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."

4. Infection

Speaking of infection, a belly button infection (bacterial or yeast) can produce some serious smelly odors. According to the Cleveland Clinic, infections thrive in warm, dark environments—so all you "innies" out there, beware. A tell-tale sign of a belly button infection is a bright red rash. It will probably be itchy, too.

Treatment includes anti-fungal medication that can come in the form of cream, ointments, or powder. These can be found over-the-counter at your local drugstore. Most importantly, you'll want to practice belly button care by keeping it clean and dry as it's recovering.

5. Cysts

The culprit that's causing your smelly belly might be a sight unseen. It's possible you have a cyst behind your belly button, creating an unpleasant odor no matter how many times you wash it. A urachal cyst is a small sac of tissue that forms in the area between the bladder and belly button, per the National Institutes of Health. This sac usually goes away own its own after birth, but every so often it decides to stick around in some people.

Urachal cysts can occur at any age, but older children and adults are more prone to them. If the cyst becomes infected it can cause a foul odor. Since they're internal, these kind of cysts need to be treated by a doctor. Treatment options may include surgery to remove the tissue causing cysts to grow.

When to see a doctor

If you notice a smell coming from your belly button, the first step is to practice basic naval hygiene and clean the area with soap. If that's not working, see your doctor to determine the cause of the odor and come up with a treatment plan.

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.

Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser, smelly belly button
Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Wash — $16.00

Mario Badescu is a trusted name in the skin care game. This glycolic foaming cleanser isn’t your ordinary face wash. It’s made with glycolic acid (that can speed up cell turnover) and blended with chamomile, marshmallow, sage, St. John’s wort, and yarrow extracts for a soothing smell. Consumers are warned that this wash shouldn’t be mixed with topical prescriptions or on inflamed, sensitive skin.


  • Made with exfoliating ingredients (glycolic acid)
  • Good for all skin types—normal, dry, combination, and oily
  • Vegan and cruelty-free


  • Can increase the skin’s sensitivity to sun
  • Can’t be combined with topical prescriptions or ointments

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."

Dove Sensitive Skin Sulfate-Free Shower Foam Body Wash
Dove Sensitive Skin Shower Foam — $8.00

This gentle cleanser by Dove is perfect for sensitive skin. Clean your belly button with care using this lightweight wash that is sulfate-free. The cleanser features Dove’s NutriumMoisture™ technology, combining natural lipids and moisturizers to help support a healthy skin barrier. Customers say the scent is subtle and not too overpowering.


  • Inexpensive
  • Good for sensitive skin
  • More than 250 pumps of cleanser per bottle
  • Made with hypoallergenic and sulfate-free ingredients


  • Scented (which can irritate sensitive skin)

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.

Get more derm-approved shower tips:


Are certain people more prone to a smelly navel?

Poor hygiene is the most common cause of a smelly belly button, causing infection. But infections are more common in certain groups of people including those who are pregnant, taking antibiotics, have overweight/obesity, or receiving cancer treatment like chemotherapy, per the Cleveland Clinic.

How often should I clean my belly button?

Cleaning your belly button every time you shower is a good way to stay on top of belly button odor and prevent naval odor and infection. The area should be washed with warm water and anti-bacterial soap, then thoroughly rinsed.

Why does my belly button smell even if I wash it?

If your belly button smells even when you wash it, see your doctor. It's possible there's an underlying cause or condition creating the odor (like an infection or cyst). A doctor may recommend a prescription or alternative treatment to deal with the smell.

Want to be the first to hear about the latest (and greatest) SHOP product drops, custom collections, discounts, and more? Sign up to have the intel delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...