my boss told me that I smell

A reader writes:

I recently started a position and my boss just called me in for a meeting that was really embarrassing: My boss told me that someone in the office had told them I had body odor. My boss told me that this wasn’t something they had noticed, so maybe it was just an odd, one day that had happened where I was particularly sweaty or something, but they thought I should know so I could do whatever I felt needed to be done.

I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been told this before. I don’t know the people at my new job well. Now I’m afraid that they’re talking with each other about me behind my back. To make things worse, I do have a private, embarrassing medical condition that, among other (more serious) things, might actually cause me to smell, one that I until now hoped wasn’t doing anything noticeable. I’ve received treatment and lots of (sometimes conflicting) medical advice for it over the years but it hasn’t been resolved and might not ever be resolved, so as I’ve struggled with it, I’ve just hoped that I don’t … stink. But has my medical condition been acting up all along in a way that people notice but don’t say anything about? Did my boss actually notice and was trying to avoid me getting mad at them by not saying they’d noticed? Was it not my medical condition and I was just particularly sweaty one day like my boss said? If it wasn’t a regular thing, do I have coworkers who would really go to my boss over one day?

I bought new deodorant and threw out some clothes that don’t handle sweat as well as others because those are things I can control, but I don’t know if that’s the problem. I just want to hide in the shower and cry. I don’t want to face my coworkers anymore and I don’t know what to do if my boss calls me in again.

I’m sorry this is happening! If your boss really thought it might have been a single-day problem, they shouldn’t have bothered with this conversation; it doesn’t make sense to mortify someone and cause this kind of distress for something that’s not an ongoing problem. That means it might be more ongoing than your boss indicated, but it could also just mean your boss doesn’t have good judgment.

Is there someone in your personal life who you trust to give you an honest answer about whether there is indeed a smell issue? It can be hard to figure out this kind of thing yourself, which then of course leaves you in this awful “do I or don’t I?” limbo. So getting a straight answer from a friend or family member could set your mind at ease (regardless of what they tell you, since there might be relief in just knowing with more certainty what is or isn’t happening).

Beyond that, it makes sense to do all the things you’d normally do if you were trying to deal with a possible odor problem: ensuring you’re showering daily and washing your clothes regularly, making sure your towels are fresh enough and your dryer is fully drying your clothes ( to avoid mildew), and maybe even considering a clinical strength deodorant if you think that would help.

If you feel confident in those areas but are still concerned, you could go back to your boss and explain that you’ve taken a number of steps since your conversation, but that you do have a medical condition that can sometimes cause body odor. You can say, “I’m doing everything I can to avoid it, but I wanted to let you know there’s a medical cause so I might not be able to stamp it out completely.”

If you feel weird about saying that now when you didn’t say it initially … well, first, very few people react perfectly when pulled into that particular conversation without warning! You were caught off-guard, and it’s perfectly understandable that you didn’t want to start talking about a private medical condition off the cuff and with no time to think. It’s so understandable that I don’t think you even need to acknowledge that you didn’t mention it earlier. But if you want to, you can say, “I was caught off-guard when we talked initially and this is of course something I feel private about, but I realized afterward that I need to give you that context.”

You can also say, “I’d appreciate if it you didn’t share that with others since it’s private medical info” if you do need indeed feel that way. It’s also okay if you’d rather your boss be able to to deal with any future concerns from coworkers by just explaining it’s linked to a medical condition. In fact, it’s worth deciding how you feel about that before this conversation so you can give clear instructions about it.

About facing your coworkers … If your coworkers have seemed more or less like kind people up until now, I would assume that whoever talked to your boss did so because it wasn’t something they felt they could address on their own (reasonably so — it’s an awkward conversation under the best of circumstances). It probably wasn’t in a gossipy way.

And if it helps, generally when people encounter a coworker who smells, they’re not thinking “ugh, she’s disgusting!” They’re thinking, “Oh — she doesn’t realize.” We all stink at times! We’re human, we have bodies, they smell various ways. You’re doing what you can do to mitigate it, like we all do, but there are limits on that.

The more matter-of-fact you can be in your own thinking about it — which I know is hard — the more comfortable you’ll hopefully feel.

{ 241 comments… read them below }

  1. Laundress*

    I don’t know how helpful this will be, but instead of throwing out clothes you can try laundry stripping. You soak clothes, towels, sheets, etc. in hot water and Tide, borax, and washing soda for several hours and then run through the washing machine and dryer as you normally would.

    1. many bells down*

      I thought you were supposed to wash them first, then do the stripping, then a rinse cycle?

    2. Amanda*

      Tide has an amazing product called One Wash Miracle than you can only buy online. It’s pricey but does an amazing job and is only for occasional use!

      1. Not A Girl Boss*

        We have recently become obsessed with Rockin Green Activewear laundry soap (Amazon) for getting things extremely clean. I use it on everything, not just active wear, because it works so great. It even gets the smell out of dog blankets. And grease/oil out of my husband’s work clothes.

        I don’t think it’s ideal for laundry stripping – agree with something like One Wash Miracle or a vinegar & Dawn soak for that. But I have noticed that smells and sweat stains no longer slowly build up over time since switching to it.

        1. Queen Anon*

          Does it work for kitchen towels and dish cloths? Because that would be amazing! (And then I wouldn’t have a cow every time I found some in the laundry after I’ve already run the washer….)

        2. Lizzo*

          Second this stuff—I use it for stinky running clothes specifically. If extra stinky, you can soak things before running the wash.

        3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          But the whole point for OP is not that she can’t get the smell out, but that WHILE SHE IS WEARING THE GARMENT it may smell.

        1. Coppertina*

          Once a quarter, I run all our towels through one wash cycle with a cup of white vinegar, then a second cycle with regular detergent. Musty-smelling towels smell great!

    3. I'm just here for the cats!*

      I think LW mean t that they got rid of the clothes that dont do well for smells, not that the clothes themselves smell. Some fabrics can make you sweat more and can cause more smell.

      1. biobotb*

        Some fabrics also just hold onto smells, so no matter how recently they’ve been washed, they start smelling immediately upon wearing.

      2. Roeslein*

        Exactly, my first piece of advice would be to get rid of synthetics and wear natural fibers (cotton, linen, silk and wool) as these are much less likely to result in nasty smells – but of course they are also more expensive so this might be a longer-term process: every time you replace a synthetic piece, get something made of natural fibers instead. I’ve mostly stopped wearing synthetics and this was definitely a big consideration (I don’t have health issues but I try to avoid using antiperspirant every day.)

    4. Not A Girl Boss*

      Eh, there are some clothes that just aren’t worth the hassle of continuously washing the heck out of. The worst being my fleece Patagonia zip up – I always think I’ve finally gotten it clean with an 8 part wash ritual, only to have it start to stink after I’ve worn it for an hour and my body heat starts to release the stored BO.

      My only point being, that it feels like a pretty good sanity-saving step if LW wants to just was her hands (hah) of difficult fabrics.

      1. Tasha*

        My son loves his patagonia zip up hoodie but can only wear it for a day before it needs washing. It takes Shout in the armpits, Biz plus Tide, then febreze before drying. A lot of effort for one wear.

        1. Not A Girl Boss*

          Lol ugh. Guess I’m glad I’m not the only one. Honestly I would have tossed it forever ago but it was so expensive and it’s so perfect for hikes…

          1. Lizzo*

            Do you have any idea what the specific component is in the fabric that is causing this funky reaction? I have some clothes with similar issues but I haven’t been able to pinpoint the problem yet…

            1. The Rural Juror*

              So much fleece out there in the world is synthetic, so that might be part of the problem. Patagonia uses recycled polyester. Certain odors might cling to the fibers of the fabric. Maybe try some of the detergents people mentioned above to try and release the smells. Good luck!

            2. Quill*

              From a chemical standpoint, polyester is exactly what it says on the tin: multiple (poly) chained organic hydroxides (esters) that have a habit of clinging to other organic molecules… which include aromatic compounds, lipids from sweat, and other esters, some of which are also smell chemicals.

              As a polyester breaks down (and it will) it’s going to release some of it’s esters too, so expect the funk to increase with age (and UV and heat exposure) even with a strict washing and drying regimen.

            3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              It’s mostly made of downcycled plastic bottles. So everyone thought “great, a recycled product” but it still contributes to ocean sludge that asphyxiates fish, even more so because the sludge mainly comes from particles released during washing cycles. The complex kind of cycles people are describing here are ideal for releasing ever greater amounts. So it’s a total eco-disaster as well as making us smell bad, even if they are great because of being lightweight and warm and soft and fluffy.

    5. Brioche*

      This is more of a maintenance routine, I’ve also had great luck with washing my clothes in pure castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s. I use it on my activewear and it gets the smells right out.

    6. Ana Gram*

      I just did this on my sheets and they’re noticeably cleaner now- and I thought they were clean before!

    7. Jennifer in FL*

      I was going to suggest stripping her laundry, too.
      GoCleanCo on Instagram has a whole stripping tutorial that is very easy to follow.

    8. Liz*

      First – LW, you are great for sharing such a personal question.
      Second – I’m so happy we have a laundry thread here. (Perhaps another ask a clean person cross over?)
      Third – A lot of technical fabric and polyester just holds smells. Agree. Another option is to try Dr Bronners for those fabrics and then dry by hand.
      I have running clothes and work out gear that sometimes smelled worse after laundry than before going in. Air drying is key, but Dr Bronner is awesome too.
      Thanks again for your openness.

    9. Sam I Am*

      In case you’re using community machines: I use distilled white vinegar in place of liquid fabric softener in the wash cycle ( my mom uses it in the dryer, she heavily sprays a clean rag with vinegar and tosses it in the dryer load) and this gets all the smells out. The vinegar smell burns off in the dryer with either method. Cheap and easy.

      1. The Rural Juror*

        Good tip! I’ve been putting vinegar in with my sweaters in the wash, because they don’t go in the dryer, and it helps them to not be so static-y. But I’ve never heard of spraying a towel with vinegar. Thanks!

    10. The Sweat Struggle Is Real*

      I’ve never heard of laundry stripping! I sweat a lot (especially under stress) and it’s very persistent in my clothing—if I don’t pre-treat, it gets BAD. I started treating my shirts by soaking in a water and unscented Oxyclean bath before regular washing (half a scoop in a half bathtub of water, 15-30 mins). That’s taken care of it for the most part, but I’m interested in the process you mentioned.

      For non-washable clothes like wool coats and pleather jackets, I learned of a tip that’s really helped: odor spray for pet messes. I use one with enzymes (OUT! Stain & Odor Remover) and it really gets rid of the sweaty armpit smell—it keeps me from having to dry-clean every 2 weeks. I only use it on the lining, not the wool itself, so your mileage may vary with delicate fibers.

  2. Mel_05*

    It’s possible your boss doesn’t notice smells much. Or, that it isn’t noticeable to most people, but you have one coworker with a sensitive nose.

    My office had a somewhat similar situation and I just couldn’t smell what they were talking about. A few other coworkers knew about the smell, but it didn’t bother them at all. A few others knew, were bothered, but would rather die than bring the subject up with anyone.

