The Causes of a Smelly Belly Button—And How To Fix It

Photo: Getty/Alys Tomlinson
The belly button is the last frontier of wellness. I cannot think of a body part that gets brushed aside more often. Feet get soaked then stroked, armpits get swathed in coconut-oil-arrowroot concoctions, and vaginas, well, consider them the Queen of the Nile. But if memory serves, the last time I checked in on my belly button, I found that it stank so badly that the only way to cope was to go back to pretending I didn't have one in the first place.

So, it should come as no surprise to hear that when I turned to my soon-to-be husband and asked him to have a look, things got ugly. And I'm not just talking about the appearance of the body part in question (which is ugly, IMHO). If he couldn't deign to take a peek—in the name of love!—could I at least pay someone to pamper my navel? But no belly-button equivalent of the 24-karat gold pedicure that I'm sure someone somewhere is offering (found it!) seemed to exist. If I wanted to invest in my smelly belly button, I'd have to take things into my own hands.

So, I did... for a week... on assignment.

Experts In This Article

I started a belly button self-care routine, forcing myself to deal with the fact that in its current state, I'm not pleased with my belly button. My goal? To make it nice. To make it the navel version of Fixer Upper. I would whip this forgotten real estate into shape and learn to love it. Here's how that went.

Why your belly button is smelly

1. Bacteria

A few years back, researchers at North Carolina University kicked off the Belly Button Biodiversity Project so that scientists could better understand the microflora that populate the oft-damp body crevice. Their findings were that the number of species that live in one's navel are as diverse as a rainforest. The most common strains that scientists found were Staphylococcus (yeahhhh...), Corynebacteria, Actinobacteria, Clostridiales, and Bacilli.

Now, it's important to note that despite certain strains being common, there were frequently bizarro, seemingly random ones that were only picked up in one person (a la the rainforest effect). Or, how I like to think of it, according to this small study: Belly buttons are like fingerprints, perfectly unique to you. And yet, that doesn't mean that you want Staph bacteria lurking on your skin.

2. It's a crevice

As I turn an eye to cleaning things up, I reach out to New York City dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, who tells me that, like any other part of the body, you should be keeping an eye on the crevice.

"The belly button skin sheds, it has oil, and it has bacteria," she says. "If you have an innie, it does require you to wash it, but if you have an outie, you don't have that same internal skin-on-skin crevice, so when skin sheds, it's more likely to shed out and your more likely to get soap and water to run through it when you're in the shower."

3. Sweat and moisturizer

So, regular washing is a must. But if we're treating our tummies the way we do our faces and limbs, should regular moisturizing also be part of the regimen? A resounding no.

"If you're someone who sweats a lot or your moisturizer gets in your belly button, it can increase the moisture in the skin, which in a dark crevice can induce or increase the growth of yeast like candida, which can cause a smell or make the belly button inflamed," she Dr. Nazarian. "The belly button shouldn't have an odor at all, so if you notice one, it's a sign of bacteria, or yeast, or fungus."

The dermatologist-approved belly button wellness routine

When I first started this assignment, I imagined laying out for you the beginner's, mid-range, and hardcore wellness routines for belly buttons that I was certain would include luxe oils and massage routines and the like. What I found, however, was that the wellness routine for the double B starts and stops in the shower.

If you, like me, hadn't washed your navel in a hot second (figuring the soap and water must get in there when you scrub down the rest of your trunk in the shower), Dr. Nazarian suggests reaching for a gentle glycolic face cleanser such as the Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Wash ($16) to help slough off some of the dead skin that needs to be exfoliated. Take note: It's important to thoroughly rinse the belly button to make sure that it's devoid of any lingering soap, which could cause inflammation. She also notes that if it's stinky, you've got to dry up the area, so place a bit of alcohol (a drying agent) on a Q-tip and go over the area.

Once you notice that your skin is in a better (read: less-molting) place, swap for something light and airy like Dove Sensitive Skin Shower Foam ($8). "You don't have to worry about using too much soap and not enough water with Dove. It lathers up and foams really, really nicely," Dr. Nazarian says. "Just make sure you're rinsing. I don't mind a moisturizing cleanser because you're rinsing everything off and not allowing moisturizer to just sit in there."

With that, I up my shower game and get to work. Day one is by far the grossest. I loofah over my belly button and use my pointer finger to increase the lather in the crevice. I find some dead skin is lingering there, so I wash it out. Then, I towel off and go about my business, repeating the steps for a week. By day seven, I'm happy to report that I no longer pretend I don't have a belly button. I'm fully aware that it exists because now I wash it once a day.

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