Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me About Postpartum Body Odor?

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As if sore nipples and not sleeping weren’t enough.

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“Do you smell onions?” my husband asked me one morning as I was lying in bed, breastfeeding our newborn baby. He scrunched his nose, sniffed a few times, and looked around. In the trenches of parenting a new baby, we were barely sleeping, and it wouldn’t have been absurd for the scent to be coming from a dirty dish, perhaps holding leftover scraps of an Italian hoagie, forgotten on the dresser top. But that’s not where the aroma of freshly-cut Vidalias was coming from. It was me—or rather, my armpits—and I was actually kind of relieved that he noticed it too.

A panicked text to a mom-friend plus a quick Google search confirmed I wasn’t alone. In fact, I quickly found several Reddit discussions and parenting forum threads where others were admitting to being in a similar stinky and onion-esque situation after giving birth. Despite daily showers (a basic hygiene habit I prioritized with the help of my support system during those physically exhausting and mentally hazy days after birth) and deodorant application, the smell lived on. I could officially add body odor to the long list of bodily changes that no one warned me about during the postpartum period.


Meet the experts:

  • Felice Gersh, MD, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist based in Irvine, California.
  • DiAnne Davis, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Dallas.
  • Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Connecticut.
  • Meleen Chuang, MD, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist.

There are scientific explanations behind these anecdotal olfactory experiences, so you can rest assured that postpartum body odor is, indeed, a real thing. “It is common for a new mom to notice her body has a new and unpleasant odor,” confirms Felice Gersh, MD, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist based in Irvine, California and member of the plusOne Wellness Collective, a group of healthcare and sexual wellness experts. “This is not considered abnormal, but many find it highly unpleasant.”

Like most of the physical and emotional changes experienced during pregnancy and postpartum, you can put a chunk of the blame for this phenomenon on dramatic hormone shifts. After childbirth, estrogen and progesterone (two hormones that spike during pregnancy) significantly drop, while prolactin (a hormone responsible for breastmilk production) increases. These changes can trigger an increase in sweating.

“The excessive sweating is your body‘s way of helping to eliminate the extra fluid it was carrying around while you were pregnant,” says DiAnne Davis, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Dallas, Texas.

But it isn’t the sweat alone that smells—body odor is the result of sweat mixing with bacteria found on the skin. “Human sweat is odorless by itself, but in the presence of skin microbes, sweat is transformed into volatile organic compounds with significant odor,” explains Dr. Gersh.

According to Dr. Davis, this odor may be intensified in skinfold areas of the body, like under your arms, under the breasts, and between the thighs, because these regions hold onto sweat longer than other areas of the body.

As an avid runner, I’m very familiar with what I smell like after a tough workout and a delayed shower. It’s no spritz of Gucci Bloom, but it’s not downright atrocious. I’m not appalled by myself if I go straight from a sweaty five-mile jaunt to a brunch with my best friend before washing up. What was so jarring about this experience was that my sweat, specifically under my arms, smelled far riper (and inherently worse) than before.

“Many pregnant people have told me that their armpits smell like powerful, cut onions,” says Dr. Gersh. “Others say that their hairy areas, particularly their armpits and groin, which are the areas possessing the most sweat glands, smell like dead bodies. These analogies are clearly describing offensive smells that go above and beyond the normal post-workout stink. In fact, I rarely have pregnant patients describe their aroma as having just worked out.” (I can’t imagine the average person experiencing postpartum body odor knows what dead bodies smell like, but perhaps they, like me, were so bewildered by the change that they were stumped for descriptors for the strong aroma coming from their bodies.)

There are a few theories for why postpartum body odor may smell different or worse than prior to pregnancy and childbirth. One is that hormonal shifts can change the skin’s microbiome, which consists of the community of microorganisms, like bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live on our skin. The new varieties of microbes on the skin postpartum can produce different metabolic byproducts, which can lead to more unpleasant, powerful smells, explains Dr. Gersh.

Another theory for this change in body odor, according to Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Connecticut, could have to do with a shift in cortisol (AKA the stress hormone) postpartum, and the fact that stress-induced sweat smells differently than exercise-induced sweat.