    In another situation, only one coworker could smell anything and the rest of us had no idea what they were talking about.

    1. Audrey Puffins*

      And let’s not forget the classic letter here, where the complainer turned out to have a heightened sense of smell because she was pregnant (and hadn’t realised until the LW asked her to lay off)!

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        My mind went to that specific instance as well. It was a “Is one of your coworkers pregnant by chance?”

        But I’ve also had super-smellers with sensitive noses in my life and used to work directly with them as a client base. So they do exist but most of them understand that and would never bring it up, unless they were simply asking for accommodation if you were say sat directly by someone and it’s not a “They smell bad” it’s a “my nose is sensitive and the scent is distracting.” kind of thing.

      2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

        I have a heightened sense of smell due to I-don’t-know-what, maybe it just varies from person to person and I got lucky (or more likely, unlucky) on the spectrum — it definitely isn’t due to pregnancy in my case, especially as it’s been a constant thing for many years, although I do find it’s even more acute than usual with particular hormones at times.

        As such I’m often bothered in the office by various smells of, not really sweat and body odour which I can accept as normal, but stuff like really smelly food being eaten at desks, belching and other bodily ‘outputs’, stale sweat that has started to rot into clothes, horrible smells circulating in air conditioning, etc. (I can “smell things in my head” (the way that other people remember an image of something) — is that common?) To the degree that I’ve actually dry-heaved a few times in response to something particularly disgusting, and of course tried to hide it!

        I also have “radar ears” where I’m more sensitive to sound than the average person and can hear most of a conversation a distance away where other people can just see people talking! I’m almost 40 and have the hearing of a 25 year old… based on those tests…

        I wonder if, as the co-worker with the ‘sensitive nose’ I should be accommodated when no-one else is bothered by it? I genuinely don’t know now.

        1. Alex*

          I’m the same! I think it’s genetic, my whole family is just like this, for better of for worse. Great & detail oriented in the kitchen but sometimes makes public spaces unbearable. It was wild to me when I first started dating my boyfriend that he wasn’t bothered by the faint traces of bleach in the bathroom or sweat on sports clothes after a wash, until he explained he literally could not smell them at all.

        2. juliebulie*

          I can “smell things in my head” and even taste things in my head. I don’t know if this is common, or uncommon, or what, but you’re not alone!

          1. allathian*

            Me too! I love being able to imagine what freshly-fallen snow smells like in the middle of summer, and what freshly-mown grass smells like in the middle of winter.

            1. Scarlet*

              Speaking as someone who generally can’t smell much – this is wild to me. You can smell snow?!

              1. Metadata minion*

                I can too! It’s sort of a…metallic smell, to me? Kind of like petrichor (the smell of soil after a rain) but cleaner.

                1. Oodles of Noodles*

                  YES! That’s exactly what it smells like to me. Hello fellow super sniffers!
                  Strong senses of hearing and smell are wonderful for reconstructing recipes from memory, but not so good when there’s traces of ick about. Like the others though, regular people smells are just par for the course. I’d only say something if a person’s smell changed or if they smelled unwell or particularly sweaty.

            2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              You folks should perhaps look into a career as a Nose: Dior and YSL shell out LOTS of money to have such people working on their perfumes.

        3. TardyTardis*

          Have you ever considered becoming a wine or food critic? The very best ones have that kind of memory (like Robert Parker, Wine Lord for the NY Times, if I am remembering things right0.

    2. Kella*

      Came here to say this! Just because the smell bothered one person doesn’t mean that it has been bothering everyone you’ve ever interacted with and they’ve all been lying to you. It’s much more likely that this one person is sensitive and/or that one day was particularly bad for random understandable reasons. Smell is a very subjective thing.

    3. Judy*

      Just throwing in that I have a “super sniffer” and can sometimes smell things other people can’t. So totally possible it’s only one person noticing and being bothered. I would feel super awkward and horrible about “reporting” this kind of thing, but I wouldn’t be able to concentrate if I had to sit with, or spend a lot of time with, someone whose smell bothered me.

      I use all unscented body products specifically because I don’t want my smell to bother anyone else (my sensitive nose makes me paranoid).

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        Yeah, I have a really sensitive sense of smell. I probably won’t complain about a coworkers’ smell, though, because I’d assume it’s a problem with my strong nose and not their strong smell!

    4. KR*

      Yes – my husband cannot smell damp towels. I have to tell him that his towels are ready for the laundry hamper. I feel for the roommates he had in the past because his towels stink to high heaven! But my dad has such a strong sense of smell (partly because of medications he is on) he can clearly smell scented products and uses “Free and clear” everything in his home because otherwise it’s unbearable for him. A one time smell could be anything really could be the issue or it could be an issue with the smeller. One thing I recommend is washing your shoes! They can harbor odors.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        or just put sodium bicarbonate in them: it absorbs all smells. It can also be used mixed into coconut oil as a deodorant.

    5. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Another classic possibility is that a co-worker does not like something that you do like. Patchouli has had strong opinions here. Mentholated pain-killing creams like BenGay were vocally disliked by some people I used to know.

      1. Alice's Rabbit*

        I cannot stand most artificial scents. Not a dislike, but an actual, throat-closing allergy. Unfortunately, a lot of people who don’t have sensitive noses practically bathe in these scents, thinking it helps them avoid BO. In reality, everyone can still smell the body odor; it’s just drwoned in overpowering body sprays, colognes, perfumes, and lotions.

        1. TardyTardis*

          Sistah! I was ok with most of such things for decades till the Unfortunate Encounter With Lice Shampoo which made me quite ill for weeks, but after all, I became allergic to artificial scents. Farewell, Lysol, hello vinegar and baking soda…

      2. Keymaster of Gozer*

        One coworker was so nauseous from the slightest hint of incense smell that even trace amounts in my hair after I’d burned some at home would set her off.

        She moved desks in the end. I had different clothes for work that didn’t come near the incense but I couldn’t wash my hair every morning (washed rest of me! Also with unscented stuff). Not her fault she felt sick of course!

      3. IT Heathen*

        This was a huge issue in my old office. I have fibromyalgia and used to use icy hot when I hurt at night. Even after showering the next morning my co-worker could smell it.

      4. Quill*

        Menthol can send my brother running for the hills from ten yards away.

        We’ve got a variety of smell problems in the family but that one in particular wins for the most dramatic.

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Oh OP, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I would feel the same way in your position.

    The only additional advice I would add to Alison’s is that if there is a coworker you feel more comfortable with, perhaps you could have a private conversation with them and explain that boss brought it to your attention, you’re working on it, but there is a medical issue at play and could you two work out some kind of signal?

    This obviously requires you to make yourself more vulnerable, so I understand if you don’t want to take that route, but it is something to consider. In one former workplace, I had a teammate who would take walks on her lunch break and would always ask this other teammate of ours if she smelled bad when she returned.

    1. Secretary*

      I was going to say something similar, so I’ll add this kind of conversation can be less awkward if you sound really confident. Like, with a coworker you’re comfortable with you can be like, “Yo. Crazy thing, Jane pulled me into her office and told me someone complained that I smell!! But then said she didn’t notice anything?? so I’m kind of trying to figure out what’s up. Would you be willing to be real with me here, do I wreak?!?!” Whatever they say you can be like, “Wow, yeah I have a medical condition that makes this happen sometimes so I’m extra paranoid/so I’m glad you’re telling me.”

    2. Not A Girl Boss*

      Yes, I like this idea. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this situation is my actual nightmare, so I TOTALLY GET if you don’t want to open yourself up to more conversation about it. But honestly, I think not knowing is so much worse than knowing. Personally I’d much rather keep a change of clothes at the office and ask someone to tell me, than to spend my days sniffing my pits and feeling paranoid I stink.

    3. Annony*

      I would actually suggest going to a close friend or family member and ask them their opinion. Right now it is too nebulous to act on since all you know is someone thought you smelled one time with no context as to when that was (which may have been a particularly sweaty day or something else that is a one off thing) and your boss saying she has never noticed it herself. Someone you trust and see often could let you know if it actually is a frequent issue.

  4. V*

    Oof. Sympathies OP. This is one of those things we all must have worried about at some point, even without having to handle with a medical issue on top of that.

    I’d follow the advice here and just do what you probably already are to combat any potential odour, give your manager the necessary context so they’re aware you’re on top of this and hope that that’s the end of it.

  5. Dust Bunny*

    Maybe you accidentally wore something that was less recently washed than you thought? I make a point of going through my closet and drawers periodically and washing everything that’s stale whether I’ve worn it recently or not, and checking underarms for smells–sometimes something needs a pre-treat. I live in a warm climate and it’s easy to wear something once or twice and think it shouldn’t need laundering yet . . . only to smell-check it later and realize it does.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      Or forgot deodorant that ONE time and that’s when someone noticed. I was driving to work on Monday and realized I had forgotten to put on deodorant, and of course I don’t keep any in the car because it would melt in the Texas heat. So I was super conscious of it all day, especially because I had to be outside part of the day and it’s still 90 degrees in October.

  6. Linds*

    I also want to reccomend those charcoal packets you can keep in shoes, or scattered in the closet or in drawers. They truly help absorb random smells you might be totally immune to but linger around the house or in fabrics.

    1. Seal*

      Shoes in general can be a smelly culprit, particularly if you wear the same pair every day and especially in the summer. You might consider rotating pairs throughout the week and making a point of washing your feet daily.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Omg! Shoes and boots.
        My husband has some boots and some boat shoes that smelled like a dead animal. Fortunately, he didn’t wear those to work but gah it was bad!

    2. Chinook*

      If you are in a place where hockey is popular, pop into a sports store and ask for something that helps clean/deodorize hockey equipment and/or hockey bags. They are notorious for their bad smells (especially when mixed with teenage hormones) and some very creative people have science up some treatments for hard to wash items.

  7. Artemesia*

    the thing for us that really dealt with the sweaty build up in my husband’s t shirts that happens with the less than ideal cleaning of front loading water conserving washers was to soak everything for a couple of hours in biz and then rinse and run the wash cycle. I couldn’t believe how well it took care of the problem and now we do this cycle every couple of months on underwear and knit shirts that tend to accumulate sweat.

    But probably everyone has these issues occasionally and it must be nightmarish to wonder about. I know when I notice an odor with a friend my thought goes to ‘I wonder how often it is me and no one mentions it.’ Sorry you are having to deal with the embarrassment but sounds like with extra attention to laundry and hygiene you won’t have to worry about it.

    1. Scarlet*

      Honestly I have to wonder if there’s anyone that never ever smells. I feel like it’s impossible. I’m sure occassionally my winter coat might smell a little like my dog if you got too close. I’m sure at the end of the day or if I workout at lunch I don’t smell as “fresh” as I did at the beginning. Aren’t these things normal? As long as it’s not outrageous or distracting, what’s the problem with not smelling cotton-clean all day every day? These things feel unavoidable to me.

