Everyone knows that sweat doesn’t usually have a floral fragrance, and people don’t actually enjoy smelling sweat. The body’s cooling system has a characteristic smell that people are usually used to, so they don’t generally make a big deal out of it. But what if that odor changes? What if the usually neutral or even sweet smell starts smelling like vinegar or ammonia? Surely that can’t be good.
Why do I smell like vinegar? A person’s sweat can smell like vinegar because of their diet, hormones, poor hygiene, medications, opioids, or if they have diabetes. On the other hand, sweat can smell like ammonia because of the deregulation of protein breakdown after exercise or if there are liver or kidney problems.
It’s time to explain in detail both the causes and potential solutions if a person’s sweat smells like vinegar or ammonia. Keep reading to find out more!
The Chemistry of Perspiration
How does perspiration work? Perspiration – or sweating – is the production of fluids secreted by the sweat glands located inside the skin of humans and other mammals.
Although perspiration has different functions based on the species, in humans, its primary function is thermoregulation, i.e., it reduces the elevated temperature of the body.
The cycle is different for everyone and depends on age, gender, activities, etc. A daily maximum of sweat for a human adult is somewhere between 10 to 14 liters; children tend to sweat less than adults.
Since perspiration is practically water, it doesn’t have any specific odor. The odor of perspiration depends on the person’s skin, diet, and whether there are bacteria on the skin that create acid that results in body odor.
In addition to water, sweat (1) also contains salts, sugars, urea, and ammonia. Any change in this can cause a person’s sweat odor to change.
What Causes Sweat to Smell Like Vinegar?
If a person’s sweat starts smelling like vinegar, there may likely be a problem. It might not be anything serious, to be fair, but it is definitely something to look into.
The sweat itself doesn’t smell – it’s just water. What smells are the bacteria that react with the sweat and then release a characteristic odor that can be smelled on themselves and others.
Eccrine glands don’t usually produce any kind of smell, but a vinegar-like smell can occur if the eccrine glands are more active than usual. This could mean there is a large amount of sweat that is collecting on the body and then mixing in with bacteria (2).
The smell of one’s perspiration is not something people usually enjoy smelling, but it’s good to know that it can be helpful. Along with reducing body temperature, sweat also releases toxins from the body. Those toxins may play a role in determining its odor (3). This can be a good diagnostic warning sign, as a sudden change of odor can indicate something happening inside the body.
If a person knows what the cause might be (e.g., diet, medications, opioids and similar substances, etc.), there is probably no real cause for worry. But, if the change is both sudden and surprising, it should be monitored. In any case, it is always recommended to consult the appropriate health professional when facing any sort of bodily abnormality.
So, what actually causes sweat to smell like vinegar? Most people can agree that vinegar doesn’t have a very pleasant fragrance and that it is an odor not natural to the body.
The most common cause is, of course, diet. Some types of food (e.g., onions, garlic, cheese, etc.) can definitely cause significant changes in the smell of one’s perspiration. This is all due to the accumulation of a special strain of bacteria – Propionibacterium (4) – that accumulates in the body (as they’re found in sebaceous glands) and then causes the change in fragrance.
Meat and dairy can also change the way a person’s sweat smells. Red meat and dairy products like milk and cheese and any other foods that contain volatile compounds can change the smell of sweat.
Medications or Hormones
If this is the reason – and it is identified as such without issue – then it should be fine. Other substances, like medications or hormones, can also contribute to this smell, as well as poor hygiene. If it’s the first and the latter, you probably know that’s the cause, and if you’re going through some hormonal cycles, it isn’t usually that much of a problem because it’s normal and natural.
If the actual cause cannot be confirmed, there might be a more serious underlying condition. Of course, it is always a good idea to consult a licensed physician to determine the cause, but research has shown that one of the more common causes of frequent, inexplicable, vinegary perspiration is diabetes, so it’s certainly not a sign that should be ignored if another reason can’t be determined.
Diabetes can cause high blood sugar levels. When sweat smells like vinegar, it can be a symptom of a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which can occur in people with uncontrolled diabetes. It is a condition characterized by the presence of ketones in the blood and urine.
When these ketones begin to build up in the blood, it can lead to an acidic condition and cause symptoms like fruity or acetone breath and a distinctive odor in sweat and urine that can be described as smelling like vinegar or nail polish remover.
This is a medical condition characterized by excessive sweating that goes far beyond what is actually necessary to control one’s body temperature. People with hyperhidrosis may find themselves sweating profusely, even when they aren’t in hot conditions or engaging in any physical activity.
While this medical condition doesn’t directly cause a vinegar-like smell, the excessive sweating associated with it can contribute to body odor. The sweat mixes with bacteria on the surface of the skin and creates an unpleasant odor. The pungent odor isn’t a vinegary odor but rather a sour body odor.
What Causes Your Sweat to Smell Like Ammonia?
Ammonia (NH3) is a compound of nitrogen (N) and hydrogen (H), one of the most frequently used compounds in modern industries. Ammonia has a variety of applications in different segments of a person’s life, but it isn’t actually a household product.
Ammonia is the byproduct of protein metabolism in the body (5). This chemical reaction tends to happen when we exercise, which is an activity where we burn a lot of proteins after our supply of carbohydrates has been exhausted. This is why we tend to smell bad after exercising.