“When you are exercising, it smells different than the body odor you get when a bear is chasing you, and that’s because different physiologic responses are at play,” she says. “So it could be that your stress sweats, because of shifts in cortisol levels postpartum, are what is at play when you have postpartum body odor.”

I can confirm that I found the first few weeks after childbirth to be incredibly stressful, so this theory personally resonates with me. With breastfeeding difficulties occupying my mind and little-to-no sleep each night, I often found myself overwhelmed with worry.

“You’re not sleeping, you’re not eating, you’re worried about the baby, you’re worried about what’s happening,” says Dr. Gohara. “And when you’re not sleeping and your body changes, your cortisol levels go up. So your body is now in a new, perpetual state of stress, whether you feel it or not. You’re happy that little Johnny is cooing and crawling and tummy-timing, but it doesn’t matter. When you don’t sleep, your cortisol levels are up, and when your stress hormones are up, your sweat is going to smell different.”

Postpartum body odor isn’t just a result of these hormonal shifts. Depending on how long ago you gave birth, a new odor you’re experiencing could also be attributed to the release of lochia, a type of vaginal discharge that’s experienced after childbirth. (According to the Cleveland Clinic, foul-smelling lochia could be a sign of an infection.) The act of breastfeeding can also contribute toward a new scent. “Breast milk and the baby’s saliva on the nipple can affect the local microbial makeup, which creates a unique scent,” says Dr. Gersh. This smell is sometimes described as mildly sour or soapy.

Friends told me that postpartum body odor is a biological phenomenon that helps a baby locate its mother, which I found weirdly endearing. And while that could be true, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support it, says Meleen Chuang, MD, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. “The increase in body odor is likely due to hormonal changes and increased sweating, rather than a deliberate biological mechanism to help the baby locate the mother.”

Understandably, a shift in personal hygiene due to the demands of caring for a new human is also a potential cause of an increase in postpartum body odor. “One point to remember is that, in addition to all of the hormonal changes one experiences, your day-to-day schedule also changes drastically,” says Dr. Davis. “You’re probably not sleeping well or showering as often as you usually would. Or doing the little things that make you feel good about yourself, whether that’s styling your hair, shaving it, doing a multi-step skincare routine.”

The reassuring news is that postpartum body odor alone isn’t something you necessarily need to be concerned about, but it could be worth mentioning to your ob-gyn, especially if it significantly changes. If it’s coupled with other symptoms, like severe sweating, pain, or inflammation, Dr. Chuang says it’s advised to consult with a doctor. “These could be signs of an underlying medical condition that requires attention,” she says.

How long postpartum body odor lasts varies. “For some, it may last a few weeks, while for others, it may persist for several months,” explains Dr. Chuang. “It typically resolves on its own as the body adjusts to postpartum changes.” According to Dr. Gersh, breastfeeding may also impact how long you experience a change to body odor because it can stimulate the ongoing production of prolactin, a hormone that’s essential for lactation and suppresses ovarian function.This continued prolactin production maintains the postpartum hormonal state that’s responsible for an increase in sweating and microbiome changes that could result in body odor changes.

Learning that others were in a similar boat and that the issue would probably eventually go away was helpful, but it didn’t solve my immediate problem. I wanted to know what I could do to prevent, or at the very least, mask, the odor in the interim. Experts will tell you to practice basic hygiene—think taking showers, changing your clothes frequently, and wearing deodorant or antiperspirants.

For years now, I’ve used aluminum-free deodorants instead of traditional antiperspirants. (As a reminder, antiperspirants reduce sweat by plugging up sweat glands and minimize body odor, while deodorants only target body odor.) I’m aware there is no scientific evidence that indicates aluminum in antiperspirants can contribute toward health issues (including during pregnancy, our experts confirm), but excess sweating was never an issue for me in my adulthood—so natural deodorants did the trick.

Unfortunately, many of the natural deodorants that I swore by for years—formulas that I raved about to friends, family, and as a beauty writer, the Internet—were failing me postpartum. Fellow moms in my network sang a similar tune. I swore there were a few heavily scented deodorants that were even making matters worse. Let me tell you—gourmand-scented deodorants did not mesh well with my underarm odor. After chatting with some experts, I learned that masking odor with fragrances can sometimes exacerbate the issue.