      1. JustaTech*

        I think it depends on context. Like, when I was in high school, everyone had at least some of that “adult BO” smell because we were (generally) physically adults.

        But in late elementary school I had a classmate who went through puberty early and she also had that “adult BO” smell. But no one else in the class did, because in general we still smelled like kids, and the teachers wore deodorant, so she was the only one who really “smelled”. So no one wanted to sit next to her (but no one said to her face that she smelled) so I ended up sitting next to her a lot. I finally complained to my mom, who then explained to our teacher (privately) that maybe someone needed to tell my classmate’s parents that it was time to change her cleaning routine. And she did and people were more willing to sit by her.

  8. Librarianscanbedickssometimes*

    For me, this brought up some questions about the workplace and the boss in question. Of course the person who wrote in should be asking questions and if possible seeing if the problem can be resolved, but i’m almost willing to guess that this won’t be the last issue that comes up. I would have loved to get the bosses POV in this.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      As a manager, this is a HARD CONVERSATION to have. Unless this guy is a jerk boss. I don’t know that I would say to an employee “it was only a one-time thing” if it wasn’t. But for most managers I know it would have to come up several times and be a distracting odor before I would say something. Because it’s awful to have this conversation with someone no matter the reason (hygiene, medical, a load a clothes that didn’t make it out of the washer in time but employee didn’t notice smell, etc.)

      1. the Automator*

        Yes, this was my read: that the boss was trying to soften the language in order to avoid awkwardness.

  9. Rosalind Franklin*

    First of all, I have had to have this conversation with an employee and all praise to Allison for providing me the framework.

    But, the whole point of that conversation was that his smell was so bad it was affecting his coworkers’ environment, giving people headaches, etc. and it was on a consistent basis. I would never imagine giving that sort of feedback from a single day! I mean – what if LW had recently accidentally farted and the smell hadn’t wafted away when the other coworker sniffed?

    1. Anonymous 145*

      I have the feeling the boss was gently trying to minimize the hurt the OP was inevitably going to feel. This is why I couldn’t be a team leader. I’d have to tell a colleague something necessary but hurtful, then I’d likely spend the next hour trying to make it less hurtful until the message was a huge muddle.

      So sorry this is happening to you OP. It sounds like you’re doing all the right stuff now. Alison’s advice is really good.

    2. Seal*

      Or what if the LW got on an elevator right after someone else farted and left, then their coworkers got on the same elevator and assumed it was the LW?* Once is an incident, twice a coincidence, three times a pattern.

      *This happened to me once. Very embarrassing since you really can’t say “it wasn’t me!” to someone a few levels above you on the org chart.

      1. Nurse*

        Fat folds most definitely get extremely smelly. It is common to get infections and bacteria because of the moisture trapped under the folds. It is a very sour smell.

    3. Roja*

      Yeah, that caught my eye too. I really can’t imagine either being a coworker bringing this to the boss, or the boss bringing this to OP, on the basis of a single instance. It would truly have to be a consistent, significant problem for me to even consider bringing it to my boss! Either there’s more and the boss didn’t mention it to spare OP’s feelings (I don’t get the sense that’s the case, but it’s possible), or honestly I think everyone jumped the gun here a bit.

      Maybe it’s because I work in a physical field where everyone is sweaty most of the time, but it’s mind-boggling for me to think of reporting a coworker because they smelled for a day. Seriously people.

    4. StillAtTheLake*

      I, too, had to talk with an employee about his smell and discovered his washer was broken. He found it difficult to get to a laundromat regularly. I gave him special permission to use the company washer after hours temporarily. He was extremely grateful and so were his coworkers.

    5. Anon for this*

      We had a similar issue with an ex-coworker. It was a regular thing, the smell was triggering my migraines so I had to avoid the coworker as much as I could because of that, and the coworker would make comments to/in front of the teammate they were sharing a 2-person office with like, “ugh these jeans are ripe, I probably should not have worn them to work today!” “ugh on second thought, I probably should’ve washed my hair today!” This person had three (!!) talks with the HR, and after each talk would come back and complain that they don’t smell and that it must’ve been someone out to get them. One time the person sharing the office couldn’t take the smell anymore, and brought in a plug-in scent diffuser… The smelling coworker went to HR about the diffuser, calling it harassment and part of the “scheme out to get” them. THIS, in my opinion, would be the level at which a “you smell” talk is called for. “Somebody said you smelled once, I never saw you smell bad, but don’t do it again” does not even begin to come close!

  10. AnonInTheCity*

    Alison touched on this in her response but I wanted to give a +1 to checking your towels. My husband had a weird smell for awhile and I couldn’t figure it out because he’s a very hygienic person who showers daily and always wears clean clothes. It turned out to be our towels that we weren’t washing frequently enough and keeping in our poorly ventilated bathroom. I had him put his wet towels on a rack in our bedroom instead of hanging them next to the shower and the smell went away.

    1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      oh definitely! Towels can get really nasty over time, and the smell does come off on people sometimes!

      1. virago*

        Towels can get really nasty over time, and the smell does come off on people sometimes!

        That’s why I’m here for linen bath towels. They’re thin, they’re light, and they just don’t seem to hang on to stank like cotton terrycloth towels do.

        I live in a small, damp city in the coastal Atlantic Northeast, and my home is also fairly petite and not well equipped with windows. Nothing that is hung up in my bathroom ever dries out fully. Whiffy towels seemed to be my lot in life.

        Then came The Virus, and research into the best kind of masks to buy segued into the best kind of towels to buy. I wound up buying a $26 organic linen bath towel from LinenMadeForYou, a Lithuanian Etsy shop.

        People who know these things say that if you don’t want to shell out a lot of $$$$ all at once, and you decide you like linen towels, just buy one at a time as your old ones wear out.

        Also, linen towels reportedly get softer over time as you wash and dry them, whereas terrycloth towels get matted down and scratchy. (I’ve had my one linen towel for just three months, so I can’t attest to this yet.)

        1. virago*

          PS If anyone’s interested, the Etsy store where I bought my towel (and will buy more when I have the $) is MadeLinenForYou.

          Honestly, though, I picked it almost at random. The proprietor had a lot of good reviews for his towels, buyers said shipping times were quick, and they seemed reasonably priced. There are so. many. places. selling linen on Etsy that the challenge is choosing one!

          Or you can always try antique linen on Etsy or eBay. Years ago, brides in France (and possibly Italy) received great numbers of linen sheets as wedding presents, and some of them, barely used, are popping up for sale and can be used for bath linens as well as for bed linens.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Wow, now I want these towels. Belarus is famous for its linen, from what I remember. Good choice.

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Linen has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties, which must help with smells. It was used for all household linen before cotton took over. It’s a wonderful fabric, cotton is just cheaper to produce, but doesn’t boast nearly as many health properties even if it’s miles better than all the synthetic stuff.

    2. Old Cynic*

      I add ammonia when I wash bath towels and it gets rid of the body oils and the smell. And, no, they don’t smell like ammonia afterwards. It also works for gym clothes.

      1. irene adler*

        I’m going to do this-thanks for the tip! -because:
        Where I live, twice a year the water dept. changes something where the water smells stinky for a week or two. Something about where they draw it from.
        It is safe to drink. But it smells awful. Makes one’s clothes stink a bit too after washing.
        I don’t notice it except when I pull something from my clothes drawer. It smells like it was already worn.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      We put extra towel bars over the bathroom door so we can hang towels up without folding them or else they would NEVER dry; I live on the Gulf Coast where it’s always humid.

      1. CommanderBanana*

        My washer was starting to get a weird smell – turns out there was mildew in the gasket. I had to scrub it out with vinegar and run it three or four times with vinegar and baking soda, then leave the door open to let it dry completely to get rid of the smell. If you live in a really humid place, like Florida, it’s best to leave your washer door open all the time and chuck baking soda in there on the regular.

        Also, I’ve noticed that polyester or polyester blend clothing seems to hang onto smells.

        1. KTB*

          I live in the PNW and I ALWAYS leave the washer door open for 24 hours after the final load for the week. Fortunately, that’s taken care of the smell risk for the past few years

        2. The Rural Juror*

          This is why a lot of people in the area where I live are going back to top-load washing machines. If you have a front-loader and it’s humid out (like 70% of our year), then you have to leave the door open all the time and let it dry out. It’s not as big of an issue with the top-loaders.

          For me, I have a little fan I leave in turned on in my bathroom all the time because it doesn’t get enough air flow. I live in an older home and there’s not a vent fan in the ceiling of the bathroom. It’s a miniature desk fan like you would have at an office, but I leave it on the bathroom countertop. It’s good for keeping me a little cooler while getting ready, but also helps my towels dry out better!

      2. [insert witty username here]*

        A late reply, but we now hang our towels on robe hooks, so there’s way less overhang (we are bigger folks so we use bath sheets as opposed to bath towels) – everything dries SO much better. I live in a swampy area of SE VA, so it’s always humid here too. I leave my bathroom fan running for a good 30 minutes after I shower in the summer.

    4. Ana Gram*

      Oh this is a possibility! We use our basement bathroom since it’s huge and the upstairs one next to all the bedrooms is small…that makes sense. The towels never get 100% dry down there and we were washing them every day or two until we got a dehumidifier for the bathroom. We run it for a few hours after using the shower and everything is dry as a bone! Honestly, it’s one of the best home purchases we’ve ever made.

    5. Anon for this*

      Yeah, one time I was like, why does my husband’s hair smell like an armpit?!!! Turns out his armpits were not totally de-stinkified after the shower and the towel was actually transferring the smell around his body :/

  11. I'm just here for the cats!*

    I think this is one of those things everyone fears. For me, I have stomach issues which causes gas. I am so afraid of having a fart at an awkward time or someone thinking I smell or something.

    1. allathian*

      I have similar issues. One of the things I really like about WFH is that I can fart with impunity. I’ve noticed that my stomach hurts much less than it did at the office when I was trying to hold them in.

    2. Scarlet*

      One time I hurt my back really badly but still made it into work. I was able to sit at my desk and do stuff but not much else. Eventually, nature called, but getting up to the bathroom was so painful and took so long I ended up crop dusting one of my cubicle-mates on the way. I felt so bad, and I never mentioned it (as you do)… I think she’s forgiven me.

    3. Amethystmoon*

      One time my stomach was having digestive issues. Did not fart, but my stomach was very loud and rumble at a Toastmasters meeting, and I was at the lectern, I laughed it off and said I ate supper before the meeting, so no clue why it just did that. I had eaten and no, it wasn’t beans.

  12. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    I remember a previous post where the OP was told she was smelling too strongly and her coworker was saying the smell made her sick. The poor OP did everything she could and the coworker could not let go of the idea that OP smelled and it nauseated her. Then, suddenly the coworker put two and two together and realized she was pregnant and that the OP was not really smelly, but she was just really hyper sensitive to all smells at the time. Hopefully, it was something like that! You are doing all you can, and as Allison pointed out, a coworker talking to a boss is likely not saying this all around the office. The coworker went to the boss probably to avoid doing anything to embarrass you!

