In order to get people to buy products like deodorant and mouthwash, advertisers first had to convince us that we all smell bad. It worked, and well: most people started using these toiletries, as well as many others, to keep those “bad” smells at bay. But sometimes they don’t work, or maybe you think you don’t need them. In these cases, there’s a possibility you might smell bad without knowing it, but can actually be pretty hard to tell.
The human nose can detect more than one trillion distinct scents, but it’s not so great at picking up your own odors. There’s always a chance you reek something foul and just don’t realize it. If that’s a fear of yours, here’s how you can find out for sure.
If you just lower your nose and take a big whiff of the air surrounding your body, you’re probably not going to pick up on your body odor. You’ll assume everything’s fine and go about your day smelling like something was living in your shirt, had a family, died, was eaten by its young and then they all died too. Why? It’s nearly impossible to smell yourself, even if you’re smelling funky. The receptors in your nose that would normally respond to your own particular brand of smells practically shut down after being bombarded with the same scents for so long. Basically, your nose goes numb to your own stank so you don’t go mad.
Remove your clothes and smell them
So, to check yourself for BO, you need to smell your clothes away from your body, and really get your nose in there. Obviously you can’t disrobe in the middle of your workplace, but you can hop into a bathroom stall easily enough and check everything piece by piece. Smell every part of your clothing and look for wet spots where you’ve been sweating. Sweat usually means you’ve become a love environment for bacteria growth, and bacteria is what gives off the stench.
Go by the golden rule of body odor: If you can smell any odor on yourself at all, others can smell it a lot more. Put on more deodorant, use wet wipes to give yourself a quick cleanup, put on a change of clothes, or if all else fails, rub some hand sanitizer on your pits until you can fix the problem. The same rules goes for deodorants, perfumes, colognes, and body sprays: If you can still detect your fancy perfume on your skin after a while, other people can definitely smell it when they’re around you. So go easy on that stuff.
Run your fingers along your scalp
Sometimes sweaty armpits aren’t the source of funky odors, though. Your hair can get pretty ripe if you don’t wash it often enough, or if you forget to use some dry shampoo after a super sweaty workout. If you’re worried your hair is crop dusting fustiness on everyone as you walk by, there’s a simple way to check it.
Wash your hands with hot water, but don’t use soap. (You don’t want the soapy smell to cover up what you’re about to check for.) Run your clean fingers along your scalp—not your hair—several times. Smell your fingertips and you should get a good idea of what your hair smells like.
The bad smell on your scalp is probably a mixture of yeast, dead skin cells and bacteria. It could also be a sign of ringworm of the scalp.
Check your ears
You probably think of earwax as the stuff you have to clean off of your earbuds, but it can also be a source of bad smells. When this happens, it’s usually a symptom of something else, like excessive earwax, an ear infection, a foreign object stuck in there, swimmer’s ear, cysts or ear cancer (it’s super rare).
Do some breath tests
When it comes to stinky breath, there are a few quick ways you can check for nastiness before you have to interact for people:
- The hand test: The classic move. Hold your hand or hands up to your face and exhale into them so you can get a good whiff. This works best if you wash your hands beforehand without scented soap; otherwise you’ll just be smelling your hands.
- The arm test: Lick your arm and wait about 10 seconds, then sniff the spot. If it smells bad, so does your breath. Again, it helps to clean off the spot first.
- The spoon test: Grab a spoon, metal or plastic, and scrape the back part of your tongue with it. Let it dry a little and give it a sniff. This will probably smell a little bad no matter what—unless you just used a tongue scraper and mouth wash—but you can tell how bad it really is with this method.
- The taste test: If you have a weird taste lingering in your mouth, your breath probably stinks. Whatever is overloading your saliva and taste buds is likely giving off an odor as well.
It’s also safe to assume that you have garlic breath if you just ate garlic, coffee breath if you just drank coffee and alcohol breath if you used your lunch break to “unwind.”
Refresh your scent palate
So how can you reset your scent palate? As Pamela Dalton, a psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, explains to the Washington Post, our sense of smell doesn’t reset and recover as quickly as our other senses. To fully refresh your scent palate it could take several weeks. That’s why you can sometimes notice the smell of your house after you’ve been on vacation. And since you can’t really get away from your own body, there’s no way to completely regain your nose’s sensitivity to your own odors.
Ask someone you trust
Last but not least, you can ask somebody you trust to smell you and tell it to you straight. Without a doubt, this is the most effective method. It’s not ideal to ask your partner or someone you live with, though, since they’re also fairly used to your smell. Ask a coworker or friend, and tell them to be honest. It’s a little awkward, but hey, it’s guaranteed to work.
This story was originally published on April 2017 and was updated on October 26, 2020 to replace outdated links and align the content with current Lifehacker style.