how to ask an employee to address a body odor problem

A reader writes:

A new secretary in my office has body odor. The other staff members have asked me to talk to her about it since I’m the acting manager. Should I tackle this, and if so, how?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 323 comments… read them below }

  1. Lily in NYC*

    LOL, that stock photo is me on my commute every morning! I live in a part of the city where deodorant is not used by many people.

    1. AGirlCalledFriday*

      This was my every evening when I was living in Japan…last train, people being shoved in so tight you can’t move, and drunken, stinky salarymen falling asleep on your shoulder. Ahh, I miss you Japan.

    2. BRR*

      As I was on the train and in NYC yesterday I wanted to comment how maybe Alison can now manager the entire tri-state region in regard to body odor.

      Also I would possibly say “I hope it doesn’t offend you” instead of “I hope I don’t offend you.” My wording isn’t a concrete suggestion, I just think it should be framed as something that affects their coworkers and not a personal one-on-one issue.

    3. AcidMeFlux*

      I live in a city in southern Europe where,when I first arrived 25 years ago, deodorant wasn’t always a major part of daily hygiene for older men (they would shower and wear aftershave; it was the armpit sweat that was the issue, and boy, from June to September on the Metro is was an issue..) it’s changed now. Whew.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I have a bunch of older uncles in Spain who STILL don’t wear deodorant. I love them, but they reek in the summer!

    4. Sarah M.*

      I know this is late, but I do want to chime in with one point: there is a huge difference between deodorant and antiperspirant. In the US, the terms seem to be used almost interchangeably, but they are NOT the same, which I discovered much to my distress when I bought deodorant once that didn’t include antiperspirant. Antiperspirant stops you from sweating, while deodorant just tries to cover up the odor.

      If I don’t use antiperspirant, I reek, sometimes within hours of showering. If I use deodorant, I doubly reek (sweat and some sort of artificial “fresh” scent do not cancel each other out). Several people I know are allergic to scented products, but if I use unscented antiperspirant, I’ve never had any complaints. (Let’s not talk about what happens when I forget I’ll be around them and use scented hand lotion, however.)

  2. Tanith*

    I also think it’s important to somehow get across that perfume is not the answer. As we’ve seen in the comments time and again, many people have allergies/aversions to perfumes or air fresheners. Scented deodorant is an exception, though!

      1. Charlotte Collins*

        There are non-scented, and ones for sensitive skin.

        But my observation is that covering body odor with perfume or cologne makes the smell worse. It’s like they marry and produce little extra smelly babies. (I’ve also observed this when people try to use air “freshener” to cover smells that really need either time or a good cleaning, preferably with vinegar or ammonia, to get rid of.)

        1. fposte*

          I agree that covering up with perfume is a bad plan olfactorily, but I’m just noting if it’s because allergies are a problem, scented deodorant is just as risky.

          1. Tanith*

            I suppose scented deodorants are bad, too, they are just so ingrained in American culture. I also find them much, much harder to smell beyond a 1-foot radius of the person than perfume, which I can often smell from 10 feet away. Perhaps because the deodorant swipe is tucked under the armpit?

            1. fposte*

              But now you’re talking about disliking the smell, which isn’t the same as being allergic. From a management standpoint, it’s going to be a better to have somebody offend with scent than offend with BO, as long as nobody’s medically impaired.

            2. Swoop*

              the scented deodorants tend to be more insidious – there was one deo an office-mate would occasionally use that caused me to have trouble breathing. It wasn’t strong and it wasn’t unpleasant, but it closed my throat up like nothing else (she was a good 6 feet away) :/

        2. Natalie*

          This is exactly how I feel about bathroom deodorizers. They do the opposite of helping.

          When I lived with a lot of roommates, one of them insisted on using a “powder” deodorizer all the time. Great, now the bathroom smells like dirty diapers. That’s such an improvement!

          1. Allison*

            Agreed! I’ve lived with women who’d spray air freshener after going number 2, and in a way it was worse, because I’d feel like I was inhaling perfume.

            But, living with a male roommate, I tried to think of ways to de-stink the bathroom without assaulting anyone’s nostrils (including my own), because he’d leave the bathroom smelling like rotten sausage every night and it was unbearable, but any gentle solution that I could just set by the toilet (Yankee Candle scent beads, Bath and Body Works car clip, etc.) didn’t really do anything.

            I hear Poo-puri (stuff you spray into the bowl after a BM) is a good solution, has anyone here used it?

              1. Allison*

                Maybe . . . I don’t live with him anymore but my new roommate might pose a similar problem. There is something about fire that seems to work well in getting rid of odors.

              2. AcidMeFlux*

                IT REALLY DOES, says me who has worked in medical clinics and hospitals. Really it works. I think the problem is that since few people smoke nowadays no one carries matches but just try it.

                1. Kelly L.*

                  I have a couple of candles on my bathroom windowsill so I can burn candles for…air freshening purposes, but I really do think it’s that first foomp of the match that does most of the work.

                2. YourOwnPersonalCheeses*

                  I’ve never heard of this! Does a lighter do the same thing or does it have to be a match?

                3. SaraV*

                  *snork* at the above user name.

                  The “trick” with lighting a match is that the flame is using the offending methane gas as fuel. You can see it usually in that the flame is lower and bluer. Once most of the gas is burned off, the flame begins to burn higher and “yellower” as it uses the matchstick wood as fuel.

                  My uninformed opinion is that a lighter wouldn’t work as well since it has its own fuel supply.

            1. caryatid*

              Poo-purri and the various other similar products absolutely work – I was a guest in an office once and used it and it was like magic. Totally worth it.

            2. Hlyssande*

              Poo-pourri totally works as long as you remember to spray it first! Some of the scents work less well than others, but the basic one is gold.

            3. Coral*

              Poo-Pourri is AWESOME! It works like a charm. We have it here at the office and its a nose-saver! Do try it!

            4. DanaScully*

              I found a “recipe” online for homemade Poo-Pourri which works out much cheaper and really works.
              1-5oz spray bottle (or a dropper bottle with pipette would work)
              4oz distilled water
              25 drops of lemon essential oil
              10 drops of bergamot essential oil
              15 drops of orange essential oil
              1 teaspoon of vegetable glycerine

              Combine all ingredients in the bottle, shake well before each use and spray 5-7 times onto the water in the toilet bowl before you go.

          2. Elizabeth West*

            Our bathrooms have some kind of odor neutralizer spray that really does make the poo smell go away. It’s amazing. It has a light powdery smell, but it doesn’t mask the odor–it really is gone. Of course, that’s if you can get anyone to actually use it. Or do a courtesy flush, which they do not.

          3. MsChanandlerBong*

            My friend’s mother says apple orchard air freshener makes it smell like someone s*** in an orchard. Makes me laugh every time I think of it.

          1. Charlotte Collins*

            I thought it was really meant to cover up a different unpleasant smell.

            And neither one of them is very pleasant…

      2. F.*

        I can get a severe migraine (cologne, perfume, scented lotions) and/or asthma attack (any aerosols, scented candles or plug-in air fresheners) from chemicals in the air, so I very much appreciate when others are considerate.

        1. Loquelic Iteritas*

          I get this, too. It also just tends to make me sick thinking about what kinds of chemical compounds I’m inhaling. Most deodorizer do *not* smell “natural”, I don’t care if it’s got a pretty picture of a pine forest on the can or not.

          Being able to smell stuff – bad stuff – again has been about the only downside of quitting cigarettes 20+ years ago. I was warned: Frank Zappa wrote about it in his autobiography.

    1. Anx*

      I disagree! Many scented deodorants are is much more aggravating to me than most body odor.

      I think there are many 2 people I’ve ever been around whose regular body odor was more distracting than some of the deodorants that give me mild headaches.

        1. ...and Vinegar*

          I’m with BRR, but if not scent neutral, at least “scent consistent.” One scent for soap or body wash, one for shampoo, another for lotion, another for deodorant, and yet another for perfume or cologne makes for an overwhelming combination.

          1. Owl*

            Not to mention your laundry detergent, the hand soap you use in the bathroom . . . it’s really quite remarkable how many scents we might have on at any one time, when you think about it!

    2. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

      I remember having to have the conversation with my younger brother that substituting Axe body spray for deodorant was unacceptable.

      1. Cruella DaBoss*

        AGREED! ^^^lives in a house full of teenagers, with a passel of teenaged friends, who will play basketball in the driveway for two hours, then come in an pass the Axe around…..>gasp>hack<cough<

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Me, too, except my teen-aged son informs me that Axe is passe now, and that Old Spice is what the more sophisticated, discerning young men are wearing. Which takes me aback, because back in my day, Old Spice was what the dads and grandpas wore, not the young guys.

            1. Hlyssande*

              Mmm, original Old Spice scent.

              I actually love the Old Spice shampoo and body wash scents these days. I’m using one of the combo shampoo/conditioners right now and it’s lovely. I definitely prefer them to the scents marketed to women.

              Growing up I always stole the sample bottles of Brut my dad brought home.

            2. Devil's Avocado*

              I am a 30 year old lady, and I totally buy Old Spice for myself. My husband used it for years and smelled like a dream, so I started buying it for myself. Some of their scents are very subtle and gender neutral! Much better than smelling like lavender, or powder or something.

              1. Audiophile*

                I have some tried and true Bath and Body Works soaps I go with – Paris, any of the Hawaiian islands, Mad About You, Pink Chiffon and one of two others. I like them, because despite the steep price (if you don’t catch one of the jallion sales they have) they tend to be pretty good for my skin. My face breaks out with some soaps and for some reason I don’t break out with Bath and Body.

            3. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

              That’s so funny that Old Spice is hip again.

              In my day it was Ralph Lauren Sport or Coolwater cologne. I swear the boys bathes in it :/

            4. Ad Astra*

              Old Spice has really turned around its image in the last few years. When I was a teen, Abercrombie Woods was the preferred stench to bathe in. And a very expensive stench at that, if I recall.