    I second the suggestion of asking a close friend for their opinion. At one point I know I was wearing a pair of shoes and, since I wore them every day, I did not realize they smelled. But my mother pointed it out to me. Since I wore them to work, I was so grateful to hear it from her and to have her sniff test me going forward to be sure the issue was resolved!

  13. Anax*

    I hope this isn’t too TMI, but in case it helps anyone, on a related note – it’s also fairly common to get yeast infections between skin folds in hot weather, which can cause more odor than general sweatiness, as well as itching.

    The formal term is candidal intertrigo, and it’s pretty easy to treat with over-the-counter antifungal creams, though of course seeing a doctor is a good idea. In addition to heavier folks, it’s also pretty common in busty folks, which can be awkward.

    (I had one summer of frantic cleavage itching before I got it properly treated, and hoo boy, that was embarrassing.)

    1. Pennyworth*

      I didn’t know you could use ammonia like that! I use it for cleaning the bath and shower because it it great for removing soap residue, but now I’m going to try it on my towels.

  14. ConstantSweat*

    In case the issue is related to excessive sweat, even antiperspirants labeled “clinical strength” may not be good enough: certainly wasn’t for me. Switching to something strong with aluminum chloride made a world of difference for me (I’ve tried Sweat Block and Certain Dri).

    1. Homebody*

      Definitely true (hyperhidrosis sufferer here). Tips from years of being sweaty: I’ve found PanOxyl is great as an underarm wash for getting rid of the bacteria that gives you the BO smell. I use Vanicream deodorant; ironically fragrance-free helps me out loads. For shoes the Lumi Outdoors spray gets rid of odors perfectly for me. It also never hurts to talk to a doctor if you’re worried about issues popping up.

      I hope the OP knows that sometimes, especially with a medical condition, there’s only so much you can do and you shouldn’t feel ashamed about it. It’s not like you’re intentionally trying to smell!

      1. Judy*

        Oh! I use Speed Stick unscented as a secondary antiperspirant and deodorant. When I had major sweating issues, the scent of my old antiperspirant and deodorant was very strong. Unscented works a lot better for me too because I just smell like nothing now.

        1. Homebody*

          Yeah my dermatologist recommended it and I was skeptical at first, but if it works it works!

    2. Girasol*

      If you’re not particularly sensitive to it, a travel sized spray or squirt bottle of rubbing alcohol is handy for a touch-up mid-day whether you actually need it or you just want the confidence of it. It will stop odors relating to bacteria and has no scent of its own once it’s dry. It’s also handy for sanitizing stuff and removing stubborn marks on whiteboards.

    3. Rose*

      Another thing that REALLY helps is first whipping your pits with acid, like glycolic, such as the pixi glow toner from target. It kills all the bacteria that means sweat stink. I do this as natural deodorant sometimes. I sweat the same amount but it’s totally completely scentless after a few days. I’ll be drenched in sweat after a run but smell like… nothing at all. It’s bizarre and effective. It might be worth doubling up Acid and deodorant if smell is an issue.

    4. Anon4This*

      I started using Lume deodorant this summer because I tend to sweat a lot… not under the arms but elsewhere. It works pretty well for both underarms and private parts, and they make wipes too that I can carry in my purse to use after particularly sweaty activity like going to the gym on a lunch break (not that I’ve been to a gym since March). I don’t recommend the ‘unscented’ version as it smells really terrible when going on but if you can get past that it does work nicely, or they have different scented ones.

      1. AntsOn*

        Lume definitely doesn’t work for all body types. I did everything they said to and tried for months but always smelled. Legit was worried about being around people at work for that time period.

  15. BadWolf*

    If you getting a second opinion from a friend/family member — I would try a leading question. Not “Do I smell?” but something that makes it easier for them to say yes (if it is an intermittent issue). Like “What do I smell like?” “Do I sometimes have a body odor smell?” “At work, someone thought I had a strong scent. Have you noticed that? I’m trying to fix it and need help tracking it down to my clothes/feet/etc.”

    In other ideas for “what to clean” — If you have a front load washing machine, I would clean it and leave the door open if possible when not in use. Try to avoid leaving clothes in overnight as they can get mildew-y smell pretty quickly (ask me how I know, Day I had to leave work at lunch time because my jeans smelled, “What is that stink? Ooops, it’s me). Mildew and BO probably don’t smell the same, but people might mistake them anyway.

    1. irene adler*

      Also wipe down the fold of the rubber gasket of the front loader. Mine has a fold that wouldn’t dry easily unless wiped out. And I keep the door wide open when not in use.

      1. CommanderBanana*

        Ugh, yes. My washer was smelling musty and I kept running towels through with vinegar without any difference. Turns out the rubber gasket had mildew inside it.

    2. Casper Lives*

      My apartment complex has front load washers that get moldy sometimes. It’s the worst :/. The HOA is responsible for cleaning it but they don’t sometimes. Next apartment (or just maybe a house), I need my own W/D.

  16. HailRobonia*

    I have discovered during this past year of mask wearing that sometimes my breath is just foul.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, I sometimes have brutal coffee breath. I got a mini bottle of mouthwash to keep at work.

      1. Reed*

        Oh gosh yes this The Coffee Breath. I apologise to the entire universe for my coffee breath. I had no idea until masks made me keep it to myself.

      2. The Rural Juror*

        I stock a drawer in the breakroom with gum for this very purpose. We have a lot of client meetings in our office, and usually I’ll grab a couple of sticks for me and my coworkers before a meeting (in the normal times, of course). My boss laughed when I told him I was buying gum for us on the company credit card, but I see him to go that drawer quite a bit, so I think he agrees it’s a good idea!

    2. juliebulie*

      YES. I’m glad that no one else can smell it (I assume) but am worried that I’ve had it all along and didn’t know. And how to get rid of it. I’m brushing; what else do I need to do? I don’t think it’s because of my mouth, I think my breath is already stinky by the time it gets to my mouth.

      1. Arts Akimbo*

        Using a tongue scraper helps a lot, as a lot of plaque grows on the tongue. Flossing helps for general swamp-mouth prevention. But Listerine remains my go-to for killer coffee breath.

      2. JustaTech*

        Probably no one else could smell it like you’re smelling it in a mask because you are literally as close as physically possible to your mouth. Like, unless your coworkers were sticking their nose in your mouth, they wouldn’t smell your breath as strongly because normal conversational distance gives the smell a chance to dissipate.

    1. Al de Hyde*

      Ahhh… kareishū. Not necessarily unpleasant, but it is perceived negatively in many societies as it’s largely and incorrectly associated with bad hygiene.

      I didn’t know that it starts in one’s 40s and ‘builds’ from there (2-nonenal is released as a byproduct when omega-7 deteriorates with aging, and it seeps through the skin); I thought it happened at 70+. Yes it can be washed away, but it comes right back and as you get older the smell get stronger as more 2-nonenal released over time.

      I use Mxxxx body wash and carry a few wipes in case I feel I need to freshen up. Haven’t tried the soap though. It doesn’t leave a noticeable scent. To me it’s more neutralizing, which is exactly what I want.

      And then there is midoru shishū for those 30- and 40-somethings to worry about. ;)

  17. Silly Goose*

    Oh no! I think the best bet is to go see your doctor. They are less likely to want to spare your feelings (i.e. fib) than a friend or relative… And will want to know if you have an increasing symptom. Also, they may be able to offer help or ideas in terms of your personal medical history that might help.

    Sorry you are going through this!

    1. Alex*

      Seconded! Also, they can give you an unbiased answer to “do i smell” that a friend might not. It’s part of their job to help with weird body issues of all kinds. I’ve actually done this: I hav a super strong sense of smell and a reoccurring health issue that can stink. I can always smell it when it happens, but my doctor (bless her) is able to tell me whether other people can too. And also, prescribe effective treatment. No re-occurrences this year so far!

    2. AdAgencyGirl*

      Seconding this. I had a similar issue – a co-worker complained I smelled consistently and I had tried everything. Changed my body products like shampoo and deodorant, changed laundry detergent, threw away all my shoes and got new ones…. Finally talked to my doc and it turned out one of my medications had a known side effect of body odor affecting something like 20% of users. Changed that and the complaints stopped.

    1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      Seconding! Clinical deodorant ant hypoallergenic wet wipes helped me during the summer.

  18. Cindy*

    Hope this is helpful. I sometimes have trouble getting odor out of clothes and I find that pretreating in white vinegar really helps. I mix white vinegar and water, put the clothes in a bucket for 10 minutes before washing. Really removes the odor from workout clothes.

    1. Dizzy*

      I actually use white vinegar in place of fabric softener now. There is no vinegar smell to the clothes, they are soft when they come out of the dryer, plus it is better for my washer as fabric softener can ‘gunk’ up your washer over time.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, vinegar can be used to clean the washing machine as well, so it helps to keep the gunk to a minimum.

  19. SomehowIManage*

    OP. Don’t beat yourself up. I have noticed my smell changing at times. Doubtless my colleagues noticed it too. The person that points it out tactfully is your friend.

    Some things to investigate.

    1. When I eat mostly vegetables, it changes my smell (in a bad way). Adding more fruit helped. Adding water also helped

    2. Indian spices and garlic also Impacted my smell

    3. Wearing the same clothes to cook and for work was a problem because scents got trapped.

    4. Synthetic materials smell worse on me than naturals. Not sure why…

    5. Exfoliating also helps, including my underarms And other places that get sweaty.

    1. DivineMissL*

      I am very sensitive to smells and, to me, raw onions and BO smell the same. So often I’ve had someone walk past me with their lunch and then think in a panic, “Oh, no, I smell!” before realizing it was the onions on their salad. OP, it’s worth asking someone you trust to tell you if this was a one-time thing (maybe the person who complained is very sensitive).

    2. ...*

      Great tips! I smell when I eat way too many onions and garlic lol and exfoliating the armpits is so helpful in eliminating that odor causing bacteria.

    3. MissDisplaced*

      I used to eat a certain type of veggie burger and my husband claimed it made me reek. Like through my pores stink, even though I brushed my teeth after eating. I couldn’t smell a thing, but one of the ingredients was tumeric and I guess that was the likely culprit. I ate those things often, even at work, so I hope I wasn’t grossing out others!

      I guess smells can come from all sorts of sources and it doesn’t necessarily mean the person isn’t clean.

    4. Anon4This*

      Truth. I went to a vigorous exercise class one evening recently after having eaten garlic the day before and immediately started sweating it out- my own stink almost knocked me over and I tried to stay far away from everyone else- really hope that no one else was subjected to my odor.

  20. Mediamaven*

    I have a colleague who does Keto and who also showers only at night. I don’t know which it is, but she has a musty smell about her that really gets bold if she closes herself in her office or the conference room. I’ve been working alone in the office for so long it was wonderful not having to smell it but she’ll come in the office here and there and there it is again. I’m not sure if it warrants a conversation or not but it bothers me. Anyway, is it possible your diet is having an effect?

