All is quiet on the left-ern front, but the right is raising quite a stink, even though I’m just working out of my home office. What the funk is going on here?
In the four decades since my stinky teenage years, there’s been very little occasion to notice my body odor. I’ve never had a go-to deodorant; a few swipes of pretty much any antiperspirant or natural deo did the trick. (If you are inclined to lecture me on the dangers of aluminum-based antiperspirants, please come prepared with the peer-reviewed study that shows that said dangers actually exist.) But when the pandemic lockdown began (and when I started to understand the concept of perimenopause), I found myself showering a bit less and smelling a lot more. And suddenly it seemed like my scent could not be contained by anything except my twin teen boys’ heavily scented products, with names like Apollo and Swagger.
Stress Sweat 101
Part of it was that I, like every other human on our planet, was experiencing higher levels of stress. The really smelly kind of sweat comes from emotional stress, says Mary Further, founder of Kaia Naturals and widely known as Madame Sweat on TikTok.
“Stress triggers your apocrine sweat glands to produce sweat that’s thick with fats and protein,” Further explains. “Apocrine glands are mostly found where you’re hairiest, like your armpits, scalp, and groin. The hair follicles attract bacteria that feed on the fats and protein in your sweat, emitting an unpleasant odor.” I’ll take Things I’d Rather Not Think About for $100, Mayim."
The Menopause “Odor”
I’m back to my daily shower routine and my stress levels have largely returned to their pre-pandemic levels...and I still stink. And the reason will take exactly no one reading this by surprise: Perimenopause is in the house and she’s stirring up all kinds of trouble.
“In perimenopause, your ovaries are ovulating less efficiently, and your hormone signals are sort of going haywire,” says Minisha Sood, M.D., co-founding endocrinologist of Fifth Avenue Endocrinology in New York City. “And that’s going to affect your temperature regulation.” (Sweaty hot flashes, anyone?) “There’s also some crosstalk between your hormones and the gut microbiome, which can influence how you process nutrients, and that will also affect your smell,” says Sood.
Wait, does my vagina smell weird?
Is new (weird) vaginal odor due to menopause?
While it’s not the first thing I tend to bring up in conversation, there’s another key body odor that is amplified and altered by these changes. My friends and I delicately call it SPS — Stinky Pu$$y Syndrome — and it, too, is the result of tanking estrogen: The sweat glands in the pubic region are now as out of whack as the ones under our arms. Also, “the balance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina gets thrown off,” says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at Yale University School of Medicine.
Pre-menopause, Minkin explains, estrogen triggers the production of glycogen (sugar), which is then consumed by lactobacilli (the good bacteria), which in turn produces lactic acid. Lactic acid makes our lady parts’ pH nice and acidic, which keeps the odor-causing bacteria at bay. During perimenopause and menopause, less estrogen means less glycogen, so our vaginas’ pH rises to odor-inviting levels. In short, ya basic.
How to treat menopause body odor
Thank goodness, we’ve come to the part of the article where we get to the quick and easy solutions to these pit and punani problems!
Under your arms: In brief, antiperspirants reduce sweat by plugging the sweat ducts just below the skin; deodorants fight odor by killing the bacteria; AP-DEOs do both. I personally need the combo and find layering a natural deodorant over an AP-DEO to be my best bet during this particularly stinky phase. My AP-DEO picks: Secret Dry Spray Antiperspirant Deodorant ($6.49) and Right Guard Sport Invisible Solid ($6.91). My DEO picks: Cleo + Coco Charcoal Deodorant ($12) and Hume Supernatural Deodorant ($14).
If you’re anti-antiperspirant, it’s extra important to wash well under your arms, especially if you’re transitioning from antiperspirant to a natural deodorant. “Chances are you still have yesterday’s bacteria in your underarm,” says Further. Her Kaia Naturals The Takesumi Detox The Underarm Bar ($25) contains activated charcoal, apple cider vinegar, and sea salt to remove antiperspirant residue and lingering bacteria.
Down your pants: There are good ways and not-so-good ways to clean your vagina. Don’t try to wash away the bad bacteria with a strong soap or douche. “Deodorant soaps are very basic and will disturb your pH,” says Minkin, “and douches wash away the good guys along with the bad ones.” Also, avoid washes with irritants, like fragrance. Finding a cleanser that’s pH-balanced specifically for your vagina is a definite do.
A few to try: VagiVital Moisturizing V Cleanser ($25) for super gentle cleansing and hydration; Summer’s Eve Fragrance Free Daily Cleansing Wash ($4.29), designed for sensitive skin; The Perfect V VV Beauty Sheets ($34) for quickie cleanups on the go.
Need more cool? In addition to giving your face and neck a much needed chill blast with our hydrating The Cool Factor ($49), for hot days and hot flashes, thwart sweat with Private Packs ($29.99 for two), reusable gel cooling pads you wear in your panties.
The takeawayYou can dilute your sweat by optimizing your water intake, “at least half an ounce to an ounce per pound of body weight in a day,” says Sood (and yes, Spindrift counts!). To help regulate your microbiome, Sood recommends making smart food choices. “Eating whole foods, minimizing processed and fried, fatty foods, focusing on a variety of vegetables, fruits, and healthy sources of protein with minimal hormone exposure — that’s going to be where the money is.”
* Letter from the editor: We think you smell amazing, BTW.
By Cheryl Kramer-Kaye
Cheryl Kramer-Kaye has been writing and editing for women's magazines for three decades, including in-house at Harper's Bazaar, Redbook, Fitness, Star, and Shape. She has won three awards from the American Academy of Dermatology for excellence in education. Follow her on Instagram here.