been turned upside down practically overnight. Instead of coming into contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of other people per day during our commutes, jobs, and recreational activities, we’re stuck at home with a handful of people at most.
This global social isolation is meant to curb the spread of the infectious SARS-CoV-19 virus, yet it could well be having consequences on the microbes we share our lives with, especially our skin microbiome, and it might be altering the way our bodies smell.
A 2014 study published in Science Magazine suggested that who we interact with influences our roster of microbes, as the researchers found that people and animals that share a living environment also shared their microbial communities, “probably because of skin shedding and hand and foot contamination. When families moved, their microbiological ‘aura’ followed. If one person left the home even for a few days, their contribution to the [family] microbiome diminished,” the authors wrote.
Skin-to-skin contact – something else that’s greatly diminished right now, at least with people outside of our individual households – also results in microbes being passed back and forth. This was demonstrated in a 2013 experiment where scientists swabbed the upper arms of roller derby skaters.
Before the two teams slammed their bodies around together in the rink, the scientists noted that each skater arrived with a distinct microbial fingerprint. After the competition however, the skaters’ skin bacteria became more similar to one another, muddling any distinctions between the team members.
By shrinking our social worlds, we’re essentially decreasing our contact with many microbial “auras” while increasing the interactions with the microbes of our quarantine buddies, be it family, friends or partners. This changes the communities of bacteria that take up residence on us, and the smells that they produce.
In essence, the abundance of each specific species of bacteria living upon us largely depends on the people as well as the bacterial species that we’re spending more time with. While the composition of our microbiome probably doesn’t change much, the amount of each species can fluctuate so if it will increase significantly if you’ve been stuck with several people at home.
Conversely, if you’ve been in lockdown all by yourself, you might be facing losses in diversity especially of those rarer microbes. In fact, the individual microbial lineage might even risk extinction if you’re on your own for too long, as the bacteria doesn’t have many sources to re-colonise.
It’s also been scientifically proven by microbiologist, Chris Callewaert, that getting someone else’s armpit microbes can alter a person’s smell. The body odour specialist at San Deigo’s University of California and Belgium’s Ghent University, who’s also known as Doctor Armpit, has helped people reduce their funky aromas by giving them “armpit transplants.”
In one small experiment, Callewaert instructed a stinky identical twin to wash under his arms with antibacterial soap for four days, then transferred to him bacteria from the armpits of his less-smelly twin brother. After the “transplant,” the smelly twin remained stink-free, even a year later.
He tested this on 17 other pairs of individuals and found that 16 out of 18 duo’s body odour similarly improved after an armpit microbial transfer. Conversely with this in mind, you might also start to sport some stinky aroma if your roommate doesn’t smell particularly pleasant. Yikes!
I’m not the only one dealing with changing body odour during quarantine
It’s crucial we understand that everybody sweats and smells to a certain degree, and this hyper-personalised scent is the unique creation by the group of bacteria living on us. But are we mindful enough to notice it?
That’s what we tried to find out in a recent Daily Vanity survey where we asked if you noticed whether your body smelled better or worse during Circuit Breaker. Out of the 366 voters, close to 17% of you agreed that you can’t start the day without deodorant because your body odour is just unbearable!
One female reader in particular divulged that she smelled particularly worse in the early stages of quarantine life even after using perfumed shower gels, deodorants, and fragrances, and she racked her brain trying to figure out why. It got even more bizarre for her as her body odour returned to normal after some time had passed.
Another female reader who’s used to working out almost every day of the week felt that her body odour became more noticeable shortly after Circuit Breaker started, even though her workout frequency hasn’t changed.
“I think it could have something to do with me not being in an air-conditioned space all day – I worked out in an indoor gym during pre-Circuit Breaker days and now that I’m stuck at home, I don’t have the A/C switched on all the time and I exercise outdoors at my condo’s parking lot instead. That’s pretty much the only aspects that have changed in my routine,” she shared.
