How Can I Find Out If I Have Bad Body Odor, So I Can Do Something About It?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: What can I do about my body odor?
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Question:

Some coworkers think I smell bad although they only say it indirectly, like speed walking when passing my desk, or not looking in my direction, or covering their noses when walking by.  I have asked my dentist and primary physician if I smell bad. They both say no. I also visited an ENT specialist for the same problem and he also said no. I’m little bit concerned because coworkers’ reactions are the same at different companies. This is quite embarrassing and I feel helpless.

I brush my teeth twice a day and floss daily and use mouthwash, as well as deodorant, but still people react to me like I smell really bad. I have even reached out to coworker and begged him to be honest and then asked him if I smell bad. He said no.

What should I do and how can someone help me? It’s so frustrating that others blame you for something you have no control over. And yes, I would like to fix it if it’s truly an issue.

Regards,
Jake

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Hello and thank you for sharing your concerns with us. There are several things for you to consider about the question of whether or not you have body odor—and what you should do about it.

1. Are you sure you are interpreting the behaviors of others correctly? You imply that no one has ever said you smell badly, you only get that idea from things they do. But, is there a chance you are so sensitive about the issue that you are exaggerating their actions in your mind? Doesn’t it seem odd that medical professionals who would have no reason to lie, say they don’t notice bad odors about you and a co-worker said he didn’t think you smelled badly and no manager or supervisor has told you to do something about your odor? Maybe you don’t have an odor problem! If you did, your friends and family would notice and react, salespeople and people in close situations would show their displeasure. Someone, sometime, would have told you something about your odor and what it smells like.

2. Is there a chance it is your work area that smells badly? Many people eat breakfast and lunch and have snacks where everyone can smell the various items they bring in—and they don’t realize how repulsive those smells are to the person who is not eating. Then, the odors tend to cling on them and they smell badly when they are in other areas as well.

Especially be careful that there is no fragranced item in your work area that people think smells too strongly and that you don’t wear a fragrance that can be detected by others. People at work react as strongly to that as they do to dirty odors.

Could it be there is something you store in your workspace or a jacket or other item hanging in your work area and it smells badly?

Just in case, use soapy water or a mild-smelling cleaner to clean your desk and around your computer or other work items. Keep the trash can emptied. Don’t eat at your desk.

3. Other possibilities:
*Sometimes people have an intestinal gas and don’t realize how the odor floats into the air and nauseates everyone else.
*Some people slip their shoes on and off under their desks and don’t realize how foot odor smells up and area.
*Some people are clean but their shoes or clothes carry odors from the environment where they live and smells badly. For example, if they have a dog or walk through an area on their way to work where there is manure or chemical odors.
*Sometimes work clothes, especially suit jackets or shirts, become sweaty smelling under the arms and it’s not noticeable until body heat makes it smell. Are your clothes fresh every day? Could it be there is odor stuck in the fabric and you’re not noticing it?
*Are you using a hair dressing, a body cream a cologne or even a deodorant that has a strong smell? Hair lotions or ointments can smell very badly and keep hair from getting clean.
*Even though you’re using deodorant, are you bathing or showering every day, cleaning in personal areas very well and wearing clean clothes daily?
*Sometimes odors are related to what a person has eaten or ingested in vitamins, herbs or medications. Is there a food or supplement you only take on work days or a lotion or ointment you use that might be a problem in a close environment?
*Is the food you’re eating making your breath or hands or clothing smell? If you only eat it when you’re at work, others wouldn’t notice it away from work.

As you can see, before you assume the odor is ON you, consider that it might be AROUND you or IN you. But don’t assume that is the exact cause of your coworker’s behavior. It might be some of the other things I mentioned. It’s easy to become “nose-blind” or desensitized to odors or fragrances, which is why the goal for most of us is to have no odors or fragrances at all on ourselves.

4. Whether or not you have an odor, the behavior of your coworkers stinks! What they are doing is mean and unhelpful and sounds more like grade-school bullying than the actions of professionals. If they have a concern they should either tell you directly or go to their supervisor (and yours) about it.

5. The person you should be talking to about this is your supervisor or manager. It is his or her job to work with employees to solve all kinds of problems, including this one. Rather than have a verbal conversation, which may be embarrassing for you and the manager and may make it difficult for you manager to tell you the truth, consider sending an email.

Here is a sample of what you might write:

Ms. Lee,
I am asking for your help with a concern I have. I’ve had the feeling for a long time that people think I smell badly. I notice that Paul and Phil turn their heads or act like they’re holding their noses when they walk past my work area. I often feel that people walk by my area fast, as though they’re trying to get away from me. Last week Maria kept backing away from me as though she thought I smelled badly. It’s very embarrassing! I’ve asked doctors and friends, as well as asking Shawn about it and they all said they don’t notice an odor problem about me.

Could you please tell me honestly if you or others notice an odor about me and what it is, so I can do what I can to fix the problem? I need to know if it’s all over my body or just an underarm odor, or if it’s my breath or my clothes or something else that smells badly. I’ve even wondered if there is something about my work area that smells unpleasant to people and that’s why they act the way they do. If there isn’t an odor I would like to know what it is the others are trying to avoid when they’re near me. I wish they would just talk to me instead of doing those things, but since they won’t, I am hoping you will be honest with me about it.

I want to do a good job and I don’t want my behavior or odor or appearance to cause people to dislike me, so I would really appreciate your help. I am available to talk to you about this at any time.

Thank you!
Jake

Your manager can’t ignore that kind of letter and it will also give you documentation that you have tried to correct the problem—if there is a problem. If your manager assures you there is no odor problem, then you should ask her to help you by stopping the kind of behavior that has been happening. It’s mean and rude for others to act that way toward you.

The final things for you to consider are your overall relations with people at work. It sounds to me as though you don’t have very many trusted friends there, because if you did, they would be talking to you enough that you could find out if they’re upset with you or your odors for some reason. When people feel isolated I ask them to consider the two main elements of work: Behavior and Performance. Is there anything about either of those that might create negative feelings on the part of coworkers? Are you doing your job effectively and in a way that is commended by your supervisor or manager? Are you behaving in a way that is comfortable for people and that fits into the culture of your workplace? That would be something else to talk to you supervisor about.

In the meantime, focus on your work. Smile and say “Good morning!” and “Goodnight!” and talk to people when it’s a good time to do so. Pick someone in your work who you think is a good example for all employees to follow and act in some of the same ways that person does. Above all,  don’t keep wondering—ask your supervisor to help you.

Best wishes to you. Please let us know what you find out. We’ll be interested in knowing.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors