For about two days last summer, Diana (not her real name) was convinced she had a dead rodent in her home. The musky, acrid smell hit her every time she walked past her 13-year-old son’s doorway. She was gathering laundry, debating whether to call an exterminator, when she opened her son’s gym bag—and then promptly shut it. Turns out the Pepé Le Pew scent was not emanating from any animal. Rather it was from a pair of sweaty soccer socks that her son felt no need to wash.
Ah, the sweet signs and smells of teenagedom. Not only does puberty trigger pimples and moodiness, it also activates the apocrine glands, the source of sweaty feet and armpits. Combined with the overgrowth of bacteria on your skin, the glands produce an odor that makes your once sweet, milky-smelling child reek like yogurt past its expiration date.
“Once puberty hits, odor happens,” explains Dr. Ellen Rome, Head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “Puberty might hit quite young. You may have a 7 or 8-year-old with foot smell and body odor.”
Puberty and Odor: How to Neutralize It
1. Shop for deodorant.
At the first whiff of this body change, Dr. Rome suggests taking your child on a field trip to the drug store for some deodorant. “Have them smell a bunch of deodorants until they find one with a smell they like,” Rome says. “Just like an adult woman will try on a few different perfumes to figure out whether it works for her, it may take a few misses until your teen finds a deodorant that feels right.” And if it seems like all the pre-teen boys you know smell a little bit like citrus candy mixed with mouthwash, there’s a reason for that, Dr. Rome says. Axe, the maker of male grooming products, including body sprays and deodorants, “has the corner on the market with teen boys.”
This is not news to Tracy, the mother of two teenage boys. “With puberty came large doses of Axe body spray,” she laments. “They’d walk into the room with so much on that I could practically taste it. I once told my boy I couldn’t sit next to him at dinner because he had so much Axe on!”
The good news is that the solution to most of these odor issues can be solved with a bar of soap and a tube of toothpaste, though if you notice that mouthwash and wads of Juicy Fruit are doing nothing to mask your child’s bad breath, Rome urges you to make an appointment with the dentist pronto. “A kid with bad breath may have a mouth bacteria overgrowth that could lead to dental disease and heart disease in the future,” Rome explains.
2. Get clothes in the laundry.
Unfortunately, some teenagers believe that body sprays are perfectly adequate substitutes for laundry detergent. “There’s this whole gradation of teen clothes,” Rome says. “There’s super clean, kind of clean, not really clean—but I want to wear it one more time.” A parent’s job, Rome says, is to make sure the clothes make their way into the laundry basket before they really reek. Teens, Rome says, often don’t notice—or don’t want to notice—things like sweat stains. But there are social stigmas attached to wearing soiled clothes, she says. “You don’t want your teen bullied or teased because of a lack of attention to hygiene.”
3. Talk with your teenager.
The best way to ensure that your teens implement these changes is to be open and honest with them about how puberty has changed their bodies and sweat glands, Rome says. “If you’re embarrassed, they’re embarrassed,” she explains.
And if you’re a mother of a preteen boy, you might want to think about investing in some nose plugs for the next two to four years.