It goes without saying that this phenomenon isn’t just limited to us ladies. A male friend of mine also shared his point of view, saying that he’s used to wearing his perfume every day to work so he continued the habit even during lockdown. “I’ve gone without but it made me feel less confident, so I decided to get a few spritzes in every morning like I would on pre-pandemic workdays. It boosts my self-esteem.”
So after tolerating my curry-rotten fish funk (and my husband’s occasional jab at my body stink) for a good one month (can someone give me an award for this level of patience?), I decided enough was enough, and went back to applying my deodorant every morning before walking 10 steps to my work desk. And boy, did it make a world of difference.
I mean, I don’t smell like a bouquet of fresh roses but I’d be lying if I say my deodorant doesn’t help control my body stink and make me smell like a normal human being with decent personal hygiene again.
So don’t be ashamed if you need some help in the B.O. department, that’s what Daily Vanity is here for – to help you with your real-life beauty woes. Ahead are some of my favourite deodorants you can consider using, I hope you’ll find at least one that works for you!
Deodorants that can help control body odour effectively
Salt Of The Earth Crystal Travel Natural Deodorant
After years of trial and error, I found a deodorant that actually works for me and I have my waxing therapist to thank for it – she had recommended Salt Of The Earth to me a few years ago after I lamented to her about how regular deodorants don’t work for me anymore.
My first introduction to Salt Of The Earth’s deodorant was a spray version but I found that I get more bang for my buck with the crystal stick version as it is equally as effective but lasts for months.
The flagship product that set the ball rolling for the brand over two decades ago, this hardworking deodorant is made of pure mineral salt and sits only on the surface of the skin to inhibit the growth of odour-causing bacteria so I never need to worry about my pores getting suffocated.
I also really like that it’s unscented, which allows my perfume to take centre stage all the time. Another thing that I love about it? It doesn’t leave any white marks on my skin or make my white clothes yellow, something that I had to deal with when using conventional roll-ons previously.
Salt Of The Earth Crystal Travel Natural Deodorant retails for S$16.90 on Shopee.
MotherDirt AO+ Mist Live Probiotic Spray
A colleague mentioned this product when I shared with her my plight, and it caught my eye because it introduces good bacteria that eat up the ammonia and urea in your sweat – the kind of stuff that makes you smell – and ensure your skin microbiome thrives instead of wreaking havoc. With this product though, you have to have patience as the bacteria need time to re-calibrate the existing microbiome.
You can use it anywhere on your face and body – arms, legs, back, underarms, feet, and even scalp. To maximise its shell life, simply pop it into the fridge and keep it chilled. From the 633 users’ 4.5-star reviews, it has helped many of the users calm skin irritation, redness and bumps. For B.O. control, one customer, who’s allergic to perfume, said that it balanced her skin microbiome and made her smell clean and healthy.
Another user, who has been using the mist for months, discovered that rubbing the mist in made it far more effective for him. Although he’s not sure if that’s because the rubbing action has disrupted a bio-film, worked the Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria (yes, that’s the good bacteria discovered and researched by MIT scientists) into the hair follicles, or simply distributed it more evenly, he said that rubbing it in made a clear and dramatic difference in the product’s effectiveness.
MotherDirt AO+ Mist Live Probiotic Spray retails for approx. S$68.16 (US$49) on MotherDirt’s website.
Another colleague who struggled with bad body odour during Circuit Breaker like me came across Nuud in her research for effective odour control products, and shared her discovery with me when we worked on the reader survey together. She needed only a tiny dollop for both pits and even though it didn’t stop the sweating (it’s not meant to), it kept her stink-free for three days!
Dubbed an anti-odorant, this vegan formula claims to lasts magically up to seven days. How does the trick work? The answer lies in micro silver, which supposedly prevents odour by neutralising bacteria and it stays effective even when you’re actively sweating or showering. The alcohol-free formula’s 10-ingredient list also includes botanical oils to keep the cream from dissolving in water or perspiration, while making skin feel soft and supple.
On top of that, it comes in a bio-plastic tube made from sugarcane and a biodegradable cardboard box. An odour control formula that keeps me smelling fresh but not at the expense of the environment? It’s on my to-buy list already.
