A Germ Expert Answers the 3 Little Words on Your Brain: Should I Shower?

Photo: Getty Images/Maskot
Were Shakespeare living in these times, he perhaps might have pondered the question: To shower, or not to shower. Because with nowhere to go and nothing to do (IRL, that is), it is the question on everyone's minds. Whereas a few months ago you might have been showering to nix subway grime, these days, body odor is the only real reason to lather up on the reg. And, since stress can cause your body odor to change, there may come a day when you catch a whiff and ask yourself: Am I dirty... smelly... or... both?

Basically, the two are not mutually exclusive. Germ expert and microbiologist Jason Tetro says that you can be smelly without being dirty and vice versa. "When we talk about clean, we are saying free of any foreign material such as dirt, grease, and bodily secretions. When we talk about smelly, we're dealing with the formation of odor-causing chemicals," he says. In the latter case, odor-causing chemicals come from bacteria and yeast on the skin creating their own waste (which tends to smell), or the formation of your body's own waste products such as ammonia (from breaking down protein).

The thing is that your body is always creating waste, says Tetro, which means that you can become smelly even if you have no foreign material (dirt) on your body. Honestly, given that many of our commutes now consist of moving from the bed to the couch, this is likely the case. "That means in theory that you are 'clean' but you still produce a smell," he says. Often, this is due to stress sweat (which is a very real thing). Studies done by Secret indicate that women can sweat up to 30 times the normal amount when stressed (ahem: now). While on its own, sweat doesn't have a scent, when it mixes with the bacteria on certain parts of the skin like the armpits and groin, it, um, ripens up.

On the other hand, there are plenty of foreign objects that can make you dirty—like dust and grease—but not smelly. "Our bodies naturally have many functions, including sweating, which often is accompanied by body odor," adds Whitney Bowe, MD, board-certified dermatologist and Schmidt's deodorant partner. "This doesn’t specifically relate to being clean or dirty, often just simply being active. Our lifestyle, diet, and environment all contribute to how we smell, so personal hygiene is only one factor."

Whether you're dirty or have a case of B.O., Tetro says that the solution is the same: Use soap and water. "For both dirt and smell, the best thing to do is remove the chemicals involved, which is best accomplished using soap and water," he says. "There's really no difference in the way that you clean yourself." Just be sure to pay special attention to the foreign materials that are making you dirty or smelly (or both). Or, if you want to skip your shower (which is totally A-okay too), Dr. Bowe suggests swiping on a deodorant to make you smell a little more pleasant. "If you're sensitive to the way you smell, changing up your deodorant is one way to help neutralize the odor," she says (her fave is Schmidt's Rose+Vanilla, $9). Or, ya know, if you're quarantined alone, let that dirt and smell be free.

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