            5. Turtle Candle*

              Yeah, Old Spice has done a really amazing job of rebranding itself as sort of ironic-cool. There was the “look at your man, now back to me” ad campaign of a few years ago, and then more recently (?) scents with names like “hawkcrest” and “bearglove” that look like a cross between parody Old Fashioned Manly Men logos and bizarre new Hogwarts houses.

              I grew up with it being the scent of dads and grandpas, but yeah, I have to say, Old Spice has done a brilliant job of turning it around.

              1. Swoop*

                loved the ‘look at your man’ campaign, enjoying the new one with the ‘competing’ scents (the ‘look at your man’ guy and someone else), but my all-time favourite is still the Bruce Campbell one :)

            6. Artemesia*

              Hope it stays a fad as Old Spice is at least pleasant unlike Axe and English Leather and other perfumes in common use. But of course nothing on top of sweat works.

        1. Harriet Vane Wimsey*

          My husband and his friends when they were young and Old Spice was popular used to liberally give themselves what they called “Spice baths.”. No actual bath was really involved. Ewwwww.

        2. NJ anon*

          The best was when teenage son would come down from his room and ask “can you smell my cologne?” Um, yeah, I think the whole neighborhood can!

      2. Lanya (aka Camp Director Kim)*

        The teen boys’ floor of the dormitory at my summer camp program smells like a mix of Axe and, well, teen boys. But to be fair, the girls’ floor does not smell much better – flowery body sprays and sweat.

        I try not to spend time on these floors if at all possible.

  3. Amber Rose*

    Sometimes people just smell. A friend of mine had a few complaints but there was no medical or hygiene related reason. He just smells weird/bad.

    And I lived with him for several years, so I know he showers twice a day and does his best to mitigate the issue. It just is what it is.

    1. Bee Eye LL*

      There are some known medical conditions that make people smell bad. One gives a rotting fish smell but the person is completely unaware.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Could it be diet, like Alison mentioned? If people eat a lot of garlic, onions, spicy stuff, for example, sometimes it comes out in your body odor.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Nope. Dude is not exactly a rabbit, but he eats lots of green and isn’t a fan of the spicy stuff. Mostly he eats a lot of rice and chicken.

      2. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

        I had friends who experienced body odor changes when moving to a Paleo/keto diet.

      3. Meg Murry*

        Oh my goodness yes, the garlic smell.

        One of my first jobs was in a factory, the summer before college. It was 90+ degrees outside, and there was an oven inside one part of the factory, so it easily topped 100 degrees in there most afternoons. No air conditioning, just giant fans. For the most part, the factory smelled like, well, factory – grease and stamped metal and towmotor exhaust, and the giant fans just blew the scents around.

        I had been assigned to work with Tommy, who was the nicest, kindest, hardest working man. But he had a heart condition, and had been advised to take garlic pills in addition to his regular medications. And because he worked hard, and because it was 100 degrees, he sweat. A lot. The garlic smell just came pouring out of him – it was awful. Luckily, he knew about it, and was cheery enough about it – I was able to stand upwind of him from one giant fan, and the people on the other side of the aisle pointed their giant fan toward him as well, so he got twice the fan power and we got less downwind odor. But I was so happy the day he left for his heart surgery and I had that work station to myself, even though it meant I had almost twice as much work to do without him there.

    3. The IT Manager*

      I don’t know. If more than a couple of people think someone else smells bad and that person has no hygiene issues and it’s not a food choice thing, I would suspect there’s something medical going on.

        1. Switcher*

          Even doctors can’t pick up on everything. Even if there is no medical explanation, it can still be chalked up to a medical issue is there are no other explanations. It basically comes down to body chemistry and is just how our body smells.

      1. Hair the Musical*

        Are they hairy? Especially hairy people seem to be unusually prone to this problem, due to opportunistic bacteria colonizing their pores. The sort of washing routine that works just fine for the less hairy always seems to fail them. Short of giving themselves a daily rubbing alcohol rub-down, they are going to have a whiff of something.

        It’s times like this that I wish there was some sort of body odor bacteria that had been bred to smell like something pleasant. A quick medical procedure and re-colonization, and suddenly everyone smells like roses. :-)

            1. la Contessa*

              I second that–I married one. So much hair . . . (my joke is that our extra fluffy cat inherited Daddy’s fur)

        1. Liza*

          Love your handle for this! “I got life, sister…”

          Though now I’ll have that running through my head the rest of the afternoon. Well, there are much worse songs!

    4. Jerzy*

      Sometimes a change in diet can help. If someone eats poorly, that comes out through your pores. A generally healthy diet consisting of mostly plants will seldom cause bad body odor, and is overall usually the best way to go. I’ve noticed that people who eat a lot of fast food tend to smell not so fresh more often than those who don’t.

      1. fposte*

        Hot oil definitely carries scent well, and meat can have a strong smell.

        But it sounds to me like you’re talking about your own diet and neglecting to note that you’re detecting the *difference* from what you’re used to, not an inherently greater odor. The plant family includes many odiferous items, and there are plenty of seriously pungent vegetarian cuisines.

      2. Koko*

        Yeah, some people more readily emit the smell of what they eat. Plenty of plants are stinky too, though – onions, garlic, asparagus, a lot of spices. Also beer…I knew a guy a couple decades ago who just reeked of beer if he had even 2 drinks. The stuff just came pouring out of his pores (pun intended?).

        Also, this isn’t something that I’ve noticed makes people who eat it smell bad, but I find the smell of cooked cucumbers indistinguishable from BO. In high school I worked retail right next to a Subway and had a coworker who always got her sandwich hot with cucumbers on it and put the leftover half-sandwich in the employee/supply closet after she was done eating. The whole closet reeked of BO every time she put the sandwich in it.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          I’ve never even heard of anyone cooking a cucumber before; I thought they were always eaten raw.

          1. Allison*

            Braised cucumbers. Not sure how common they are in the US, I think it’s more of a European thing (French, probably), but in the movie Julie and Julia, about the woman who cooks everything in Julia Child’s book and writes about it, mentions them at one point

          2. ThursdaysGeek*

            Cucumbers and sausage make a delicious hot soup. And I’ve never noticed any BO smell to the cooked cucumbers.

    5. Allison*

      What about his room, was it stinky? Sometimes if someone’s not great at cleaning their room, it can develop a musty smell and that smell can hang on all their clothes, even stuff that’s technically clean. What abut his sheets? Towels? Again, if they’re not washed regularly, they start to smell, and that smell rubs off on whoever uses them.

      1. MsChanandlerBong*

        This is so true. My house is *extremely* damp. We have a dehumidifier running in the basement 24/7, and we empty the bucket twice/day in the summer. Unfortunately, there are some holes in the floors/walls, and the musty odor seems to travel up into the closets and make our clothes smell “off.” We’re moving Sunday, and I’ll be so glad to get away from the disgusting dampness and moldy bathroom (the landlord refuses to put in real tile–he keeps putting some kind of cheap cardboard material in the shower–and there are no ventilation fans; when he installed the new cardboard shower wall, it took about three weeks before it was so damp that it cracked and started growing mold!).

  4. Charlotte Collins*

    I know someone who has had to have this very conversation with an employee. He confirms that it is very, very uncomfortable. (A grown man having to tell another grown man about soap, deodorant, and shampoo somehow seems even weirder to me than it coming from a woman.)

    1. RVA Cat*

      A friend from college had a serious B.O. problem until finally his sister suggested he shave his armpits. Worked like a charm.

      1. AnonymousaurusRex*

        That’s funny. My armpit smell gets worse when I shave my armpits, so I keep the hair. I’m a lady.

          1. Anna*

            I just stopped shaving and I totally noticed this! It goes against what I assumed, but then I thought about it and I think the hair wicks it away from the skin where the bacteria would hang out. Or maybe I’m way off.

      2. Charlotte Collins*

        Hey, if it was good enough for the Ancient Egyptians… But they liked to shave everything, as it also cuts down on parasites.

    2. Toodles*

      I fail to see what makes a “man to man” conversation on the topic notably weirder than a “female to man” conversation. If anything, I’d think another man could potentially give more topical advice such as suggested brands or methods, depending on the exact situation. However, I admire anyone (male or female) who can successfully navigate that sort of conversation.

      1. Charlotte Collins*

        I think because in our culture women are supposedly more empathetic and aware of grooming/personal appearance. It somehow seems more OK when a woman gives someone advice on clothing, hair, etc., so it seems like more people would be OK with a woman discussing more personal issues of grooming. (Also, women do generally have better senses of smell than men and are stereotypically more aware of unpleasant smells.)

        And I’m just saying this is how it seems to me. I can totally see how others might think it different. I do feel somehow a man having to have this conversation with a woman would be the most awkward, but I know this is totally cultural.

        But unless one of the players is completely unsympathetic, it’s very, very awkward all around.

  5. Hellanon*

    Just popping in to say that this language – “I have noticed…” – and the kind but direct approach works. One of my tenants, who runs a bar, asked if I had any ideas on how to talk to two of her employees who had started smelling strongly of cat pee. They were otherwise great employees but the smell was getting noticeable, and as the owner, it was up to her… So I remembered this letter & AAM’s response and told her what Alison had said, and she told me later it worked!

    (The problem was that they’d adopted two young cats who were peeing on their shoes. The employees were hoping nobody noticed, mostly, but addressed it promptly when my tenant brought it up…and for bonus points, when she had to bring it up again, it was a straightforward conversation.)

    1. Spooky*

      Whenever I hear about the smell of cat urine, I immediately go on high alert. My aunt was a kindergarten teacher, and that smell was one of the things they were supposed to look for as a potential sign of an unsafe home environment – apparently it masks the smells of certain major drugs. Any time they smelled it, the teachers were supposed to report it, just in case.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Wow really? Interesting. I’ve definitely thrown away more than one pair of shoes in the past from my cats but it was because my kids were really bad at cleaning the litter box at the time and that was their way of telling us! Hasnt happened in several years now.

