Science 4 min read

Body Odor, Armpit Transplants & Staphylococcus hominis

WAYHOME studio /

WAYHOME studio /

Often one of the more unpleasant parts of being human, body odor is caused by the S. hominis bacteria. As the microorganisms break down sweat, they produce a pungent substance called thioalcohol. How can understanding these bacteria help scientists improve our hygiene? 

According to a team of scientists from both the University of York and the personal care products giant Unilever, Staphylococcus homini and a few other species of bacteria break down sweat into several components. One of these components, thioalcohol, can have an aroma spectrum spanning from ripe onions to rotten eggs, and somewhere on that spectrum looms the “aroma” of human body odor.

Where the S. hominis Hides Away

The longer Staphylococcus bacteria has to munch on your sweat- say in unwashed, day-old gym clothes- the longer it has to produce thioalcohol. Because the bacteria are microscopic, it may seem that a relatively large number of S. hominis is required to produce enough thioalcohol for a really noticeable stink. However, the team’s findings show that a relatively small number to smell up the joint.

In fact, despite more Staphylococcus bacteria existing in the microbiome of your armpit than there are humans on planet Earth, researcher Daniel Bawdon explains that “most…don’t produce this [thioalcohol] and only a certain limited number of species seem to create this biochemical reaction.”

Antiperspirant or Antithioalcohol?

We all have our own morning ritual, but for the most part, we shower to remove the bacteria and the thioalcohol they’ve produced. Next, deodorant.

Currently, most deodorants use strong fragrances to mask the smell.

Antiperspirants, on the other hand, temporarily reduce sweat production with aluminum salts. Despite their effectiveness, some consumers are concerned about the affects these salts have on their skin and overall health.

“His approach, which replaces the thioalcohol producing bacteria in the biome, earned him the title ‘Dr. Armpit’.”

Other options include antibiotics, but since their use indiscriminately eliminates all kinds of bacteria found in your armpit’s biome, this method is literally overkill.

At the end of the day, sweat is the source of the problem and the odor is really a symptom. Therefore, the above solutions will only mask your natural odor for a day, at best (or really, until you perspire and the bacteria multiply and get back to work).

The team’s findings, however, contribute to a more profound understanding of the process that creates body odor. In turn, their work could help develop more effective personal hygiene solutions that target the biochemical production of thioalcohol specifically.

Armpit Transplant

George Preti, the scientist credited with identifying thioalcohol as the source of body odor, explains that doing away with body odor will take more time and research. As the owner of a dozen patents related to deodorants, Preti says, “even if they could stop this process from happening, it would need to meet a rigorous standard for approval to be used on your skin.”

In the meantime, there are a few…less conventional options. One, for instance, is using another bacteria to eliminate your skin’s ability to produce sweat: Botox can.

If that’s not enough, consider Chris Callewaert‘s method, which is to transplant the armpit biome. His approach, which replaces the thioalcohol producing bacteria in the biome, earned him the title “Dr. Armpit.”

Working at Ghent University in Belgium, Callewaert’s results have thus far been inconsistent. Currently, the procedure works permanently on about 50% of subjects tested.

As long as we’re still trapped in this organic vessel, body odor is part of being human and a constant reminder of our more primitive roots. As we evolve, social standards and personal hygiene leave little room for beastly odor, but perhaps eliminating sweat all together might have unintended consequences.

Because sweat is the body’s way to help us cool down, human sweat is mostly water. In addition to regulating our body temperature, the body also uses sweat to eliminate biproducts of metabolization. Sweat also can contain lactic acid and urea, which can be harmful to our system if not eliminated.

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