    1. Keto*

      I have to follow keto for medical reasons, so I wanted to shed some light on this for you. A biproduct of ketone production is acetone. The acetone can really permeate everything – it comes out in your breath, your pores, even your urine. Its not a lack of cleanliness, its literally a chemical compound that’s present in your body, so there’s not much you can do about it.

      However, as people adapt to keto, their body gets better at using ketones and also disposing of the acetone, so the smell should reduce after 6-8 weeks. Of course, if she’s “keto” every week and then “eats all the carbs” every weekend, this perpetuates the acetone smell situation indefinitely. And some people seem to be more sensitive than others. Things like exogenous ketones and undereating / fasting can also make it worse because ketone levels are higher.

      So, there’s honestly not much she can do about it if you were to mention it. More showers won’t help. But I have simply found that some body wash / detergent / deodorant scents magnify the smell, and some hide it. Before keto, my go-to perfume was musky and herbaceous. Now it me smell like a compost pile. But some sweeter scents, like honey, do a really good job of toning it down.

  21. Dr Useless*

    I’ve been on the other side of that conversation, not quite in the same context though (as a dance teacher, after we had complaints about a student with strong body odour). He was mortified, he told me he had been told about this before and had specifically showered before class, so he couldn’t understand why he was still smelling. I gave him similar advice as others here have mentioned (it might be your clothes, try washing them with soda to get rid of the smells).

    I also made sure to send him an article about how to do it, because I noticed he had seemed overwhelmed by the conversation and I wasn’t sure he would have retained the information. He never responded to the message, but I noticed an immediate improvement. I made sure to send him another message to tell him how much I appreciated his efforts and how happy I was to have him in the class.

    I think it’s fair to be overwhelmed in the moment when confronted with the awkwardness of such a conversation. I also think it’s perfectly fine to bring it up again – they brought it up the first time, they can’t expect the topic to be immediately resolved. And finally, they’ll be glad to know you’re taking it seriously, even if you can’t figure it out immediately or get rid of the problem completely.

  22. Yesseier*

    I keep a bottle of Bath & Body works lotion on my desk and use it throughout the day on my hands and run a bit on my neck area. Even using a little has a strong scent. I avoid fragrant sprays since people are very sensitive to smell especially fragrances which is why I like the lotions.

      1. allathian*

        There isn’t one, although I guess it’s conceivable that some people might react more strongly to scents that have been dissolved in alcohol, like perfume. Especially if you keep applying it several times during the day.

        The thing with perfume is that unless you’ve switched brands recently, if it’s a scent you wear every day, if you can smell it on yourself after five minutes you’re using too much of it. Now, with social distancing, we shouldn’t be able to smell others at all. If you’re wearing enough perfume for it to be noticeable 6 ft away, when you’re sitting still, it’s too much. Doubly so if the smell is noticeable through a mask!

        I’m somewhat scent-sensitive. It’s not as bad as for some, but if I go to a department store, I have to walk through the cosmetics department literally holding my breath. It’s just too bad that it’s usually near the main entrance, rather than tucked away in a corner somewhere. I have the same problem with scented candles. I went to a Lush store once to buy a gift for a friend who loves their products, and I left the store with a migraine because the stink was overpowering.

  23. Tiara Wearing Princess*

    My son had the dryer issue. He visited one day and I immediately recognized the odor on his clothes. He had been Having to run dryer twice to get clothes dry. The clothes were sitting in between the dry cycles and hence the smell.

    Whatever the cause, your boss did you a kindness, and it doesn’t mean the whole office thinks you smell. A less expensive option is White vinegar. It’s also a great way to treat this laundry issue. Freshens up laundry. Nylon and polyester can hold odors.

    Another route could be an endocrinologist. At any rate, maybe talk to your doctor.

    Good luck!

    1. learnedthehardway*

      We have to use vinegar with every load of washing, as our front loader otherwise makes everything smell bad. I love how water efficient the machine is, but I’d go back to a top loader just for the lack of smell, if I could. We can’t let clothing sit in it over night without having to rewash – that occasionally happens, and I figure the water usage from rewashing erases all the water efficiency of the washing machine.

      1. Jack Russell Terrier*

        Can you set it to go off just a couple of hours or so before you get up? That’s what I do and it works quite well.

  24. Persephone Mongoose*

    OP, you have my sympathies.

    I had something similar happen once. My manager pulled me aside one afternoon and randomly asked me about my hair washing regime. She then awkwardly disclosed that a client had complained a few hours before that my hair smelt greasy. I was mortified.

    I know my sense of smell isn’t the greatest, so when I got home that evening I asked my fiance to smell my head. He has a much more sensitive nose than me, and planted his nose directly in the hair on top of my head (way closer than the client ever got to me!), and then just shrugged and said “your hair smells like hair”. Even so, I then promptly threw myself in the shower and gave my hair a thorough wash.

    I’ve never had a complaint before that one, nor any since, at any of the places I’ve worked. The client in question was a hairdresser by profession, so I guess may have been particularly attuned to hair related scents? I wish my manager had followed Alison’s ethos and not brought up the single, isolated incident, as I felt very self-conscious for some time after that.

    1. Pennyworth*

      A hairdresser probably thinks hair is dirty if it doesn’t smell of product. I’m planning to read Clean by James Hamblin, who has given up using soap, which is about the importance of the skin biome, and the impact of all the stuff we put on our bodies.

      1. Persephone Mongoose*

        My morning hair routine is essentially to brush it and tie it back. No products involved. It sounds like an interesting book, I may have to check it out, thanks.

    2. AnonforThis*

      One of the weirder conversations that I ever had with a boss involved the smell of hair — his, not mine. (CW for stereotypes of sex workers and French people.)

      Anyway. I was a features reporter at a small-town newspaper, writing profiles of local people who were doing interesting things. This description cast a very wide net — it included everyone from a grower of healing herbs to the last person who was paid by the state to sit in a tower and watch for and call in signs of fire.

      My desk was close to the office of the editor in chief (he and the publisher were the only two who had offices with doors that closed). In the way of small towns, Boss and I got our hair cut by the same woman, “Kelly.”

      One afternoon I was working on a story when Boss came over with a serious look on his face and asked that I talk with him in his office.

      Stifling an instinct to panic, I walked in. He closed the door, remaining standing,, then took a step closer and whispered to me, “Do I smell like a French whore? I just got my hair cut and ‘Kelly’ put all this stuff on it.”

      Whispering my answer, I assured Boss that he had nothing to worry about. “You’re Ok,” is what I think I remember saying.

      I’m a woman, and I can’t imagine Boss asking any of the guys who sat near me for similar reassurance.

  25. Alex*

    My best friend has told me that I smell sometimes, and man, it’s really kind of nerve-wracking because it’s so hard to fix. I’ve since realized that it usually happens when he comes to hang out and I’ve been doing something physical that causes me to sweat, like cleaning my house or whatever. So now I make a point of showering and changing my clothes when I can before hangouts, but also accepting that you know what, sometimes I’m going to be sweaty! It happens!

    It’s of course the kind of thing that makes you self-conscious, especially in a work environment, but the reality is that humans have smells and that’s just life.

  26. Delta Delta*

    Definitely check the dryer. I accidentally left a load of t shirts in the dryer for a couple days while they were a little damp. when I took them out they were dry but they stank to high heaven of mildew or something. Even after a couple subsequent washings they’re still a little funky.

    Also, watch the fabrics you wear. I’ve found certain synthetics smell forever once they start smelling. There used to be a guy at my gym my husband and I referred to (to each other) as “BO Man” because seriously – the entire weight room would smell when he came in. He was always clean, though, and then we noticed he had the same rotation of gym clothing. One day he came in in a new shirt – no smell. It was most definitely the clothes.

  27. AnonMinion*

    I am curious if people would want to know if they were the smelly co-worker? I have one who hates wearing shoes around the office and her feet stink to high hell. We all talk about it, I practically choke when I walk by her cube. But none of us have the guts to talk to her about it and don’t think her boss should have to do it. She is a very kind anf fun person, just very stinky feet and occasional BO. I have thought about leaving a note but that seems cruel too? Would you want to know or would you want everyone to ignore it but be generally grossed out by you?

    1. Judy*

      I would want to know, but only if you told me directly (i.e. I’d want know who the complaint is coming from so I wouldn’t be paranoid that it could be from anyone and could ask questions… so not an anonymous note).

    2. ...*

      I would definitely want to know! I think smelling bad at work would have an huge impact on your career and promotions and stuff.

    3. Person from the Resume*

      Anonymous note is not the kindest solution.

      It is a managers job to have the uncomfortable conversations like this especially if it makes things difficult for her coworkers. Stop talking about her behind her back; talk to her boss privately and ask her boss to do tell her about the problem so she can correct it.

      Please tell her, though. That’s much kinder than talking about it behind her back. I know you don’t mean to be malicious, but it’s kind of mean.

      1. AnonMinion*

        It is definitely mean and I hate it. This is not an excuse but she is also very sensitive and will sob with any sort of criticism so even her manager is afraid to give feedback (which is a different issue). But you are right, it is mean to just complain behind her back.

    4. Rose*

      Talk to her manager. This one should be easy to shut down as asking someone to keep their shoes on at work is a pretty low bar. Manager doesn’t even have to mention smell.

    5. JSPA*

      If she’s taking her shoes off, she almost certainly knows she has a problem. If you have overly sweaty feet, the first suggestion for foot health is to take your shoes off to let your feet and shoes dry.

      There are foot dryer / deodorant creams. You could try buying one (unscented!) and make up a scenario–

      “LanaAnna, I knew someone with foot funk who was forever taking off her shoes to keep her feet healthy. She eventually started using this stuff; it let her keep her feet dry, her shoes on, and it tamed her foot funk.”

      If she asks point blank, “do my feet stink,” you need only answer, “they don’t smell like roses, and they do smell like feet.”

      If she prefers to believe that you’ve noticed her act of taking off shoes for foot health, rather than the funk itself, you can both go with that solution.

      If she tells you, “I don’t need this,” I think it’s fair to answer, “Some days, you probably do.”

      If she tells you she already uses it, or uses something similar, or that it’s “personal” or “medical,” then you know she’s doing what she can, and it’s time to go to the boss for a top notch air purifier (or three).

  28. Cassidy*

    I have colleagues with unique smells; I think we all do, just maybe some more than others.

    I’m sorry you’re feeling self-conscious, OP, but if it’s any help, most people are kind-hearted about it and just accept it as part and parcel of the people they’re around.

  29. Blue Eagle*

    OP I am sorry that you are in this position. However, please don’t feel like anyone is talking about you behind your back – – if they were, it probably wouldn’t have been brought up to the boss to be addressed with you. Plus, now that you know and are able to do something about it, your co-workers will not even think about it anymore.
    Be grateful that your boss brought it up, it would be much worse if noone told you and your co-workers thought about it everyday.
    One more thing about what Alison’s comment about if it was a one-day thing your boss should not have brought it up. Probably the boss would not have brought it up if it was a one-day thing but told you it might have been a one-day thing to make it less awkward.