      2. Koko*

        Splenda also puts off a strong ammonia scent in coffee. As a cat owner I heavily associate the smell of ammonia with cat pee and I have a coworker whose office, to me, smells like cat piss every morning because he puts Splenda in his coffee. Particularly when he’s running his desk fan and it blows the smell all around the air.

        1. Not Myself*

          Does anyone else associate the smell of bad wiring (ie, unplug that lamp or deal with the fire department) with cat pee? It’s really weird.

    2. Allison*

      I hate dealing with cat pee! My parents got a new dog, and it did not get along with the dog, so the cat lives upstairs protected by a baby gate, often holed up in my old bedroom. When I lived there after college, she’d pee on every piece of fabric I left on the floor – clothes, blankets, purses, duffel bags – you name it, she peed on it.

      One does not simply wash out cat pee, if you run something with urine through the wash it only makes the smell permanent! You have to use a special solution, like Nature’s Miracle, to get the smell and stain out. It’s not cheap and my family has gone through a lot of it in the last few years.

      I loved that kitty, but I was very happy to move out and not have to worry about her peeing on my stuff.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I hate it, too. Our cat started peeing outside her litter box awhile back, and it turned out to be from a bladder infection. We noticed that she would look into her litter box and hiss, and she would growl while she was in there doing her business. We thought she was being weird, but didn’t know what to make of it until she started peeing on the leather sofa (which, fortunately, wiped clean without the pee sinking in permanently anywhere) and on various socks and shoes or any clothing that was strewn about. We took her to the vet once she started doing that, and he put her on antibiotics for about ten days. We were afraid she’d gotten into the habit of going outside the box and that it would be hard to break her of it, but once the infection was gone, she returned to normal litter habits.

        1. Allison*

          Oh no, poor kitty! I hope my family has at least brought this up with the vet. We’ve suspected it was psychological, now I’m hoping there’s no medical issue.

      2. Koko*

        Protip – instead of those expensive enzyme cleaners, just dump a cup of white vinegar into the washing machine. Gets the smell right out.

        -Sincerely, someone whose cats used to revenge pee on my laundry pile whenever I had the audacity to go on vacation.

        1. Chinook*

          “someone whose cats used to revenge pee on my laundry pile whenever I had the audacity to go on vacation.”

          I am glad I am not the only with a cat who revenge pees. My cat did it on DH’s side of the bed when I left him for cheating on me. DH was broke at the time and couldn’t replace the mattress or get the smell out. (and he tried everything you could think of). I sure did love my cat! (The dog, whom I brought into the marriage, on the other hand, did show the same type of loyalty).

        2. Blurgle*

          Vinegar does not even begin to remove the smell for the animal. If they can still smell it, it’s a good place for them to pee.

          Enzyme cleaners exist specifically because vinegar, the old method, doesn’t do a proper job.

  6. Ad Astra*

    Since it’s the end of summer and still quite hot in some places, I wonder if maybe this employee just sweats a lot? I shower and use deodorant every day, wear clean clothes, and try my best to avoid any activity that might make me sweat at work, but this morning I had to carry a bunch of stuff up and down stairs in the heat and I’m just really glad I have my own desk with a wall between me and my neighbor.

    All of this is to say, she might know (or suspect) that she doesn’t smell great and isn’t sure how to mitigate that. Keeping deodorant and Febreeze in her desk might help, and so will the changing of the seasons.

      1. fposte*

        I think the unscented Febreze is a pretty likely response to the situation, though. And really, as a manager you can’t simultaneously object to the problem and preclude lots of the solutions.

        1. Ad Astra*

          If your clothes and body were both clean when you got dressed and now you stink, Febreze is just about the only product that will make your clothes not stink. It’s a better option than, say, raspberry-scented body spray.

          If someone in the office is so sensitive to even lightly scented products that Febreze is a no-go, then that person may have to learn to be less sensitive to stuff like body odor. (Of course, I’m just speculating on a cause here; if the reason this woman smells is truly related to hygiene, there’s likely a Febreze-free solution.)

          1. simonthegrey*

            Also, if the problem is with artificial scents but natural scents are ok, you can make misters or wipes using lemon juice, tea tree oil, or witch hazel. I only bring that up because I am sensitive to some artificial odors (fake flower smells especially give me horrible headaches) but natural odors don’t seem to trigger the same problem so we clean with vinegar and lemon juice around the house.

            1. MsChanandlerBong*

              Same here. I love to have a bouquet of fresh lilacs on my desk in the spring, but lilac candles and air fresheners kill me. Same with vanilla, any kind of tropical/beach scent, strong florals, and the like.

          1. fposte*

            There are plenty on Amazon, and I’ve got one in my office that I got from the supermarket–they’re not that rare.

            But in general, I think people are thinking about this as if they were the person or sitting next to the person. Which is understandable! But from a management standpoint you make reasonable suggestions, not completely failure-proof suggestions.

              1. fposte*

                I wasn’t going to say it myself :-).

                I think people do get *really* invested in scent and scent products, though, so it’s probably inevitable.

                1. Ad Astra*

                  Yeah, I’ve noticed scents and scented products are a hot-button issue here, though I don’t know many people irl who express such strong feelings about it.

                2. Renee*

                  That might be because people often just tolerate it in real life. I get chronic migraines that can be triggered by strong scents, but it’s not really easy to go around telling the world that their perfume bothers me. I usually just move out of the scent cloud as quickly as possible.

                3. Turtle Candle*

                  Yes, there are a few issues that seem to get disproportionate attention online, I think because this is a place where people who care a lot can vent. Scent is one; online practically anything with a smell (from Secret powder-fresh deodorant to Bounce fabric softener sheets in the dryer to lemon rinse for your hair) will have someone telling you that they’re allergic or just plain hate it and wish it was banned from the universe. Food is of course another–any conversation online about “appropriate snacks for the office” will make you believe that nothing you could possibly put in your mouth is acceptable (apples make a noise, yogurt makes a different noise, cheese cubes smell like cheese, bananas smell like banana, peanut butter smells like peanut butter and can make a noise, leftovers make even more of a smell, even water is objectionable if you have rattle-y ice cubes or don’t swallow in total silence).

                  And yet most of the time in the real world people can wear deodorant to work and eat a snack at their desk without problem, because they aren’t sitting next to every single person on the Internet with every single possible pet peeve. Maybe their cubemate hates apple crunching, in which case they can have a conversation about that–but probably any given single cubemate won’t have a problem with everything, so making people paranoid about everything they do/wear/eat/whatever is not terribly productive.

                4. lawsuited*

                  I agree with Turtle Candle. I don’t feel strongly about scents and I assume there are others in the working world that feel similarly, but when I see an online discussion of scents in the workplace, I tend to move on while others who do feel strongly weigh in.

                5. Turanga Leela*

                  Turtle Candle, this is a great point. I think of myself as a fairly considerate office-mate, but after reading AAM for a while, I’ve concluded that I’m probably driving people crazy through a combination of wearing (light!) perfume, microwaving my lunch, and occasionally muttering to myself while I write.

                6. ...and Vinegar*

                  Yes. Speaking of that, can anyone explain why it’s so hard to get unscented cat litter? “Perfumed” cat litter is an abomination, per my cats and all humans I’ve met who have encountered it.

                7. More Cake, Please*

                  @…and Vinegar

                  Have you tried Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat (in the blue box/bag)? It’s totally unscented and clumps well. I would not rate it terribly dust free, though. Cat is happier with it than the Arm & Hammer Clump & Seal (less peeing up the sides of the box).

                  I used the cheap Target unscented, which was great on clumping, no scent and great odor control once, but it was too dusty.

                8. Lindsay J*

                  @…and Vinegar
                  I had good luck with “Yesterday’s New” and similar litter products. Yesterday’s News is made from recycled paper. There was also one we used – Esquisicat maybe? – made from wood pellets.

        2. Blurgle*

          Unscented Febreze contains 20% more perfume then the scented; worse, the perfumes it contains tend to be more allergenic.

          “Unscented” doesn’t mean “fragrance-free”.

          1. fposte*

            Maybe you’re thinking of the original Febreze, which had no labeled scent? The “free” and the “unscented” have no perfume.

            Not sure that 20% would mean much unless you know how much the original number is–if the fragrance was 1% of one bottle and 1.2% of the other, that doesn’t seem like a big deal.

    1. Spooky*

      Ban also makes some good cooling deodorant wipes – they’re pretty good for wiping yourself down/freshening up on a hot day, and they come in normal deodorant scents (including unscented, I think.)

      1. Clever Name*

        Oooh! Thanks for this suggestion. I’m often in the field, and sometimes I only go out for a couple of hours and then back to the office later in the day. I do keep deodorant in my office, but sometimes that’s not enough. :)

        1. Artemesia*

          The products sold for adults are identical to the baby wipes as far as I can tell and are at least twice as expensive. I am traveling right now and have some long sweaty days — it is handy to have the wipes to freshen up a bit when you are not near a supply of clean clothes or a shower.

    2. ArtsNerd*

      I’m part of a group that meets regularly and many of us ride bikes to get around the city. Everyone was so self-conscious about BO that I had to make a blanket declaration that “All of us are terribly sorry, but we are sweaty and smelly. We do hope that all of us will forgive ourselves for this issue. This apology is valid through the end of the summer. Moving on to tonight’s business…”

  7. PC*

    I’m convinced some BO comes from wearing a shirt, even after it’s been washed, that has pit stains. I am so self-conscious about this nc I sweat a lot and wear the same rotation of sweaters weekly. They need to be washed on delicate and I can’t buy 365 of them. I use sweet smelling perfume and have even been told I smell good. Whew!! But I still worry. I would WANT someone to tell me, even if it’s embarassing.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Vodka works! I tried this after I read somewhere (might have been here) that dancers use it on costumes. It works on skating dresses too. :) I put some in a small spray bottle and spray it on the pits of my costumes before and after I hand-wash them.

        1. Liza*

          Yes! I learned about that use of vodka from the wardrobe manager of a touring show. He had spray bottles of vodka in his traveling cabinet. (It’s also cheaper than Febreze, because you can get cheap crappy vodka and it works fine!)