Nuud Anti-odorant retails for approx. S$20.34 (€12.95) here.
Kiehl’s Superbly Efficient Anti-Perspirant and Deodorant
This is next on my to-try list when my trusted Salt Of The Earth deodorant is finally used up. I was intrigued enough to give it a go after my friends at Kiehl’s shared that it’s one of the bestselling products on the retail floor.
The unscented antiperspirant-slash-deodorant cream works by reducing underarm sweat with its micro-sized aluminium salts that leave no unsightly residue. What makes it super (no pun intended) is the addition of witch hazel in the formula, which lends its purifying and antioxidant properties to keep your pits dry and smelling fresh.
Kiehl’s Superbly Efficient Anti-Perspirant and Deodorant retails for S$22 at all Kiehl’s stores and online.
Agent Nateur Uni(sex) N°5 Deodorant
Without synthetic fragrances in the arsenal, natural deodorants usually get their scents from essential oils, and this unisex deodorant does just that. It smells nothing like baby powder, but instead has a sexy, intoxicating blend of vetiver, sandalwood, cedarwood, and rose – real sophisticated stuff if you ask us.
Prefer something lighter? There’s also a honey-lavender-eucalyptus combo available here for S$35.
Agent Nateur Uni(sex) N°5 Deodorant retails for S$35 here.
Drunk Elephant Sweet Pitti Deodorant Cream
Part of Drunk Elephant’s latest body collection, this cream formula forgoes baking soda, aluminium, and essential oils and instead uses mandelic acid and arrowroot to keep odour at bay all day while moisturising skin with plant oils such as marula, baobab, mongongo seed, and shea butter.
Drunk Elephant Sweet Pitti Deodorant Cream retails for S$23 at selected Sephora stores and on sephora.sg.
Jomingo Grapefruit Aluminium-free Natural Deodorant Stick
Homegrown brand Jomingo makes an array of natural deodorants from plant-based ingredients like organic cold-pressed virgin coconut oil, ethically sourced cocoa butter, non-GMO plus gluten-free tapioca starch, baking soda as well as essential oils and vitamin E.
The ingredient combination neutralises odour while keeping your pits smooth and your clothes stain-free. This particular one comes with a tangy, refreshing grapefruit scent, which is derived from essential oil cold-pressed from the grapefruit rind. Also, how can you not fall in love with that gorgeous (and biodegradable!) packaging!?
Jomingo Grapefruit Aluminium-free Natural Deodorant Stick retails for S$21 on Jomingo’s website.
Soul Good Project Himalayan Wilderness Natural Deodorant
This deodorant balm by local beauty label Soul Good Project is formulated with coconut oil, magnesium as well as arrowroot powder to negate odour, fight fungi and germs, while soothing and moisturising irritated skin.
You’ll also love the citrus, woody scent that’s made naturally with a blend of cedar, bergamot, sweet orange, and lemon essential oils. To keep it hygienic in the tub, scoop out the product with a spatula whenever you need to use it.
Soul Good Project Himalayan Wilderness Natural Deodorant retails for S$26.90 here.
Salt & Stone Natural Deodorant – Lavender & Sage
Instead of aluminium, alcohol, parabens, and synthetic fragrances, this vegan deodorant uses antibacterial and odour-neutralising jojoba oil to get the job done while hydrating and protecting your pits with shea butter, vitamin E, and sunflower seed oil. Though what really does it for me is that it rolls on dry and leaves behind a calming scent of lavender and sage.
Salt & Stone Natural Deodorant – Lavender & Sage retails for S$29 on DeckOut.
Kopari Coconut Oil Deodorant
Most natural deodorants rely on baking soda to absorb moisture, for example, but too much of it can cause skin irritation in some people. This one gets the job done with neither baking soda nor aluminium; instead, it uses coconut oil to provide odour protection while simultaneously warding off stink-causing bacteria.