“When you sweat while wearing fragrances, the interaction between the sweat and the perfume can change the scent,” explains Dr. Davis. “The moisture from the sweat can dilute the perfume and alter its fragrance. Additionally, the natural oils and chemicals in sweat can interact with the ingredients in the fragrance, potentially creating a different scent than intended.”

After a ton of trial and error, I did eventually find a few natural deodorants that helped (you can check out some of my favorites below), but they never gave me all-day protection. In addition to my morning application, I had to swipe them on again in the afternoon if I didn’t want to risk a smell developing.

Because natural deodorants don’t prevent perspiration, and sweat mixed with bacteria is what causes body odor, they may not be the most effective option for fighting postpartum body odor. In other words, they can’t compete with antiperspirants.

“​​I think natural deodorants are just really hard to be effective because, generally, you need some type of chemical ingredient that’s going to stop the sweat or down regulate the bacteria,” says Dr. Gohara. “I just think, at some point, it’s just not strong enough because they’re not formulated [that way].”

In fact, if you’re trying to formulate a deodorant to match the effectiveness of antiperspirants, Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist, says it’s nearly impossible. “Deodorants rely on ingredients like fragrance and odor absorbers to mitigate malodor or ingredients that help keep odor causing bacteria in check,” says Dobos.

If you’ve ever shopped for a natural deodorant, you may have seen the phrases “odor-masking” or “odor-neutralizing” used to describe how a product works to prevent unwanted aromas.

Dobos says that “masking” refers to the use of fragrance, while ingredients like cyclodextrins or zinc ricinoleate interact with odor molecules directly to neutralize. “Cyclodextrins are ring-shaped molecules that form a cage around odor-causing molecules to prevent you from being able to smell them,” she says. “Zinc ricinoleate, the salt of a ricinoleic acid derived from castor oil, binds to odor causing molecules and prevents them being released into the air.”

Another trend I noticed while shopping for deodorants is brands utilizing alpha hydroxy acids and pre- and post-biotics to control odor. Whatever the approach to fighting odor, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should consult with a doctor to ensure the product you’re using is considered safe.

Despite finding some natural deodorants that assisted the cause, I can’t give them all the credit. As time went on, my new body odor slowly began to subside. By eight months postpartum, the issue had pretty much resolved itself—confirming, despite its aggravating potency, the odor doesn’t last forever. Now, if there’s a lingering smell of onions in my apartment, I was probably just too tired to clean up after dinner.

Hello Sage & Eucalyptus Deodorant

Hello

Hello Sage & Eucalyptus Deodorant

This extremely subtle sage and eucalyptus-scented deodorant is easily the best formula I tested during my postpartum body odor journey. The creamy stick glides on easily and never leaves behind a wet, tacky feeling. Infused with moisturizing shea butter and coconut oil, it makes my underarms feel soft and does a decent job at controlling odor. It’s also free of baking soda, an ingredient that some (myself included) find irritating in deodorants.

Ursa Major Hoppin’ Fresh Deodorant

Ursa Major

Ursa Major Hoppin’ Fresh Deodorant

The Ursa Major Hoppin’ Fresh Deodorant happened to be one of my favorite deodorants prior to pregnancy, and it came through during my postpartum period, too. This twist-up deo stick applies clear, so I don’t have to worry quite as much about the formula leaving a mark on my clothes when I’m applying it haphazardly—you know, while chasing my now-mobile baby throughout the apartment. It utilizes a combo of silica, tapioca starch, and diatomaceous earth to help absorb moisture, and leans on hops, eucalyptus, and saccharomyces ferment to neutralize and mask odor.

Dove 0% Aluminum Sensitive Skin Women’s Deodorant Stick

Dove

Dove 0% Aluminum Sensitive Skin Deodorant Stick

When my underarms are dry or a little irritated from shaving, I reach for this aluminum-free formula from Dove. It’s made with moisturizers to condition and hydrate the delicate underarm region, but it’s still very lightweight. It does feel a little wet immediately after application, but it dries down quickly. Since I have fairly reactive underarms, I appreciate that it’s free of alcohol and baking soda. It has a light, powdery scent that I felt kept me smelling fresh for at least a few hours.

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