      1. Not me*

        White vinegar works on this and all kinds of smells. Dip the offending part of the fabric in white vinegar or white vinegar mixed with water before you wash it. You can also add it to a load of laundry in the washer (bonus, it makes towels fluffy again).

        1. Natalie*

          It’s a good substitute for fabric softener as well. Add right before the rinse cycle if you can manage the timing, otherwise put in at the beginning of the load.

          1. Anonyby*

            I use it instead of fabric softener or dryer sheets. Instead of trying to time the washer, though, I just use one of those Downy balls. They have a weight in them that pulls it open when it’s spinning out the wash water to prep for the rise.

            And as a bonus, it also helps with hard water!

        2. Ad Astra*

          So I’ve always wondered: The vinegar takes care of the BO, but what takes care of the vinegar smell? Does it come out of the laundry smelling fine or do you have to run it through a second time without vinegar?

          1. Natalie*

            In my experience, the vinegar smell dissipates on its own. You generally aren’t using a ton (0.5-1 cup in a full load) so the smell isn’t strong to begin with, and vinegar readily evaporates.

          2. AndersonDarling*

            I’ve used white vinegar to put in permanent pleats and was worried about the smell. The scent drifts away over an hour or two and leaves nothing behind.

          3. Knitting Cat Lady*

            I use white concentrated vinegar instead of fabric softener. About a shot glass full per load is enough. The laundry smells very very faintly of vinegar right out of the machine but that is completely gone by the time the laundry is dry.

            1. Laundry Newbie*

              This may be a silly question, but is this something safe to do if you are using a college washing machine (like it won’t leave the next users laundry smelling like vinegar)? I think I want to try this method.

              1. Natalie*

                Totally fine – they might notice the faintest scent of vinegar when they open the drum, but their clothes won’t smell like vinegar at all.

          4. Fried Eggs*

            Depending on the washer, it comes out either smelling fine or faintly of vinegar. In the latter case, the smell is always gone once the shirt dries.

      2. Charlotte Collins*

        Vinegar is great for getting rid of organic odors. Also, you can use it to set the color of clothing so that dyes don’t run. (A fabric-care two-fer!)

    1. Natalie*

      I think you’re right – I had to throw out a couple of dresses because they always had a weird funk to them.

      One likely culprit is deodorant build up on the shirts. Soaking them in vinegar or oxygenated bleach (oxyclean) can usually help. Don’t use chlorinated bleach – that will permanently yellow the fabric.

      Jolie Kerr (Ask A Clean Person) has a lot of other solutions worth checking out.

      1. Allison*

        I occasionally soak my white shirts and cardigans in hot water mixed with Oxyclean, then run them through the wash on hot water. It won’t completely get rid of bad stains that developed over years, but it does make bad stains less noticeable and are a great way to nip mild stains in the bud.

    2. Ad Astra*

      I systematically eliminate my husband’s athletic shorts because of this. Eventually, no amount of washing will get the stench out — though I find that Tide’s “sport” product does a better job than any other detergent. And I occasionally throw out layering tank tops that seem to be hanging on to a stench. If it’s not clean when you put it on, it only takes a tiny bit of body heat to activate the nastiness.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I had a light short-sleeved jumper that did this. I got rid of it, but I kind of wish I had tried vinegar or Oxi-Clean or something. It was one of my favorite tops, but if I wore it and moved around too much, it would end up stinky. It hung onto odor and sweat WAY too well.

    3. Meg Murry*

      I also was wondering if this was laundry related. I had a friend in college who showered and used deodorant and all that jazz at an appropriate level, but he would rewear the same clothes, either without washing them (or without washing well enough) or from putting the dirty clothes and clean back in the same pile so now they all smelled.

      Or there is also a chance she is stretching her time between dry cleanings too far, or as someone else has mentioned, has an item that wasn’t properly cleaned, and as soon as it gets a tiny bit damp/sweaty the smell comes back out in full force.

    4. Koko*

      This is what OxyClean and similar products were invented for. They break down biological stains like those from sweat.

      Start washing your whites separately, with bleach and OxyClean. It’ll change your life.

      1. Hotstreak*

        I do something similar twice a year, and it works wonders. I soak all whites in a strong bleach solution for a few hours, then run them through the wash twice to get the bleach smell out. Yellow pits are gone, the shirts are bright white, and no smell!

    5. HannahS*

      I have this problem with T-shirts! It used to get to the point that the fabric in the pits would be STIFF with accumulated deoderant and sweat even though I washed the shirts after every wear. I swear, it’s because they’re cut so high under the arm that the fabric is mashed against my skin+sweat+deoderant and it just won’t come out in the wash.
      I found two things helped: choosing cotton and rayon over acrylic and polyester, and using a scrub pad/toothbrush with a paste of dish soap and baking soda every so often. It 100% worked on my t-shirts, but over time it did fade the fabric the under arms.

      1. BRR*

        I have some shirts like that, so gross and often times the shirt is other wise good.

        I have noticed my undershirts can retain a bad smell. I have a shout stain stick (which interestingly enough looks like a stick of deodorant) that I will use on the arm pits before washing (wish I was more consistent with it). I’ve also had some success with dabbing a tiny bit of detergent and rubbing the two ends of the stain together. I’ve only used vinegar to clean my washing machine and not wash clothes with it but that seemed to help. I might just take all my undershirts and use bleach with them. This is why hotels have white towels and sheets, they just use bleach because it keeps everything white.

      2. Ana*

        I noticed that some of my dark shirts will have a faint white deodorant stain that shows through to the other side, even after washing. I’ve been wrapping a thick rubber band around my finger and rubbing that against the shirt on both sides — it takes the deodorant residue right off (give it a swipe with a lint roller afterwards to remove the rubber dust). A pink eraser might work the same way.

    6. Artemesia*

      My husband showers every day and is very clean and generally speaking doesn’t smell even on a hot sweaty day but his shirt pits get really gross over time. We have one of those low water efficient washers which are nowhere near as effective at getting things clean than the old agitator tub with lots of water and soap we used before. What works for us is that he throws his black t shirt in the washer every day and when I have a load I do a 3 hour soak cycle with Biz and then wash the load as normal. THAT actually does work to eliminate the perpetual dead sweat smell that clings to even laundered men’s sweaty pitted shirts.

    7. BananaPants*

      Biz works wonders for pit stains. It actually works great on any organic stain or buildup – much better than Oxiclean.

      We have hard well water and in order to get laundry clean it takes specific detergent with additives. Right now what’s working best is Persil Power Pearls with a scoop of either Borax or Biz. I belong to a laundry and cleaning FB group and our clothes are significantly cleaner now than they were a few months ago.

  8. Merry and Bright*

    Tricky. I wonder if it is a “I haven’t showered recently” smell or a smelly armpits issue? Because they actually smell quite different.

    I was asked in an interview a while ago about what I would do if a coworker had a BO problem but my manager had asked me to handle it. What I said was that if the coworker was female, I would engineer a conversation in the bathroom about toiletries (better still if a group were going for a meal/drinks after work). Then I would ask her if she preferred roll-on or spray deodorant. It would broach the subject kindly (I hope) but she could not easily say she did not use any at all. Hopefully the conversation could move naturally on. But it is a really hard problem especially if the hygiene thing is more general.

    1. Kyrielle*

      It could also be laundry. I had a hard time for a while with laundry coming out smelling worse than it went in, which I eventually tracked down to an issue with my (high efficiency, and this was relevant) washer. I was leaving the door open and cleaning it appropriately, but an area they don’t advise you to clean had acquired a … build up. Ew. Anyway, now I know to check there and clean it too.

        1. Allison*

          Yes, my parents have a front-load HE washer, and that thing is so cool and high tech, load sensing technology and it’s really easy to customize . . . but it smells funky and I always worry that my clothes will smell weird because of it. Doesn’t totally stop me from using it on occasion, if a visit happens to run close to a much-needed laundry day, but there isn’t much incentive for me to take laundry to my parents’ house just so I can do it for free.

        2. Knitting Cat Lady*

          Adding white vinegar to the rinse cycle helps with that.

          No idea if you have them in the US, but here (Germany) there are special machine cleaning solutions. You just put them in the machine, turn it to the highest heat it can do (at least 60C, I do 95C) and let it run empty.

          I do this twice a year. And the vinegar thing to soften the laundry because I have very hard water.

          I never have problems with a smelly machine.

          1. Lalala this is not my usual name*

            We do have those – but if you leave the door open and clean the areas where physical build up can occur semi-regularly, you often don’t need them.

        3. Mockingjay*

          When I lived in Germany, I got my first front loader washer. My neighbor taught me some tricks to manage it.

          1) Pull the dispenser completely out after each wash and allow to air dry. Air circulates in the open space preventing mold and mildew inside the machine. If you don’t have a laundry sink to place the dispenser, keep a bucket handy.
          2) Run the cleaning cycle every few months.
          3) Wash towels and sheets on the sanitize cycle.
          4) Measure the HE soap carefully. You really need only that small amount. Too much soap won’t rinse out, and you’ll end up with sticky clothes.

          When we returned to the States, I bought another front loader. I’ve never had any odor or mildew issues with it using these steps, and I live in a very humid area.

      1. BadPlanning*

        Yes, the cursed HE washer — I went to work once and couldn’t figure out what stank. It was me! My pants had been in the washer overnight and it was bad. Fortunately, I could run home at lunch and change.

    2. Charlotte Collins*

      I have to say that I think my answer to that would be that I am not the best person for the job. I would feel so weird and uncomfortable broaching that subject to a peer that I would probably rather quit than be the one to do it. (So, so far above my paygrade.)

      1. Merry and Bright*

        Me too in real life. It was just one of those horrible curveball questions some interviewers like and I tried hard to think of an answer off the top of my head.

        As others are saying, there could be many causes.

        1. Charlotte Collins*

          Honestly, if I got this question in an interview, I would really wonder if they were trying to warn me about something. ;)

          It seems like a valid question if you are going to manage staff but a little strange otherwise. I guess they were trying to gauge your interpersonal skills and how you’d deal with a difficult work situation.