Not only does it apply smoothly and dry clear, but it’s also totally gentle even for sensitive underarms and leaves you smelling like sweet coconut milk. However, do note that you might experience slight stickiness, irritation or body odour for the first one to two weeks when you start using it – that’s just your pits adjusting to clean deodorants.
Kopari Coconut Oil Deodorant retails for S$25 on sephora.sg.
Lush The Greeench Deodorant Powder
As the application requires you to sprinkle the product onto your palm and rub it in, this powder formula may take a while to get used to and is probably better kept for days when you don’t have to rush.
Lycopodium powder keeps moisture under control, while a blend of thyme, tea tree, and sage leaves you smelling minty fresh.
Lush The Greeench Deodorant Powder retails for S$28 on Lush’s website.
Sukin Organic Natural Deodorant
This soothing and cooling spray helps to prevent bacteria growth with zinc phenolsulfonate and refreshes the pits with a tangy scent cocktail of tangerine, mandarin, and lavender.
Ursa Major Hoppin’ Fresh Deodorant
This easy-to-use stick is packed with sweat-absorbing ingredients – kaolin clay, baking soda and odour-fighting enzymes – to get the job done without producing any stains on your pits or clothing.
Plus, it’s got a crowd-pleasing earthy, pinewood aroma that’ll make you want to smell yourself all day long.
Ursa Major Hoppin’ Fresh Deodorant retails for approx. S$25.03 (US$18) on Amazon.
Malin + Goetz Eucalyptus Deodorant Stick
This vegan, cruelty-free formula is enriched with odour-neutralising citronellyl and refreshing eucalyptus oil for all-day wear sans stickiness or unsightly white cast on the underarms.
Malin + Goetz Eucalyptus Deodorant Stick retails for S$42 on Beauty Emporium, but is on sale for S$33.60 at the time of writing. It’s also available on Lazada, Amazon and Cult Beauty, retailing between S$30.87 and S$42.
Meow Meow Tweet Unscented Baking Soda Free Deodorant Cream
We’ll admit – the adorable name did catch our attention first but this artisanal deodorant cream also impresses with the effectiveness of its formula, which contains baking soda, arrowroot and clay to keep you dry. Both unscented and perfumed formulas (made with aromatic essential oils) available.
Meow Meow Tweet Unscented Baking Soda Free Deodorant Cream retails for S$23.90 here.
Blissoma Scentless Stick Natural Deodorant
Made with plant-based stink-busting ingredients such as mango butter and natural oils as well as anti-irritant, sweat-absorbing powders to soften your pits, it’s no surprise this formula scores a five-star rating on the Blissoma website.
Blissoma Scentless Stick Natural Deodorant retails for approx. S$13.91 (US$10) here.
Tom’s of Maine Natural Long Lasting Deodorant
Free from artificial colours, fragrances and preservatives, this extra-strength employs zinc salts and vegetable-derived propylene glycol to trap odour and keep body stink at bay.
Tom’s of Maine Natural Long Lasting Deodorant retails for S$9.84 on iHerb.
Schmidt’s Ylang Ylang + Calendula Natural Deodorant
This odour-neutralising formula pairs plant-based powders with essential oils to soak up moisture and mask the stank without any greasiness or stickiness.
Schmidt’s Ylang Ylang + Calendula Natural Deodorant retails for S$12.65 on iHerb.
Black Chicken Remedies Axilla Deodorant Paste
This magic pot wicks away perspiration with organic shea butter, coconut oil, kaolin clay as well as feel-good essential oils like clove and camellia tea oil, so you know you’re only giving your underarms the best organic ingredients.
Black Chicken Remedies Axilla Deodorant Paste retails for S$30 on Shopee.
Primal Pit Paste Natural Deodorant
Smell like a fresh, soft bouquet of springtime with this baking soda-based formula that offers great odour neutralising benefits. Plus, the brand also has a sensitive skin line that offers baking soda-free sprays for those whose skin isn’t agreeable with baking soda.
Primal Pit Paste Natural Deodorant retails for S$26 on Shopee.