  30. Annamarie*

    I feel like people always assume that the “smelliness” is a stinky armpit smell, like strong B.O. Anytime I have worked in an office where there is a stinky person it is never just a B.O. smell. Many times it was apparent that the person was not properly cleaning all of their body parts and there was a distinct smell of unwashed ass and genitals, or a sour smell in general. One woman would leave the bathroom with the most abhorrent smell imaginable and it most certainly did not smell like human waste. Often times these people would not wash their clothes thoroughly enough because the smell seeped right in. No one knew how a manager could possibly approach them about it because it was such a personal smell, but there was no mistaking it. I always felt horrible for these people, but I also couldn’t help being grossed out by them. These were grown adults in academia and they made more then enough money to afford facilities to keep themselves clean. They just didn’t care. It was really frustrating for the rest of us, because the whole thing was pretty nauseating. Is there even any way to be specific about the problem to these people without verging on sexual harassment?

    1. Xavier Desmond*

      This is a horribly judgemental comment. I would rather work with a smelly co-worker than with someone with such an insensitive attitude.

      1. Showers Daily*

        How is it judgemental? It may sound mean, but it is also unkind to inflict your (preventable) own foul personal smells on your coworkers, or anyone sharing space with you.

        1. JSPA*

          I have had housemates who failed to understand the basic mechanics of washing their bodies, as well as friends who have had some combination of water aversion, depression, smell blindness and/or body issues that made washing “not simple” for them.

          But many other people have similar odors that are not easily dealt with, using soap and water (or even with medical treatment). There are a limited number of odor producing bacteria that people associate with “unwashed crotchal area” that also colonize internal and external fissures, fistulas, glands, abscesses, pilonidal cysts. Some people produce similar smells directly on their breath and in their sweat due to genetic conditions.

          I don’t fault you for feeling that the answer COULD be simple, and that some people entirely miss the simple answer. (Heck, someone wrote in to a different sort of advice columnist because their S.O. never wiped after doing #2, because he’d been told in childhood, and had believed, that only [insert derogatory term here] touched their butts.) I met someone who only at age 30 figured out that an embarassing genital odor that never went away despite scrubbing was not in fact coming from their genitals, but from the “leg pit” area along side, which they somehow entirely neglected to wash.

          But for many other people, it’s not as simple as “wash wider, longer, deeper and more completely than you currently are doing.” Assuming that this is the only reason, because it would be the only way that your particular body would make that particular smell, is why you’re getting called “judgmental.” “The way my body works is the only way bodies work, so anyone smelling bad is screwing up something dead easy”–yeah, that’s judgmental.

          1. PleaseVote*

            But that’s not what they said. You have argued against then inserted examples revolving around cleanliness. Adults are responsible for their own bodies, the same as they are responsible for their own actions. Come on.

  31. Rose*

    OP, I once had to ask my boss to talk to a coworker because she was having this issue. I felt bad for not addressing it head on but I was afraid it would make her uncomfortable working with me and we worked together all the time. I adored her and still think very highly of her. It wasn’t something that made me look down on her or dislike her at all. I was afraid her issue might be holding her back professionally as a client had mentioned it once, and I really didn’t want her to be passed for good projects, and noticed she had been a few times recently. I would try to reframe how you’re thinking about your coworkers. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. A body is just a body. If your coworkers are kind people odds are they did this with the best of intentions and aren’t all secretly judging you. Best of luck.

  32. Ashley*

    There is a skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa (HS) that I treat frequently in my practice (I’m a doctor). It causes very painful, deep cysts mainly in the underarms and anogenital areas. It’s a chronic condition where the lesions can leak and ooze, and the discharge is very foul-smelling due to pus and bacteria. HS is more common than many people realize, and people who suffer with this condition can feel a lot of shame. Some of the people I’ve worked with have been suicidal. They are told it’s a “hygiene” issue when it is not. All the bathing in the world doesn’t make the odor go away. If the lesions are in the underarms, deodorants can make it worse. The conventional treatment options are limited. Just know that HS is out there and many people suffer in silence, so please have compassion. You never know when someone with body odor is secretly suffering from HS. I hold a special place in my heart for people with this condition.

    1. Alex*

      I had no idea! Thank you for mentioning this, and for the thoughtful and compassionate way you consider your patients, because it’s easy to use humor or other distancing mechanisms with things like that, and it sounds like you’re working to really see those patients fully.

    2. Anon for now*

      I think I had that in college. Sharing here, because a) after 4 months, I got rid of it for life and b) I have no other way to reach you, in case this is helpful.

      I suggest others not read it, as it seems like it should have a content warning, unless of course this is OP’s issue, in which case….uh, it’s probably not the best variant of the treatment, but maybe there’s somthing to be learned.

      For four months of freshman year, I had interconnected pus channels in one underarm, and separate surface infections in the other. A course of oral antibiotics and a shallow lancing courtesy of student health didn’t do much.

      I bought a large bottle of H2O2. Lanced them all, using a sewing needle and a mirror. Opened them up as far as I could by tugging sideways, or using the needle like a darning hook; there was no sensation (or only relief) so long as the needle remained in the channel, which meant that I could carefully go much deeper, but with less pain, than the doctor had. The channels connected between 4 and 12 mm under the skin, though one extended a good 3 cm.

      I then kept shooting hydrogen peroxide in by squeezing the bottle, until, in one case, it came out of two other different openings, letting me know I’d flushed the whole complex. I believe I also dabbed on some surface bacitracin, but not enough to create a problematically anaerobic environment.

      I (not surprisingly) also stopped shaving because the area was so ragged and full of holes. And…the problem went away. Forever. Both in the “treated” armpit, and in the other armpit.

      From that day on, I also wash / sterilize even small breaks in my skin, and with peroxide.

      Turns out I have some innate immune response mutations (which is to say, most people probably can shave, and don’t need to sterilize every skin breach). But if that rather brutal treatment worked for me, in a fricking freshman dorm shared bathroom, presumably it might also work for others who just can’t shake the problem.

      1. CommanderBanana*

        Damn. Mad respect. One of my friends has HS and while hers is pretty mild, it’s still a painful and embarrassing disorder.

    3. I Know Your Pain*

      I was going to say something about hidradenitis, because I have it and there really is nothing you can do when its bad. OP, there are options now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Its all about finding the right dermatologist and trying everything you can. I had a deal with my Derm – he would take me on very short notice, sometime more than once per week if needed. I found the best solution, for me, was cortisone shots into the lesions before they burst. I cannot use deodorant and Hibiclens (only in the affected areas) and Lever 2000 were game changers. I truly hope for OPs sake it is something else because it’s the worst having to explain HS to other people.

      1. Ashley*

        I’m so sorry that you’ve been suffering from HS. The frustrating thing about this condition is that it can affect people differently, so the efficacy of therapies can vary widely. We’ve had some very good results with the types of testing and treatments that we offer at our clinic, and some of our patients have been able to avoid surgery. I won’t post specifics here because I did NOT come to self-promote, and I don’t want anyone to take it as such. I am a long-time reader, and I just want others to know there is hope.

    4. KoiFeeder*

      > The first signs of HS are small bumps on the skin that resemble pimples, cysts, boils, or folliculitis. As the disease progresses and abscesses reoccur, they become larger and more painful; eventually tunnels of scar tissue connect the lesions.

      Um. Can this happen on your forearms? Asking for me.

      1. Adriana*

        Please make sure to have a medical expert thoroughly examine and diagnose this—and then get a second opinion. If it’s still the diagnosis, find someone who can present a proactive treatment plan. When I was in my teens, I had some small cysts that were MIS-diagnosed as HS—and by a doctor who just told me to Google it to see what I was in for. There, I was confronted with a horror show of medical journal photos, showing the worst of the worst possible outcomes. As a young woman at university, I truly thought about ending my life then and there. But lo and behold… the cysts, after being drained by the doctor, went away completely and never returned in any form—I never had HS. Of course a better doctor would have considered the mental health of a 20 yr-old in offering his prognosis (and like those here who’ve learned to manage it, I would have as well.)

      2. Coffee*

        First, definitely go ask a doctor! They’re trained, and can also see your arms. If it’s painful, the doctor can help.

        If they’re not painful, it’s more likely to be something else. I haven’t heard of HS on the forearms, as it tends to be where skin rubs together. As an example of something else it could be, I have keratosis pilaris, which looks a bit like acne/bumps. It’s harmless and never painful. So don’t panic but do go see a doctor.

        1. Ashley*

          Agreed! Please go see a specialist, such as a dermatologist, for a proper diagnosis. The essence of HS is chronic, painful, recurring, deep cysts accompanied by characteristic types of scarring. A good clinician will consider the chronicity and appearance of the skin lesions, plus clues in your medical history. People with HS are more likely to have insulin resistance, thyroid disease, fatigue, and others. I know of cases where HS occurred on amputated leg stumps (due to friction), on the back, face, chest, etc. Acne conglobata can mimic HS, and it can co-occur with HS in the same person. I once saw a patient who had self-diagnosed HS, but it turned out to be sebaceous adenitis. On the forearm, I think about ‘eruptive vellous hair cyst’ as a possibility.

          1. KoiFeeder*

            My forearms have terminal hair (yay, overabundance of testosterone), and like hydrogen peroxide anon above, this only started showing up when I started shaving the hair off. I keep trying to drain mine, but they keep coming back.

            That being said, they’re not painful if I don’t fuss with them (for now), but the frequency and size get worse every time I shave… and I have trich so trying not to fuss with them is really, really hard.

            The part where they’re not painful is why I haven’t gone and seen a specialist. I have way too many health issues to want to deal with this if it’s not going to set my body on fire, and I can’t exactly get uglier so cosmetic scarring doesn’t cut it.

    5. Natalie*

      I suffer from HS and it’s a difficult condition for many many reasons. I can’t wear regular deodorant because it causes me to break out I’m boils. Truly, the condition is all about trial and error. What works for one person won’t work for the next. Sometimes things seem to help for awhile, then suddenly it makes it a million times worse. There is no consistent treatment and no cure.

  33. Tracey*

    OP I empathize with your problem. It I think it was a smart idea to get rid of the clothing that couldn’t handle sweat well. Synthetics fibers like polyester and polypropylene have such smooth surfaces that odor-causing bacteria can easily culture. This can lead to smelly clothing, even when the clothing is laundered every time you wear it. You might try clothing made out of merino wool. It is expensive, but it is amazing! It’s the only wool that I don’t find itchy and can stand against my sensitive skin. You can get socks, super thin t-shirts or thick sweaters in merino wool depending on what you need. It does a great job of getting sweat away from your body, and because of the structure of the fiber, bacteria can’t culture well, so it doesn’t retain odors like synthetics. I’m familiar with Icebreaker and Smartwool, but there are lots of companies using merino wool now.

    1. Des*

      This, OP! Use clothes made from natural fibers, wool in particular. Do not use polyester, nylon, and the like.