    3. Bwmn*

      From my experience – I really don’t think that deodorant is the primary culprit for these issues. Issues like whether or not someone is washing their clothes appropriately – or perhaps resorting to the pile on the floor method where a sweater that didn’t need to be washed initially becomes smelly after living under a wet gym t-shirt. Someone not making a ton may be cleaning dry -clean-only items too infrequently due to the cost. Someone may be showering at night and then hoping into bed sheets that they launder too infrequently. When I last moved, the washer/dryer in my apartment was broken for about a month/month and a half? My landlord paid for me to use a laundry service – but given that most wash/dry laundry services are a bit suspect in getting all of your socks back to you – I was trying to use it in a limited capacity (it was also the winter). If during that time, I had been broached about smelling – it would have been terribly embarrassing – but also could be factored into using more of the laundry service.

      I think the reason why AAM often brings up a possible medical issue or general greater conversation is that teasing out the exact reason may be far more involved than just a deodorant stick.

    4. A Bug!*

      I think I’d have to ask the interviewer why the manager was delegating that task to me in the first place. That’s not a conversation that a person should be obligated to have with a co-worker unless there are special circumstances.

      (And the interviewer’s response to my clarifying question would be informative, too: do I want to be working in a place where it’s normal for management to offload the uncomfortable aspects of their jobs?)

  9. AnonymousaurusRex*

    Oh, man. I’m *always* worried this is me. I have a left armpit problem. It’s just the left one, but….yuck. I shower. I wash my clothes regularly. I’m really sensitive to chemical deodorants, but I try all kinds of the natural ones. But by the afternoon, I’m lucky if it doesn’t get a little funky. (And totally worse if I’ve ridden my bike to work, or if it’s especially hot!)

    Want my pro tip? Hand sanitizer. I use a non-scented or very lightly scented one, mostly rubbing alcohol. I keep it in my desk, and rub it under my arms if I get too worried that I’m starting to get stinky. I smell boozy for a minute, but that goes away. The hand sanitizer kills the bacteria, and it keeps the smell at bay for several hours, ideally until I can go home and actually wash and change my shirt.

    1. Kyrielle*

      A baby wipe (or a facial or exercise wipe, but those are basically the same thing except ten times the price) would probably also work here, if the person has sensitive skin and doesn’t want to use hand sanitizer.

    2. Anx*

      I worry, too.

      I get a rash from even unscented commercial deodorant. I won’t use ones with lavender or tea tree oil, because I’ve used both of those as antimicrobial agents and I don’t want to contributing to antimicrobial resistance. I used these when my insurance had no Rx coverage and found them to be a lot better than most topical antibiotics for me.

      Anyway, I usually mix coconut oil with baking soda and arrowroot powder. I have asked two friends if I smell, and they confirm I’m alright. I also feel less stinky (but I sweat a lot). Usually there will be a slight damp smell, but no bo. I do still have some body odor issues at the beginning of my period and during panic attacks (I have a specific phobia).

      I have used alcohol based sanitizer on occasions where I have an unexpected anxiety attack/otherwise get ‘nervous sweats’ and as far as I could tell it helped dramatically. And one of my friends who swears I smell fine most days flat out said my anxiety attack (when fainting) sweat smelled so badly and strongly (I agree!) also thought the alcohol fixed it.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Oh yes! Anxiety – can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. I get it bad once in a blue moon and it will come out my armpits as BO, despite wearing clinical strength deoderant. You’d have to be pretty close to me, though, to smell it.

        1. NervousWreck*

          I get nervous sweats a lot, and I find that when it’s my time of the month, my hormones kick in and I sweat more than normal.

          Unrelated, but I also get these weird moments of tearing up when I’m nervous/anxious, I just always hope that it’s unnoticeable.

      2. Natalie*

        FWIW, from a quick google tea tree oil doesn’t seem to be something that can contribute to antibiotic resistance. I think you can safely use a tea tree oil product without worrying about causing the next plague. :)

        1. Anx*

          Oh, I’m mostly concerned about tea tea and lavender being less effective on my own body, since those are the antibiotics I use personally for topical applications. You can use them at a 5% concentration or higher without any risk, but most cosmetic products have lower concentrations. Recent studies are giving them the all-clear, but I’m waiting for a few more studies to be published on the matter.

          (I also find both of them to be irritating. Not as irritating as a lot of topical treatments and cosmetics, but enough so that it’s not something I’d want to use if I can help it.)

        1. Meg Murry*

          Are you me? For whatever reason, during periods of bad anxiety, I will have a sudden cold single stream of sweat from only one side – usually the left. Doesn’t matter if I have or have not worn deodorant or antiperspirant lately – the anxiety cold sweat has nothing to do with that.

          Luckily, it usually isn’t in enough quantities to make me smell, but ick, it feels so gross.

      3. Snork Maiden*

        I use crystal deodorants – I thought they were hokey, but for some reason they work pretty OK with my body chemistry (I have to put them on right after I shower, they can’t work retroactively). I hadn’t heard about the arrowroot flour trick.

        Ugh, I used to get nervous sweats all the time. And then you get even more anxious because now you smell! The worst.

        1. Judy*

          I just wanted to say thank you. I bought one of those a year or so ago, and I tried it again this past weekend because of your post. I shower at night, but had never used it right then, and it never seemed to work for me. I used it right after my shower, and it actually is working for me! I’m wondering if the warm skin also helps it.


      4. Hlyssande*

        When I ran out of my usual deodorant once but couldn’t get to the store to get more, I would get my fingers damp and dip them in baking soda, then dab that over my pits. It worked wonderfully. Almost too well – I couldn’t smell myself at all.

        Caveat: If you just shaved, it can burn.

        I might try the coconut and arrowroot powder addition sometime.

      5. Anonyby*

        Just be careful with baking soda! Not everyone can tolerate it, because it’s alkaline and our skin is slightly acidic.

        I switched to the coconut oil/baking soda/starch (I used cornstarch) at the beginning of 2014. It worked right away for me (though I was worried because I’d read that some people have a funky transition time where they actually smell WORSE). And it was fine as long as I kept to only using it 2-3 days a week.

        And then I was hit with a busy period at work and needed to wear it 6 days a week for several weeks in a row. OUCH. My skin got red and sore and I had to not use anything (instead going in to the bathroom and either washing my pits or putting on some hand sanitizer at lunch to get rid of the smell-producing bacteria).

        I ended up swapping out the baking soda for powdered zinc oxide in my formula (the same stuff in old-fashioned sun blocks). It doesn’t work quite as well (I start to get bit stinky at night), but at least I can make it through a day of work without smelling.

        1. Anx*

          Excellent point!

          For me, the BS is so much less irritating than most cosmetic products that I forget that for some people, the BS would be an usual irritant.

          Also, I never put anything right after shaving!

    3. edj3*

      My dad (retired MD) swears by white vinegar for a smelly pit. Do it after showering, before putting on deodorant. Repeat a couple of times a week and then see if you and dial back to once a week.

  10. Emmie*

    Always address this at the end if the person’s workday unless you give them the opportunity to go home. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to be the offending employee, and then have to sit at work all day would derived get how horrible you smell.

    1. Ad Astra*

      I think I would prefer to hear this at the beginning of the day and have an opportunity to go home, but maybe that would just make me feel like everyone in the office knows why I’m not there.

  11. Faith*

    So, if the employee tells you that their body odor is related to a medical issue, how do you address this with the rest of the team? I assume people will keep complaining about it, but somehow I don’t think that making a public announcement that so-and-so has a medical condition that makes them smell would be an appropriate thing to do.

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      I would think that you could just ask the employee how much they’re comfortable you sharing with others.

      1. F.*

        What if they do not want it know that it is a medical issue? How do you handle the other employees? I’d really like suggestions, because I am dealing with that situation regarding one of our employees.

        1. Ad Astra*

          You might just have to say “I’ve spoken with the employee about this and we need to just let it go.” Nobody likes being around stinky people, but she’s probably not causing any real harm to her coworkers. I’d be interested to hear what other people suggest, though.

        2. fposte*

          I think the same could go for if the employee was homeless, as noted below–people aren’t necessarily going to want that to be shared. If somebody complains, I’d say something like “We’ve talked and the matter isn’t [currently] changeable for private reasons; I’d ask for good faith and tolerance from the rest of you, and please talk to me if it means we need to change your work location.”

        3. Charlotte Collins*

          Does the employee have any suggestions themselves? If they don’t want the medical problem to be mentioned at all, then I kind of feel like they should try to help you come up with some sort of explanation that they’re OK with. (Not that I’m unsympathetic to them having a medical condition, but it’s so clearly a reasonable explanation that I’d be at a loss, too.) Or you can give no explanation except that the issue is being addressed and should be resolved. Let the co-workers wonder…?

  12. sunny-dee*

    Random thought, but how does someone with noticeable BO get hired for an office job? Since this is a new person but has been enough of a problem to cause complaints, I would assume it’s been like that basically the whole time they’re there.

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      Could be. If it’s medical condition, it might have just started or worsened. Also, the interviewer(s) might not have been close enough to notice the smell in the time the interview(s) took. Some people just don’t have a very good (or any!) sense of smell, so if the person looked neat and clean, they wouldn’t assume that they did not smell good.

      1. simonthegrey*

        My husband is a big guy (like 350lbs) with no sense of smell who has a high body temperature. We have the “did you put on deodorant” conversation on weekends because he will forget, or “forget” about it, and he can’t tell. However, I have a very sensitive nose and I can definitely tell. It isn’t a stinky pit smell, just an unwashed, no deodorant, big guy smell. Not pleasant but not where it would make you gag. However, you don’t notice it unless he has been up and around for a few hours, and in an interview you might not notice that.

        1. Ad Astra*

          Are you and I married to the same man? My husband knows he stinks after a workout or something, but has no idea that he smells like a belly button when he’s sitting next to me on the couch. Two totally different stenches. And he never notices when the trash/litterbox/fridge/whatever stinks.

