PM Pediatrics
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Dr. Christina Johns
Senior Medical Advisor, PM Pediatrics

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Kids Stink

Kids stink.

Sometimes kids stink in the metaphoric sense, like if they’re talking back or having a meltdown or coming up with the millionth excuse why they can’t fall asleep. But I’m talking about when they stink in the literal sense. You know, stink stink. Some kids do more than others. You know what I mean?

man holding stinky baby cartoon

I got to thinking about this when my friend Wendy (a parent herself) suggested that I make a post about kids wearing deodorant. And I’ve received a few “DearDrC” emails from #smartmommas who are concerned that their kids-who-haven’t-yet-reached-puberty already have body odor. What is the right/normal/appropriate age to start dealing with & managing all this?

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves what body odor is, exactly.

It’s the unpleasant smell that comes from a combination of perspiration and the usual bacteria that lives on the skin. As kids grow up and early puberty starts the various sweat glands (apocrine and eccrine -25 cents!) start to produce colorless, odorless perspiration that gets stinky when it interacts with bacteria on skin and in hair and clothing. It’s really as simple as that.

As a general rule, girls start puberty earlier than boys so it’s not uncommon to hear that “girls stink” around age 8, and “boys stink” about a year later.  If it happens much earlier than that, it’s reasonable to have a medical evaluation just to be sure that there’s no underlying hormonal issue or abnormal early puberty, which we call “precocious puberty.” Causes for precocious puberty can range from endocrine (hormone) problems to genetic ones, and the good news is that they are pretty rare. Bottom line: if you’re noticing adult body odor in a 3 year old, check in with your doctor before simply pulling out the stick deodorant. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if your 10 year old kids smell like a locker room after they come in from playing hard outside.

pile of dirty clothes image

While perspiration and bacteria plus the hormonal changes of puberty are the primary cause of body odor, there are a few other contributors that can add to the situation, and not in a good way.  The first one is body hygiene. The less often a person (of any age) bathes, the more bacteria live on the skin and the longer it stays. Similar situation with clothing: clothes that aren’t washed very often can harbor organisms as well that add to the bad smell.  Same thing with food too: eating smelly foods like garlic and onion can increase the odor once digested, as the smell can seem to seep through the skin pores once these foods are digested and absorbed.

garlic and onion cartoons

It’s an inevitable part of growing up:

body changes and body smells, and I really encourage you to start talking to your child about the importance of personal hygiene early in the game including focusing on washing with soap under the arms and in the groin, to establish good habits.  Apart from that, here are other ways to help keep that “fresh feeling”:

  • Make sure your child wears clean clothes every day. Sounds obvious, but clothing can be a real culprit if your kid is older and you don’t keep quite as close an eye on whether it’s the fourth day in a row that her jeans are being worn, or if by chance the same underwear that got thrown on the floor after it was worn might have gotten picked up and put on two days in a row.
  • Kids should only wear clothes that are completely dry- wet clothing can give a musty smell even when the clothes are clean.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help the body flush foods through the system.
  • Avoid foods that seem to add to body odor. Easier said than done, because you have to pay attention and establish a pattern, but this can help decrease offending smells.
  • It’s not unreasonable to start a 9 or 10 year old wearing deodorant once their body odor is noticeable. It will not harm them, and the earlier that they start ingraining good hygiene habits, the better.

It’s amazing how kids seem to go from obstinate tweens who want to battle it out to their last breath about NOT wanting to take a shower, to teens who shower 3 times a day and have so many potions that they smell like a potpourri sachet on steroids. I guess I’m currently in the “battle it out” phase at my place, and I’ll admit that sometimes the smell in the air as my kids walk closely by me is eye watering. I’ve let my son pick out the deodorant of his choice, and my daughter is still being taught the fine art of a “light spritz” of body spray. But they are starting to turn the corner in the category of “shower regularity,” so while I’ll definitely admit that my “kids stink,” at least in the personal hygiene sense they are doing so a little less than before.

young girl holding different deodorants

Keep Reading! Older Kids & Booster Seats: Not Just For Toddlers Anymore! 

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