  34. DireRaven*

    I’m sorry about that. I was pulled aside and told that my area smelled badly. I was unable to smell anything (don’t worry- predates covid by over a decade and not unusual for me), but they figured I was just nose-blind to it. I cleaned everything I could, including upholstery. (No carpet). I checked to make sure I didn’t have forgotten food rotting somewhere. Even pulled out drawers and cleaned behind furniture. I took home any clothes I had there. After about a day, the smell was back. My supervisor sat with me while I cleaned everything again and had to prove that I was not storing food or funky workout clothes. And the next day, the smell was back. And it just so happened maintenance was there to check the HVAC system and vents. There was a dead mouse in the vent. They cleared it out and problem solved.
    So, all that to say to also double check everything about the environment around your workspace.

    1. Barbara Eyiuche*

      I worked at an office that had about 40 employees. Fully one quarter of them stank. I think it was a combination of causes: the work was very stressful, both by its nature and because of the personalities of many of the higher-ups; many people worked extremely long hours and ate poorly as a result; people were depressed; the support staff were poorly paid and maybe really couldn’t afford to wash their clothes as often as would be ideal; and some workers were using drugs to help them work long hours.

    2. I Know Your Pain*

      For 3 months I told my husband that something smelled horrible in my car, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I took it to the car wash over and over but I couldn’t get rid of the stink. He would get into the car at the end of the day and never smell anything. Finally, one day he drove my car first thing in the morning and smelled it too. Turns out a mouse got into the car, got stuck under the carpeting, under the console and died. The dealer had to pull the entire care apart to find it – cost $1200. Now my husband believes me when I tell him something smells, even when he can’t smell it himself (& I generally have a much better sense of smell than he does anyway).

      1. Cathie from Canada*

        We “lost” a plastic bottle of milk in the trunk once – we thought maybe one of the kids has spilled something in the back seat but the smell kept getting worse and finally we searched the whole car and there it was.
        Oh, and didn’t that take a long time to clear up — I think we sprinkled some kind of odor removal stuff in the trunk and also we had to drove with the windows down for a while.

      2. The Rural Juror*

        I grew up in a very old house with pier and beam foundation. We had so many mice! My poor mother couldn’t keep up with trying to get them out of the house. One time, one of them died in one of my sneakers in my closet. I was pretty upset about it, I really liked those shoes. It took us several days to figure out where the heck it was because it was down in the shoe! We had to wash all the clothes in my closet to get the smell out. It was not pleasant AT ALL.

    3. juliebulie*

      A woman used to come to my desk during lunch hour to ask me to print something for her. Every time she showed up, there was a nasty rancid smell like cat food. I wondered if there was something wrong with her. Turned out that coincidentally, every day she showed up was also the day someone else was heating up a tuna casserole.

  35. AverageManager*

    Aw, OP!

    FWIW body odour was always the scenario for “awkward conversations” role play on our new manager training courses. It’s part of life.

    And strong body odours because of medical conditions are part of the workplace too. There’s a guy in our maintaince dept, been 10 years or more and it’s “distinctive” so it’s clearly medical. We just got used to not eating or drinking if he’s in the vicinity and don’t discuss it… at all, in fact, which is not an accomodation or forbearence we extend to some of the apprentices who haven’t got used to adulting yet. They get told to shower before they come in and use less Axe.

    1. virago*

      some of the apprentices who haven’t got used to adulting yet … get told to shower before they come in and use less Axe.


      A friend who’s an admin at a community college offers what she calls “charm school” for guys who are going on interviews after getting their degrees. (She’s the perfect person — she’s the oldest of eight and naturally bossy.)

      She has a whole lecture on the topic: “Putting On Lots of Aftershave Isn’t the Same as Taking a Shower.”

      1. JustaTech*

        Good lord, this should have been a class at my undergrad. Lessons I taught (as a peer, not an RA or anything): “Yes, you have to both shower and change your clothes”
        “Fabric softener is not the same as laundry detergent”
        “Everyone must empty the lint trap every single time you run the dryer”.

        At once point my school was gifted with several cases of free samples of Axe body spray. After one test spray (in the dining hall, ugh) it was universally decided that no one could wear something that smelled like that. So we turned them into flamethrowers. Dangerous, yes. Stupid, of course. Thankfully no one got hurt, but we did learn that flaming Axe smells significantly worse than regular Axe.

        1. virago*

          “Flaming Axe” would be a great name for a metal band!

          (My friend’s other interviewing lecture is “Take Off Your Sunglasses, Take Off Your Hat, and Put Away Your Phone.”)

          1. JustaTech*

            The two I could teach for my days of hiring undergrads for student jobs would be
            “Don’t Make Racist Comments, Especially About The People Who Would Be Your Boss” and
            “Don’t Announce That You Are Unmotivated” (This was in response to the “what is your greatest weakness” question, and probably the only time in history it was actually useful.)

  36. Watermelon lip gloss*

    Don’t be mad at your co-workers or boss, and don’t quit its a hard conversation to have. I know its mortifying but if they were being mean they would all just sit around and laugh at you, they wanted to help you out. Your boss was trying to lighten the topic by saying it may have just been a one time thing because no one wants to have these conversations.

    Take this with a grain of salt but I wanted to share what works for us though summers on the east coast, my husband has medications that cause him to have an odor and we do a lot to combat his insecurities around that. I have found Downey has laundry beads for active people, it has helped so much with getting sweat out of our clothes we also use the tide for active people. In the summer with being in and out of the office I have found that unscented baby wipes for a mid day refresh in all your crevices will help too, and a deodorant redo. Also if not already make sure your deodorant is an antiperspirant and deodorant. In the summer my aluminum free deodorant gets shelved and I use a light scented mens degree deodorant, I find women’s just cant keep up when your out in the heat and humidity. I also lay on the bed after my morning shower to let the ceiling fan make sure everything is aired out before I get dressed my husband has a fan that he sets on the floor shooting up while he brushes his teeth and shaves to get really dry. Deodorant can be used in other places, my husband sweats alot around his back so in the summer so I get to put deodorant on parts of his back and other places to combat stink. Its not ideal but August is a rough month for sweaty people here so my husband takes an extra undershirt to change into after lunch.

    1. JustaTech*

      As a teenager attending summer camp in the Texas hill country I learned that the backs of your knees can produce an amazing amount of sweat, especially if you sit cross-legged, so a number of us started just putting antiperspirant on the backs of our knees.

  37. JSPA*

    I’d take to the boss three options when explaining “there could be a medical thing.”

    1. spraying the least scented form of Febreze as you enter, and again at lunch, provided the boss first checks whether anyone is sensitive to it. (As the stuff is a scent blocker, they have to use a hellacious amount of scent, to give it a scent, and they no longer sell the unscented version).

    2. Using Menthol or BenGay or similar (eucalyptus, menthol, wintergreen scents). Some people loathe wintergreen, get migraines from menthol, or are allergic to some of the above, so again, it’s on the boss to check if there are competing needs in play. But those are all medical-adjacent enough that you can get away with having some dabbed on your lower back or calves fairly frequently, unless there’s a reason not to. Unlike most perfume scents, which only underscore a problematic muskiness, those particular scents are better at overwhelm the perception of any other odor.

    3. time off to shower twice a day, as needed. I had a workmate who did this a couple times a week due to trimethylaminuria.

    Things you can control to some degree, or should consult with a specialist over:

    Tooth brushing and gargling for trimethylaminuria; gargling as a stop gap…but really, eventually, tonsillectomy, for tonsillar plugs; diet analysis, guidance, and strict adherence to diet for IBS; other appropriate doctor for other medical issues that have an associated smell. (Anything involving even small amounts of blood regularly from anywhere should come to the attention of a doctor, for example.)

  38. resters*

    I don’t have hard advice, but OP…I worked with someone who had body odor every day. We did discuss it a little behind his back, I won’t lie. But it was never, “ugh I can’t stand that guy, can you believe him?!” It was more, “does he know? Should we tell him or will it just make him feel terrible if he can’t fix it?”

    My point is that we liked him, and wanted to help him, and we didn’t want to hurt him. It didn’t shape our opinion of him as a person or even a colleague. I promise. I can’t say anything that won’t make you feel not-embarrassed, but truly I would work with that guy every day of the week over someone who was dumb/racist/obnoxious, etc. BO is not the end of the world, it’s just a hard thing to talk about and hear about.

  39. Oxford Comma*

    If you have an energy efficient washing machine, there are packets you can buy to clean the machine. I think Tide makes some. I basically throw one in there every three months on hot. Apparently, the newer machines can end up with high mildew buildups.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      Front-loaders are really bad about that. I know a lot of people going back to top-loaders for that reason.

      1. JustaTech*

        My front loader actually *asks* to be washed periodically. I don’t know what it’s doing in there for 4 hours (!) but between that and always leaving the door open at least a little, it hasn’t started to smell yet (though it’s only a year old).

  40. staceyizme*

    You’re probably doing everything that you can, but I cannot help but fault your boss! An occasional odor isn’t ideal, but if it really was a one-off, then he or she should have remained silent! Good grief! And if it was somehow bad enough to mention, then it needed some slightly less direct efforts, first. “there’s an odd smell in here today…”, sniffs his own sleeve to check himself too. “It’s musty in here, let’s have some air…”. It’s not being cutesy. It’s giving someone a clue bus that they can catch on to. If multiple teammates have noticed it and complained, then, sure, okay. Maybe HR solo. But NOT several people and a meeting. Just my two cents, obviously. Others’ mileage may vary.

    1. Metadata minion*

      “And if it was somehow bad enough to mention, then it needed some slightly less direct efforts, first. “there’s an odd smell in here today…”, sniffs his own sleeve to check himself too. “It’s musty in here, let’s have some air…”. It’s not being cutesy. It’s giving someone a clue bus that they can catch on to.”

      If you do this, and your coworker does not magically catch on, please do not assume they’re intentionally ignoring you. If I smelled and coworkers tried this kind of hint, I would 100% never pick up on it. It might be the fact that I work in an old, cranky building and Random Mysterious Smells are just kind of part of the territory, but I would assume a “musty” smell was coming from the HVAC or something.

  41. Kamala'sGurl*

    We had the same thing happen here in our office of ~30 people. One employee (who shared an office with another) rode his bike to work every morning, and by the time he got here, the smell was really…eye-watering. Entering his office was an exercise in breath control, and although he was the nicest guy, he just had no idea. His boss had to sit down and tell him that others had noticed his smell, especially his office mate (and this was after several of us had pleaded with her for months to address it). By that time, his response was, “How come no one told me this before?” He was really defensive about it. and although he took to bringing a different set of clothes to change into after he arrived at work, the damage was done, and he left within a month of that conversation.
    I don’t have any advice. I just want you to know that maybe it’s more common than you think it is, and I’m sorry you had to deal with such an uncomfortable convo.

  42. KoiFeeder*

    I probably do not have OP’s condition (I just have elevated testosterone), but what’s helped me is medical-grade antiperspirants and using real soap (like castile soap, fats + oils + base, not “skin cleanser” or whatever) on the problem areas.