          1. HRG*

            My live in boyfriend is exactly this way too. Never notices when he’s stinky or when the trash is getting ripe.

    2. Bwmn*

      While I think for a lot of us “body odor” implies a smell related to sweating/showering – there are other “odors” that initially may not seem offensive but over time and once you notice them can be distinctly noticeable (and unpleasant). I had a coworker who I worked a lot with who smelled musty – more similar to a basement library smell than an odor I’d associate with a sweaty person. There were times when the smell was overwhelmingly unpleasant and others where it was just “oh that’s how he smells”. I got the impression it was due to various medication he was on and ultimately I did learn how to live with it at work – but I do think that there’s a quick assumption of body odor as post gym/night out smell. And for better or worse there are an assortment of other body odors that can be a bit slow building and off putting but not within a generic sweaty variety.

      1. Artemesia*

        Musty could also be from the habit of leaving clothes wet in the washer too long. It is VERY hard to get out of clothes once this happens. I have even boiled washclothes that got musty without much success. And I have never figured out how to get the smell out of clothes that get musty in storage.

    3. HRG*

      One thing to take into consideration is that during an interview someone is more likely to go above and beyond with their appearance and hygiene. For me, it’s the only time I ever wear makeup really. Many people buy brand new clothes for interviews so the old clothing smell might not be there.

    4. BRR*

      They move and their new method of transportation causes them to sweat more. They change their lifestyle and it doesn’t include deodorant. They try something new in their personal hygiene routine. A medical condition develops that wasn’t previously there. You aren’t as close to the person during an interview. A suit jacket helps contain the smell.

      1. BRR*

        Interviewing during one season and now it’s another, that’s a big one. I worked at a bar in my undergrad in New Orleans and somebody started in early spring. By late spring/early summer it was hot and they walked to work. So while they didn’t sweat when we hired them, they started to smell as the temperature rose.

    5. Swoop*

      bad interaction with new medication?
      an OTC allergy medicine caused a friend to smell of cat pee – it wasn’t until we’d literally washed everything else (including the carpet) and spent a week trying to figure out how a cat might have got in that we realized it was him

      1. BRR*

        Such a great reply by Deardog. And I thought the BO was bad. My question, as a man, is wouldn’t you want to change things more often? I also can’t imagine being told certain things and then keep doing them, this being one. Some sort of shame feeling.

        Anyways I really want a follow up on that one.

        1. fposte*

          Speaking as a woman, yes, you would generally want to change things more often, which is why women found this one pretty tough to get their minds around too.

          1. Middle Name Jane*

            Agreed. Plus..if this woman is bleeding onto furniture, doesn’t that also mean she’s bleeding on her clothes all the time? Does she wear dark colors, or does she walk around with a visible stain on her clothes? Disgusting.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Reading the OP, it sounds like she got the idea from her mom–and I would guess that the mom was either poor or had super light periods or both. The daughter picked up the same habit even though neither thing applies to her, and she hates spending the money on more products because, having grown up around her mom, she thinks it isn’t really a “need.”

          1. Ad Astra*

            Because it’s such an intimate subject, most of us have very few influences or role models in this area. If your mom did something unusual and taught it to you, you might go years or decades before you realized those habits weren’t typical. Especially before the Internet. It’s not like hair or makeup, where you just read tips in a magazine or ask your friends how they did something.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              I can’t believe one of her friends didn’t say something to her later. I mean, if she’s leaving spots everywhere.
              Makes sense, but still–wow. Another argument for health classes in schools. :(

    1. manybellsdown*

      Oh my god, did the boss drop the ball on that. Awkwardstink should never have had to be the one having that conversation with her co-worker. I’m more angry at him than anyone.

    2. Ad Astra*

      My mother had such severe incontinence that she kept peeing (I think probably in small amounts, but frequently) on her chair to the point it started to smell and she ended up resigning over it. You know how you see those commercials on TV about vaginal mesh lawsuits? She’s involved in one of them because of this issue (and many others).

      I can only guess that this Jennifer woman’s bizarre apathy toward leaving menstrual blood all over the office was a defense mechanism of some kind. I have known women with heavy bleeding that caused a lot of similar problems, but they were always mortified by it, and often were in too much pain to get out of bed anyway.

      1. Artemesia*

        There are all sorts of incontinence products including just wearing a pad for menstruation if the pee issue is slight but constant. It is too pad your mom didn’t get this sort of thing before she felt she had to leave a job over it. One of the things that tends to happen with old age is this sort of problem and many women have it as the result of childbirth damage.

    3. Middle Name Jane*

      What what what? Employers should provide pads/tampons for female employees? Um…does no one have personal responsibility anymore? It is not my employer’s place to give me tampons, nor would I want them to. Pads, tampons, etc. are personal products, and women typically have a brand or style they prefer to use. This is not the same as an employer providing free coffee, sodas, etc. in the break room.

  13. F.*

    Serious issue here, and one I have encountered in my own workplace. One employee is allergic to the active ingredients in deodorant and antiperspirant. He normally works out in the field (in a construction-based position), so the odor is not usually a problem. This employee was in my office for about twenty minutes this morning to complete some HR paperwork. The odor was so strong that I was having a hard time fighting my gag reflex. I mentioned that it seemed stuffy in the room and excused myself to open the window. He did not mind, and I could breathe.
    The other employee was a female of a culture whose food involves certain spices that affect body odor. The fact that she was female is relevant because the odor was even worse when she was menstruating. She appeared to shower only about once a week, as her hair would become progressively greasier and the body odor would be worse until each Thursday. Then it would be much better. My colleagues and I would do everything we could to avoid gagging in her presence, but the odor was often overwhelming and permeated our entire office area. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to handle a situation like this? Management did not want to touch the issue for fear she would claim discrimination. (She no longer works for the company due to unrelated reasons.)

    1. fposte*

      On the first one, you can ask the guy to please make sure he showers before he needs to come in to the office, but since it was just 20 minutes and it’s not a regular appearance I might just suck it up.

      For the second one, it’s perfectly legit to ask people to step up their shower regime. If somebody’s cooking with pungent stuff all the time, though, their clothes may well absorb the odor too, so that may not solve the problem.

    2. Rayner*

      You can ask for someone to shower more regularly without invoking discrimination issues. In today’s modern western societies, particularly America, the expectation of cleanliness and good personal hygiene isn’t avoidable. Just address it as AAM suggested and don’t specifically touch on the ‘you smell like curry. Cut it out’.

      Also, I say American because ime, it seems to be North Americans who shower WAY more often than most europeans I’ve come across. And I say this as a Brit.

      1. Merry and Bright*

        I don’t know. I mean there are so many countries and cultures in Europe that it’s a bit of a generalisation. I don’t know how often the “average” European showers, or the “average” American. I shower every morning and after swimming and I’m British. I doubt I’m that unusual.

        1. Ad Astra*

          My only experience in Europe was in Italy, and I got the distinct impression that people there were less sensitive to normal body odor, because every man I got remotely close to smelled like BO and I can’t imagine they would all smell that way if it weren’t socially acceptable. Their clothes and hair were clean and it wasn’t particularly hot outside; I just got the distinct impression that it wasn’t normal there to apply deodorant every day.

          But that’s one person’s experience in one country 10 years ago, so who knows.

  14. anonanonanon*

    I’m always so paranoid about this. I have no sense of smell and the rare times I have been able to smell a very strong scent, I can’t tell if it’s a good or bad smell. The rare times I end up catching a whiff of detergent from fresh laundry or new soap/shampoo, I’m always paranoid it’s body odor because I can’t actually determine what the smell is. I’ve just gotten very good about asking friends or coworkers I’m close with if something smells weird.

    1. Rubyrose*

      As a first time supervisor, ages ago, at age 25, I had to have this conversation with a new hire. It went as well as it could. He had started work for us early and was finishing up his other job, with a three week overlay. His other job was McDonald’s and ours was a typical office environment.
      I practiced with another employee for about half an hour before i had the conversation with him. He was embarrased. For the rest of his overlap time I gave him an extra half hour, so he could go home and shower before he came in. Never had another problem with him again.
      It is worse than firing someone.

  15. voyager1*

    I would tread carefully on this and make sure it wasn’t something more serious like a medical condition or a weird living situation ex she is houseless/homeless. Not all homeless are beggers living on the streets.

  16. I'm Not Phyllis*

    I’m always worried this is me, too. A little bit of paranoia maybe? I shower daily and I use deodorant (for the past few months I’ve been using the waterproof, clinical strength stuff) and soap and all the stuff, but I had this issue with a co-worker a few years ago and it’s made me hyper aware of it.

    Which is why I think it’s important to have this talk with your secretary sooner rather than later. It’s awful to think that his/her coworkers are whispering about this, especially if there might be something that can be done about it.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Americans (and maybe also Canadians? I don’t know for sure) are also far more aware of body odor than people in other countries, which I suspect is why so many of us are responding to this letter with paranoia about our own odor.

      1. Rayner*

        I noticed this. In the UK, it’s not uncommon to not shower every single day – I shower between 3 and 5 times a week depending on the season and the weather (unless it’s a special occasion or high summer in which case you can’t get me out of the shower), and nobody’s ever noticed anything different. Talking about it with friends and other people and they seem to be about the same, maybe a little more or less. Good application of deodorant, perfumes/aftershaves, and not eating garlic if it’s a skip day, and all seems to be fine.

        Maybe we’re just not as fascinated by it as Americans?

        1. Allison*

          American here, through high school and good chunk of college (especially freshman year, with those communal bathrooms) I only showered every other day. Definitely not normal and not something I was open about, but until I think junior or senior year of college I just didn’t always see the need for a shower every single day. My hair was clean, I was wearing deodorant, and changing clothes as needed, I didn’t think I smelled bad and no one said anything* so I just went with it. Then at some point I started to feel nasty if I didn’t shower every day, and now the only time I might skip a shower is when I’m sick.

          *this is key here, no one said anything. If someone (friend, parent, roommate) had told me I smelled bad I may have been mortified but I would have started showering more frequently.