The side effects of this chemical reaction can be reduced by regulating diet and drinking more liquid, which is a good thing to do when exercising on a regular basis.
While this is the most common cause of ammonia-smelling sweat, some underlying medical conditions (like liver or kidney problems) can also result in this kind of odor. A consultation with the appropriate health professional can clear this up.
What Can You Do to Prevent or Mask Strong Sweat Odors?
Aside from the above-mentioned actions, there are some general things one can do to prevent foul-smelling perspiration.
Of the reasons already mentioned, a healthy and balanced diet, regular liquid intake, and maintenance of general health are important. All of these contribute to the smell of perspiration. For any serious concerns, a call to a medical professional is likely in order.
As for the other reasons, we can name the following:
This one was fairly obvious, right? Good hygiene is one essential thing a person can do to prevent foul odor. Washing regularly will keep the body clean, fresh and healthy and will remove all the extra bacteria that accumulate on the skin and body that produce foul odors during sweating.
Using a natural body wash that has added natural fragrance and oils may not only help with preventing foul odors but also contribute to a more pleasant fragrance should you begin to sweat. If a microbial cause of the odor is suspected, an antibacterial or antifungal soap is recommended.
Changing clothing more frequently is also a good way to control the excess moisture and can help stop the sweat from drying on the skin and mixing with the odor-causing bacteria. It is also important to wear breathable fabrics like cotton so the skin can breathe. Avoid tight-fitting clothing that can ultimately trap sweat and bacteria.
Antiperspirants and Deodorants
Antiperspirants and deodorants reduce sweating in general and give the body a fresh fragrance. Most mainstream deodorants and antiperspirants, however, are loaded with chemicals and even metals.
Fortunately, there are more and more natural solutions coming to fruition that allow people to take a more natural, environmentally friendly, and health-conscious route.
Basic Arm & Hammer deodorant and Jason’s deodorant sticks are a couple of good examples of deodorants that work well.
This isn’t something one can actually intentionally use to their advantage; it’s just a biological fact – one that can go both ways. Since it can help, it was added to this list.
Genetics can hinder someone in that they produce more sweat than usual (6), but there are also some cases where they perspire normally, but the perspiration has no smell.
Such people, although rare, have the benefit of not having to worry about bad odor after some actions, such as exercise. This is a blessing, but again, it depends on genes.
Present since the 1950s, chlorophyllin is the water-soluble derivative of the more famous chlorophyll. This is a substance naturally found in plants and green vegetables. This is an interesting substance as it binds very well to different odor-causing agents in/on the body, thus neutralizing their effects and reducing the smell in general.
An ideal dosage of such supplements would be between 100 mg and 200 mg per day since these doses control body odor very well. They are usually taken orally.
Other Home Remedies for Vinegar Smelling Sweat
Many different factors influence body odor and excessive sweating, and what ultimately works for one person may not work for another. If the body odor continues or worsens, even after these home remedies, it is important to consult with a healthcare provider to rule out underlying medical issues.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Some people have found that applying a diluted solution of apple cider vinegar to the skin can help balance pH and reduce odor and the unpleasant smell of vinegar. However, this isn’t going to be a suitable option for every skin type, so a patch test should be performed first to see if there is any adverse reaction.
Baking soda effectively absorbs moisture from excessive sweating while also neutralizing odor. It can be applied to the underarms after showering.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is packed full of antimicrobial properties. Simply dilute a few drops of tea tree oil in some water, and it can be used as a natural deodorant.
Lemon juice has acidic properties that can help control body odor. It can be applied to the underarms and then washed off after a few minutes have passed.
Foul-smelling sweat can be a nuisance, but luckily, there are several ways to prevent it. This article analyzed the chemistry of perspiration and typical problems such as vinegar and ammonia-smelling sweat. It has identified all the possible causes of these issues and has, both generally and more specifically, suggested several different ways to deal with this issue in the best possible way.
Why Sweat Smells Like Vinegar: FAQ
Is vinegar smelling sweat a normal occurrence?
This is actually quite common and typically happens after exercise or when one exhibits feelings of nervousness, anxiousness, or stress. However, it is caused by bacteria that break down the acids found in sweat.
Normal sweat has more of a mild, salty odor. So, if there is a strong, pungent odor or it smells intensely like vinegar, there may be an issue with hygiene or diet, or there may be an underlying medical condition.
Does stress cause vinegar smelling sweat?
Stress itself doesn’t usually cause vinegar smelling sweat. However, stress can indirectly contribute to a change in body odor. When someone is stressed, the body releases cortisol, a stress hormone. This can stimulate the production of sweat.
Increased sweat creates the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. When the bacteria break down sweat, it produces compounds that lead to body odor. This body odor may have a sour smell and might not specifically smell like vinegar, but the exact smell does vary from person to person.
Why do my feet smell like vinegar?
Yes, even feet sweat. If feet smell like vinegar, it could be due to excessive sweating, bacterial or fungal infections, diet, hygiene, footwear, or stress. To address a foot odor that smells like vinegar, practice good foot hygiene and wash the feet daily with an antibacterial soap. They should then be dried thoroughly.
Moisture-wicking socks and breathable shoes can also help, and foot powder and antifungal cream can be used if a fungal infection is suspected. Finally, maintain a healthy diet and stay hydrated. If the problem persists or worsens, you want to see help from a healthcare professional to rule out any underlying issues like infection.