    Due to the cause of my excessive body odor, I have considered just biting the bullet and adding cologne to the mix to see if that covers up the rest of it, but I have fragrance allergies so I haven’t been brave enough to do that yet.

  43. Lkr209*

    I had a coworker one time who I sat next to and had to request to be moved away from because I’m literally allergic to cigarette smoke and she was a chain smoker, whose second-hand smoke was giving me literal migraines. I liked her just fine, she was very nice and I enjoyed working with her. It had nothing to do with thinking she was disgusting or her scent making me think negatively regarding her character, she was just noseblind and I wasn’t! If you smoke, or have pets in your home, those are common “noseblind” issues as well. Dogs drooling, having accidents, litter boxes, etc. are insanely noticeable to everyone who doesn’t live with you. If you have animals, make sure you’re using washable couch covers, cleaning up after them daily, and grooming them as often their breed allows. Maybe getting your couches professionally cleaned. Open the windows and bedroom/closet doors on the weekends to let your house air out.

    1. Spicy Tuna*

      I’m so, so sensitive to cigarette smoke too! Also, if I am around smoke, the smell clings to me. I had just started a new job and the office was walking distance to my home. One morning, I was walking near a smoker and I picked the scent up. My new boss asked if I was a smoker and I wanted to die of embarrassment because just the day before we had a conversation where I mentioned that I ran marathons!

      1. I Need That Pen*

        I’ve had two managers in my life who have had to have the cigarette smell talk with coworkers. One of them took it well and made an effort to curtail it, one of them decided that dousing themselves in perfume before coming back in would be better.

        This is one of the hardest conversations on the list of “hard conversations at work.” There’s really no way it’s going to land on the person who needs the conversation other than judgmental or like a punishment when in many cases it’s not meant to. I have worked with managers who have done this, and the “you cannot wear crop tops to the office” in the most compassionate of ways, that although still hard to hear by the employee it was taken to heart at a level where they either tried very hard or corrected it altogether.

  44. Vimes*

    I worked a young adult transitional housing program once with a client who was showering and doing everything he was supposed to be doing, but had really really bad body odor—enough that it could have impeded him getting work, making friends, etc. (I looked it up and apparently there’s a condition where people’s bodies process some foods in a way that produces very strong odors.)

    My boss got him sports wipes that he could use throughout the day so that there was never a buildup of sweat or odor and it helped A LOT, though it sounds like his situation was a great deal worse than yours.

  45. Sarah*

    If the coworkers continue to complain, they can always do the age old method of mint oil under the nose. It’s what they use in morgues and hospitals. It has no adverse side effects, and mint is agreeable to everyone.

    1. allathian*

      Eh, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my son. He hates the flavor of mint and it took a long time to find a toothpaste for him when he started getting his permanent teeth and could use an adult strength toothpaste, most of which are flavored with mint, at least here. There are some drugstore formulas without mint, but they’re really expensive. But as I said, I’ll have to ask him if he also hates the scent of mint.

      1. virago*

        If your son is OK with the scent of cinnamon,. he could try cinnamon oil.

        It’s quite potent, though, so to avoid skin irritation, I suggest that he dilute it in pure aloe vera gel or unscented body lotion, or a carrier oil such as olive or jojoba.

  46. E*

    There are great suggestions here, but as a reassurance:

    Your coworker may well be more sensitive to smells than the typical person! If your boss hasn’t noticed anything, chances are your coworker is the outlier. Some people definitely are. Only last week, I went to visit my dad’s house for dinner, and this conversation ensued:

    HIM: Can I say something? You’re a bit…whiffy.
    ME: Oh! That’s strange, I actually showered this afternoon rather than this morning so if anything I should be cleaner than usual!
    HIM: Yes, I can smell that you showered. I think it’s the top that you’re wearing. Maybe it needs a wash.

    The fact that he could distinguish sweat on clothing from sweat on skin makes me think he’s definitely a super-smeller. And we hadn’t hugged due to covid-19.

    1. allathian*

      Sounds like it. In general, women have on average a better sense of smell than men. It’s certainly true in my family, my sense of smell is at least average, and it was definitely a lot more sensitive than average when I was pregnant, especially in the first trimester, while my husband’s sense of smell is much less sensitive than mine. Of course, at times that can be a blessing in disguise!

  47. Wrench Turner*

    As a field service technician this worries me a lot, as we have a reputation for being a dirty, smelly bunch. And we can be, especially if you’re the last customer of the day in mid July. The office wants us to look like IT office workers fresh out of the server room for every single customer but that’s just not possible. I shower every day and wear deodorant but no cologne or anything else. I don’t smoke at all (rare in my field) or eat around customers but there’s not much else I can do (or not do). I keep an emergency spare uniform in case “it” happens (I once sat down in hidden dog poo first thing in the morning, it happens) but nowhere to change since we’re not supposed to use customer bathrooms (I did anyway) and not supposed to really stop anywhere between. I’m lucky if I get to pee once a day.

    Only ever had one customer remark how they were surprised I DIDN’T smell like I was marinating in cologne, which I thought was odd at the time, but got me thinking about it even more.

  48. agnes*

    I am so sorry. I know that was embarrassing and difficult to hear. I have a medical condition that causes me to sometimes pass extremely noxious gas (and sometimes storm out of meetings to get to a bathroom). . Half my digestive system is gone due to cancer and that’s why it happens. It’s so embarrassing when it happens and I simply cannot hold it in. I have air freshener for my office that I spray but it doesn’t help if I’m in a meeting and it happens. I feel your pain. In an ironic twist I am in HR, so I had to bite the bullet and explain to my team what was happening. They were more embarrassed than I was, but it was a good lesson for all of us.

    Kudos to you for seeking some suggestions about how to deal with it. I’m reading for myself too!

  49. Choggy*

    So one person told your boss that you smell? Maybe said coworker is pregnant, so *any* smells are bothersome? I know this happened in the past to another OP.

  50. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    Came here to suggest one more possible culprit, at least it is with me – thrift store clothes. As obsessed as I am about keeping everything clean and not having any smells on myself, my clothes, or in my home, these clothes tend to have a musty smell that I can never get out. I’ve tried everything I could think of (open to new ideas actually). Most often, the smell goes away after a few washes, but a few times, I had to stop wearing the clothes I really liked, to the office, because I just could NOT get the smell out of them. Don’t know if OP loves thrift stores as much as I do, but in my case, this is one possible source of smell.

  51. Database Developer Dude*

    I’ve not seen anything addressing this, but it might be possible that you don’t smell at all, OP, and someone was trying to make trouble just because. I’ve been in that position before, and one person in the office came to me directly to complain. No one else did. I had no power over ANYONE, and nobody was afraid to approach me about anything they didn’t like.

    Plus, I’m very fastidious about that. Showering 2x/day and all.

  52. LogicalOne*

    If this helps the OP, I manage a department at my workplace and I’ve had a few instances where a staff member told me that a co-worker smells. They enjoyed working with these smelly folks, just not the smell. After their co-workers took care of their smell, all went back to normal. There was no gossip, no talking behind their back. Like Allison said, your co-workers most likely are looking out for you and just want to make sure to nip this in the bud so they can get back to their job.

  53. Nacho*

    I had a similar thing happen to me. Turns out the anti-deodorizing soap I was using wasn’t strong enough to actually replace deodorant. It’ll blow over quickly enough.

  54. Spicy Tuna*

    One suggestion on the clothing is to add a cup of white vinegar to your laundry. It works great on removing smells from mildew-y towels and synthetic fibers.

    I once worked at a job that had casual Fridays where jeans were allowed. People took it a little too far with sweatpants and ripped jeans, etc. I had zero friends in that office (one woman complained to my boss that she didn’t like the way I placed paperwork on her desk!). One Friday, I wore a knee length, denim skort. My boss’s boss, who was the only one in the office that was on my side, called me in to tell me that someone had complained. I was flabbergasted. I was working on something time sensitive, and I said I’d go home if it was a big deal but that I would be taking PTO for the rest of the day and not coming back. He said he that he had zero problem with my attire and was letting me know so I knew what people in the office thought about me and that I had enemies (which I already knew).

    OP, I know it’s embarrassing, but it could be that someone is trying to make trouble for you. If your boss is on your side, you should have nothing to worry about. Keep being fastidious about the laundry and hygiene, and consider telling your boss about your medical condition.

  55. Ann Nonymous*

    Might I suggest that LW try using a product like Hibiclens morning and night for 5-7 days and then once or twice a week thereafter? It knocks out surface odor-causing bacteria very well.

  56. Ragen*

    If you do not have a shower that in accessible due to size, you can ask your workplace if they have showers available in the building. This helped a coworker of mine who could not afford to remodel her bathroom but the shower and tub were no longer a size that worked for her. If the office is going to play hardball and police you like this, they should be giving you other options that work for you.

  57. it's all good*

    For body folds, try Lume lotion and deodorant. I can not put into words how well it works, no odor! It’s on Amazon.

  58. HappenedToMeOnce*

    When I was in nursing school my study buddy “Sara” suddenly started ghosting me. I finally confronted her – “hey, people are asking what’s up with us and I have no idea, what’s going on?” and she said “well, some of your clinical group have been noticing a really strong smell and they told me the nurses notice it too”. Awesome.
    I reached out to my clinical instructor, who told me that one nurse mentioned it to her once but she didn’t notice a problem and so she hadn’t said anything to me. I appreciated her handling of the subject, honestly. What I did not appreciate was my clinical group (and apparently the nurse!) talking about me behind my back to each other and Sara, or Sara’s response of “well, better distance myself from her then”. I never really talked to Sara again. The whole thing was very painful.

    As to what the problem was, the best I could figure was that I’d been eating everything in my CSA and when I did some soul searching I realized that deep down inside I know I need to stay away from brassicas. So now I do, and it hasn’t come up again.

  59. KJB*

    I’m a big fan of Defunkify laundry detergent and sprag, which has worked like a charm on teenagers and camping clothes. But mostly I’m posting to say this was me too! I even got prescription deodorant for a while (then developed a rash). What worked the best for me was, believe it or not, staying really hydrated. I’m sorry you had this embarrassment! On the bright side, you did get a chance to find out about it. I had to figure it out on my own, and it was embarrassing in that “no one told me my fly was unzipped” way. Good luck!

  60. Hiya*

    My washer used to have an issue where it retained moisture and my clothes ended up smelly because of it. Leaving the door cracked when not in use cleared up the problem

  61. RedPony*

    To find out anout the own body odour is tricky because the nose habituates so fast. A way to find out if you indeed have a strong smell is to seal your clothes in ziplock bags in the evening after wearing them and then take a whiff on them still inside the bag after a nights sleep and a really thorough shower. Don’t shy away from using some fancy soap through that shower to distract your nose to unlearn your body odpur and put the bag right next to you in the bathroom, still sealed of course, then just open it a bit and siffyour face right into your clothes. This way you can get a feeling how you smell to others thats much more accurate than just asking people and can test if your efgorts work out or not. Ypu can also put your sleepware into a ziplock bag after getting up and do the shower and sniff in the evening to get a feeling how you smell in the mornings.

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