          1. Rayner*

            I can’t shower every day – my hair turns into straw and I can’t afford to spend money on toiletries that fast. Which is a shame, because I have raspberry milkshake flavoured shower gel and every time I use it I want to take a bite out myself, it’s that good.

            Like you in high school and college, it’s more about if your hair looks clean, you wear deodorant, wear clean clothes and make sure you’re not wandering around in last night’s make up, I don’t see the problem.

            I suppose it’s all about where you work too – that changes a lot.

            1. Allison*

              Well even when I started showering daily I wasn’t washing my hair every day, to me that’s an optional activity and it’s really easy to put on a shower cap or clip your hair away from your face to avoiding getting it wet. I still only wash it every other day, and use dry shampoo on the “off” days as needed.

            2. dancer*

              When people say shower, do they mean wash hair and body? I shower everyday, but I definitely don’t wash my hair everyday. I just tilt my head out of the way so it doesn’t get wet.

            3. Elizabeth West*

              Same here, with the straw hair. I color mine and only wash it twice a week. It gets conditioned every day, and then I use conditioning spray to detangle and a light application of moroccan oil on the wet ends. Once a week, a long (hour or two) soak with coconut oil. It’s not as dry now.

              I do wash additionally if it looks greasy or gets dirty. But that’s rare–usually I’m just at work.

              1. Kelly L.*

                For me, 80% of the point of shampooing is the conditioning. Some days I don’t even use shampoo below the roots–it’s dry as a bone the rest of the way down. But conditioner is a lifesaver. It’s basically hair lubricant for me. :D I can go one day without a shower–sometimes do on a Sunday–but two days without a shower renders my hair completely unbrushable/uncombable until I get it wet again and apply conditioner.

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  I can’t style my hair unless it’s wet, so it’s a morning shower for me. The only exception to the style rule is when I curl it with the flatiron, and I don’t blow dry, so I have to wash it in the morning and let it air dry before I can do that. I only do it for a big date or event or a skate show, which is typically later in the day anyway.

        2. Ad Astra*

          I’ve always showered daily because I sweat easily (and have always lived in places with very hot summers) and have fine, straight hair that really can’t afford to skip even one wash. And I’ve been known to shower twice in a day if I decide to work out in the evening. I think in America the expectation is typically to shower every day (sometimes excluding weekends), though a lot of people don’t wash their hair daily.

          It’s also very easy to sell an average American any kind of product to cover up or eliminate any kind of body odor. Febreze, Poo-pourri, scented tampons, post-workout wipes, odor-eating shoe inserts, you name it.

        3. Elizabeth West*

          I’ve gone a day without showering, if I am at home, and I showered but didn’t do anything strenuous the day before. If I’m going anywhere, like to work or to the store, I HAVE to shower and shave because I’m paranoid that my pits will stink if I don’t shave them. Seriously–if I shave in the morning, I’m prickly again by nightfall. Plus, it’s itchy.

          In the winter, I don’t shave my legs as much because my bathroom is cold and I just want to wash and get the hell out of there. I wish the hair on my head grew as fast as the hair on my legs! I don’t wash my hair every day, but I condition it daily and so it gets rinsed out pretty well.

  17. Squirrel*

    I agree with Alison that you should definitely confirm for yourself that this is truly happening, and isn’t just people being malicious. I’ve brought it up in the comments of these articles before, but I was the target of a “you stink” anonymous letter from a “friend” at work several years ago. My group had just gotten back from the larger department’s holiday party from across town, and someone had managed to get into my cube before me and put a letter on my desk, telling me that they were “concerned” because I smelled bad and therefore needed to shower more.

    Now, please believe me when I say that I definitely did not (and do not) stink. I shower regularly, I use deodorant, I brush my teeth and use mouthwash, and I launder my clothes regularly. I also have friends and family members (and my husband at the time) who would definitely tell me if there was an issue with my body odor! I had to spend the rest of the day completely depressed and alienated, after a really fun party. I never trusted any of those co-workers again, and I immediately started applying for jobs to get out of there. They lost a very valuable employee (as I was one of the few people who actually did work) because someone wanted to be an asshole.

    1. Biff*

      It’s worth it to have someone with a good sniffer do this chore — I’ve worked with several people that wouldn’t have noticed if someone came in skunked. The whole rest of the office would be dying, but this person would have insisted nothing smelled bad to them.

  18. simonthegrey*

    My mom had to have this conversation more than once with my sister’s guy friends in high school. I don’t know if their own parents didn’t talk to them about hygiene, or if it just stuck better coming from the mom of a girl you like, but I lost count of how many of these young guys mom would take aside and kindly tell them that they needed to step up their hygiene, brush their teeth, and use deodorant.

  19. T*

    I remember the Manager Tools podcast talking about this topic years ago and they suggested using the term “scent” instead of odor. Then you can initially be a little more generic about it instead of saying “you need to bath more” which is a tough thing to say to another adult.

    1. Rayner*

      I wouldn’t dance around it though – you want to explicitly point out that this person doesn’t just have a scent about them, like lavender or fresh laundry smell. It’s a unpleasant smell or odor, of unwashed body and stale BO or whatever and by hiding it in words it gives the smell-er the wrong impression, like it’s not that bad.

      If you lay it out there – “I’m sorry to have to say this, but you have XYZ odor about you,” it leaves no room for misinterpretation.

      1. Charby*

        Agreed. There’s a tough balancing act between tactfulness and directness. You don’t want to be rude, but you don’t want to leave the person feeling confused if you were criticizing them or flirting with them.

    2. Biff*

      The trouble with “you need to bathe more” is that bathing might not be the issue or the solution. Some other possible causes:

      1. Poor housekeeping, including not changing sheets, towels enough, or not doing laundry properly.
      2. Living with ill family memebers (including pets) especially incontinent ones.
      3. Living with babies (sorry, the diaper pail odor clings!)
      4. Plumbing issues. (Had a friend with rankest water I’d ever encountered…. I wouldn’t drink it, but they didn’t seem to notice.)
      5. Mold or mildew issues at home (not always a result of poor housekeeping)
      6. Medical issues (though most medical issues that cause a smell can be mitigated through bathing or taking better care of your health.)
      7. Alcohol or drug issues.

      1. Biff*

        I’d also like to add that if someone has a medical issue, that’s not necessarily the end of the story. If the smell is s a strong indication that they are not handling the medical issue properly, or perhaps not addressing it at all, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for management to say that they need to take care of the issue before returning to work.

        Like this “Belinda, we really appreciate that you have been a dedicated employee despite health concerns, but the smell of your festering foot is causing our reputation as an upscale dining establishment to falter. We need you to take the next two weeks to get this issue addressed by your doctor and the odor under control.”

      2. fposte*

        Sure, it might not fix it. But it’s the place where you start. This doesn’t have to be the only conversation you ever have, and it doesn’t have to cover all eventualities.

        1. Biff*

          Hmm… this is probably just a variance on delivery, but I’d rather cover a lot of ground in the initial meeting instead of having a lot of followup emails/meetings. I feel like otherwise you might spend a lot of time having back and forth with the employee otherwise.

          1. Biff*

            Wow… cannot type today. Sorry about that. What I mean is that some employees might say “well, i’m bathing more, but the smell is still here, so I guess we just have to live with it.” Covering a lot of possibilities in the first week means that you don’t end up backed into a corner.

            1. fposte*

              Nope. You don’t want this to be a long meeting the first time you have the conversation, because it’s going to be really horrible for the employee. And there’s no corner to be backed in–you’re not swearing that it’ll be okay if they take a shower, and you’re not swearing to everybody else that the problem will go away. It doesn’t give them any special leverage if showering doesn’t do it, and it’s a logical first step.

  20. MashaKasha*

    I have a personal story to add about the last paragraph of the article, the “cultural” part. Would be curious to know what others think. Many years ago, during my on-call week, I came down with a horrendous cold. That was back in the day, when it wasn’t yet acceptable or expected to WFH when you’re sick in case you might be contagious, so I had no choice but to come in to work every day and use whatever meds and home remedies I could get my hands on. Now a home remedy that works best for me, happens to be garlic. You see where I’m heading with this? Now I was super careful about this. I’d sneak off to a locker room with my clove of garlic, a toothbrush, and a tube of toothpaste, and eat my clove of garlic in there. I would then brush my teeth 100x times before leaving the locker room. Little did I know that the smell clung to my clothes and everyone in the office could smell it. Found out by accident when a work friend mentioned it in passing a few weeks later.

    I asked her, “why didn’t any of you guys say anything to me?” and she said, “well we thought it was cultural”. It was our sixth year working together; why they all thought it had suddenly become cultural for me to smell of garlic, after five years of not smelling like it, I will never know.

    Anyway I was mortified, and would have appreciated if someone had said anything to me on the first day I tried that. I would’ve totally taken it well and looked for other cold remedies to use during workday. Of course, we were a very tight-knit team where everyone had worked well together and friendships had formed, which might be different from your average office environment, and would have made it easier for me to take that kind of feedback.


    1. fposte*

      My main thought is that I’m surprised it didn’t occur to you that garlic would make you smell; it’s pretty much famous for that. I doubt I’d have said anything to somebody I worked with either, to be honest.

      1. MashaKasha*

        Yeah I guess because most of those coworkers were good friends (and still are, almost ten years after I left the company), I felt that I would’ve appreciated it if they’d said something. I agree with you that to say it to just any coworker is not the same thing.

        I honestly thought it only made your breath smell bad. My mistake.

        1. fposte*

          I love garlic in spicy V8 when I have a cold, so I get your inclination. But I know that I will not be greeted warmly by people standing near me.

    2. Koko*

      I don’t think it was clinging to your clothes from the brief exposure in the bathroom – it was coming out of your pores because you ate it. Brushing your teeth or eating it in a remote location don’t make a difference for that.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I think it actually comes out your lungs through your blood too, which is one reason you can smell it the next day if someone eats a really garlicky dinner the night before.

    3. Menacia*

      I don’t know, smelling like garlic is really kind of normal in a work environment, especially after eating lunch, people here regularly have garlic, onions, etc., but they usually announce it in an apologetic way. Thankfully, we don’t have any “close talkers” here. We did have one guy who had the worse breath, I mean if he were a super hero and that would have been his super power it was that bad! Like a beam of stench every time he opened his mouth. I could always tell when it was really bad because our manager, who would be sitting about four feet away from him he was talking to her, would put her hand up to her nose very nonchalantly (though not so that I didn’t notice). He woke up one day with the worst pain of his life and went to the dentist who pulled out I can only imagine the most disgusting rotted dentalia ever. He even told me he had a problem with that tooth for a while, but that one day it became unbearable….WTF? His breath has improved, but it’s still got it’s funky days. I notice also, even though he’s a tiny guy (short and thin) and works out, he’s only ever eating Ritz crackers, pretzels, or chocolate candy…can’t imagine that being very good for the teeth!

    4. Ad Astra*

      Garlic isn’t what most of us want to smell like all day, but it’s definitely not the most offensive odor out there. If I were your coworker, I would have assumed you’d been eating or cooking with a lot of garlic recently, and I probably wouldn’t say anything, even if I thought it was a little weird. Or, if we were close, I might have said after Day 2 or 3, “Hey, I notice you smell kind of garlicky… what’s up with that?” But I definitely would be less bothered by a garlic smell emanating from my coworker than the smell of BO, urine, feces, vomit, or other such gross things.

    5. Omne*

      Brushing doesn’t help. The main chemical involved, allyl methyl sulfide, is absorbed into the bloodstream and passes through the pores in sweat and, more importantly, into the air in your lungs. That’s why even with brushing your breath will still smell like garlic. It can take up to two days for the smell to disappear for some people. If my wife has anything with garlic in it I can smell it on her breath for at least two days. Since there’s nothing she can do except quit eating anything with garlic I’ve never really mentioned it as a problem.

  21. Allison*

    I’m really paranoid about the way I smell. I wasn’t always like this, but there was a “switch” moment in college and ever since then, it’s been something I’m hyper aware of. Can I wear these jeans again? I know I just washed them but I did a lot of walking around yesterday, what if they smell? Do I need another shower? Is my breath okay? What about my hair, do I need dry shampoo? Is this perfume going to be too strong? I’ll put on a clean shirt, and then go somewhere, and when I get there I’ll worry that in getting there I’ll have made myself smelly.

    I’d want people to tell me if I smelled bad, or if my perfume/deodorant/body mist/scented lotion was bothering them. Really, I would, and I think most people would want to know if their smell is bothering people.

  22. Knitting Cat Lady*

    When I was at University (in Germany, btw) I overheard this:

    Guy 1: Oh god, you stink! Do you ever shower?!
    Guy 2: I took a shower this morning…
    Guy 1: That is useless if you don’t put on clean clothes as well, you donkey!

    Over here smellyness is a gender and generational thing. Most women don’t smell. Most men younger than 55 don’t smell. Men over that age can be really smelly, because in their time a real man didn’t use any toiletries besides soap, shampoo, shaving cream and maybe after shave. Nothing else. And in their time a real man smelled musky. Yeah.

    The older engineers in my office can be a bit much in the summer.

    And since air conditioning is a pretty rare thing everyone smells at the end of the day in summer.

    Another thing I noticed: Synthetic fibers don’t let go of smells. The longer you have them, the worse they smell, even if you wash them after every time you wear them.

    I stick to cotton shirts and blouses. Those get clean when you wash them!

  23. AcidMeFlux*

    FYI y’all Buzzfeed has a ton of laundry hacks, wardrobe hacks, etc… that can help someone figure out this stuff, at least for young’ns on their first jobs.

  24. VictoriaHR*

    We had this happen with a factory employee once. When the branch manager brought it up, she said she was aware, and that it’s a medical issue, and she has prescription deodorant from the doctor, but it still isn’t enough. We felt terrible for her and tried to appease her coworkers while respecting her privacy and supporting her.

  25. Menacia*

    The days I hate are those where I take a shower, but the shower doesn’t really “take” and/or I forget to put on deodorant. I am not stinky by nature, I don’t think. Thankfully I’m not a cheerleader who is raising her arms all day long, so it’s not very noticeable when I keep my arms down at my sides all day. Though I still do swing them when I walk… ;) I would think, given my office and the overtly personal nature of some people, that if I stunk, someone would have brought it to my attention. We even have a woman here, who after using the gym, will just change back into her work clothes and laugh about her sweaty ass….! How lucky am I?

  26. LCL*

    I have posted about this before.
    I know a man who was spoken to about his alleged odor. Turns out the complainer was 1 employee, and she had complained about every male who had to work in that area (he was the 3rd). In municipal employment sometimes managers won’t tell employees to shut up and deal, even though they should.

  27. Biff*

    Chiming in on the off-chance that this helps someone else:

    I found out I was allergic to certain man-made fibers when I realized I smelled dreadful after wearing certain clothes. I could be clean, the clothes could be clean, but by the end of the day, neither of us smelled good.

  28. The Bimmer Guy*

    Great answer, Alison. Yes, it’s awkward, but it needs to be addressed. However, it should be done in a compassionate manner. And hopefully, this is a legitimate complaint and not the result of some kind of pettiness or group bullying…because then you have bigger problems.

  29. Blurgle*

    I have handled this twice in the past. In one case the person had no idea they needed to use deodorant because their mother had considered it an unintelligent waste of money* and they’d never seen it around the house; in the other, the person had a diminished sense of smell.

    * There is actually a genetic trait that affects this. Those who carry two variants of the ABCC11 gene don’t have stinky armpits; for them, deodorant really is an unintelligent waste of money.

  30. Rachel Talada*

    Oh THIS issue. I worked somehwere where I was second in command. My boss, a male, stated that he and another employee, also a male, could no longer tolerate the “hygiene issue” our female employee had. He asked me to talk to her about it. Well, to tell the truth, I NEVER thought she had an issue and I refused! My boss was upset, but I felt like if I didn’t notice the issue….then I didn’t have anything to address….I feel slightly vindicated by thos article. THANKS!

  31. Artemesia*

    I have had to address this with international employees which made it doubly awkward. I am convinced the two issues are: infrequent bathing and poor laundry. Several of the women I had to deal with over the years wore satin and other difficult to launder blouses; they were pretty and appropriate for the workplace but needed to be dry cleaned. Add that to the failure to bathe or use deodorent and it was a real problem. The men tended to use heavy scents but not bathe.

    So my little talk had to involve a thing on the American culture’s love of daily showers, the purpose and need to use deodorant on clean skin after bathing or washing and the important of clean underclothing daily and frequent washing of clothing. Not a fun conversation at all but usually effective.

  32. Kathryn T.*

    This is an excellent script for a delicate situation. I am an, er, more fragrant person by nature (unlike my husband who virtually never smells bad, even after a 13 mile bike ride in the summer heat) and I find that the only thing that works for me is men’s gel deodorant. Don’t know why, but it really is radically more effective for whatever is making me stink.

    I have a friend, though, who was hounded out of a job because of repeated complaints about her body odor. She was meticulous about her hygiene, showered daily, freshened up at lunch, but the complaints continued. The (nasty and infuriating) truth was that she didn’t smell at all — she was black, and her co-workers were racists. This was almost twenty years ago and I’m still furious that her managers would rather address the non-existent issue of her supposed odor than the quite obvious reality of her co-workers’ bigotry.

  33. Kelly*

    I have two employees – in the front office – one deals with guests and other employees the other deals with employees and sometimes guests – both have rotting teeth. Neither of them can possibly be flossing every day and smelling like that. It smells of rotting flesh. One person even went out of the office one day and vomited in a garbage can. I have had to make a fast exit more than once because I started dry heaving.

    I’ve talked to both girls and one said she has “pyreah of the gums” and that it’s hereditary. I know her mother and her mother’s teeth are fine. So I suspect she just doesn’t want to floss. The other girl said she is just waiting to be able to afford dentures (she’s only 40) and just tries to cover the smell with air freshener.

    It’s appalling to me that even after being told that neither of these women care to go to the dentist. We have a dental care benefit and both of these ladies make plenty of money to afford cleanings. Priorities are so screwed up. I would be mortified.

    1. BananaPants*

      Pyorrhea of the gums is periodontal disease, which can be hereditary. I’ll gently point out that just because you know the woman’s mother doesn’t mean that she couldn’t have inherited it from her father, or it could be that her mother’s case is less severe or better-controlled than hers. There’s a lot more involved than a simple cleaning to treat periodontal disease. Root planing and scaling is usually needed to help control periodontitis, and due to the pain and need for local anesthesia many patients have to break planing and scaling up into multiple visits to cover the whole mouth. These special cleanings usually have to happen quarterly. I know for a fact that my dental plan would not cover planing and scaling, as it’s not “preventative”.

      I had some breath odor issues nearly 3 years ago – I developed a gum abscess around my dental implant, which progressed down to bone involvement very quickly. I was also pregnant so the periodontist had to be careful in treating it; I was on several rounds of antibiotics before the infection was suppressed enough that he could open up the gums and debride the bone around the implant. I was brushing and flossing religiously and using prescription mouthwashes, but none of it could prevent that smell and I was so mortified. I tried gum and mints to help mask the odor but it’s just a bandaid. I eventually stopped speaking up as much in meetings. It was awful.

      I would hate to think that those around me thought I was just lazy with my dental hygiene or had the wrong priorities with my personal finances, when in fact I was spending quite a lot of time in the dentist’s chair having pretty painful things done to me.

    2. fposte*

      And you can get it even if you floss, and once you’ve got it, flossing it isn’t likely to be enough to fix it, so I wouldn’t assume that they’re not flossing.

  34. SPS*

    I manager a team and am moving in a little over a month out of state; I’ll continue to manage them remotely. What do you think is the best way to broach the topic if someone brings a body odor issue to your attention but you just AREN’T physically there to say you noticed it yourself?

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