Without intentional daily effort, I smell like a big juicy onion. Fighting this fact has been a constant struggle throughout my adult life. I’ve tested innumerable products, wasted a great deal of money, and ruined dozens of shirts while trying to solve my odorous problem. After years of trial and error, I’ve finally figured out how to smell good and stay fresh. As there’s a decent chance you’re on the verge of emerging from more than a year of sweatpants, isolation, and suboptimal hygiene to return to public life, I will share my wisdom to ease your transition back to the outside world.
What’s the problem?
Throughout adolescence, I dealt with body odor like every other teen boy: using a bafflingly all-inclusive body wash combo product and whatever antiperspirant deodorant was most heavily marketed to my insecurities. This never worked quite right—we’re all familiar with the public bathroom aroma of powerfully perfumed cleaning agents trying to overpower an undertone of residual stink.
The problem was that I considered “not smelling bad” and “smelling good” as the same process. The key is to treat “not smelling bad” and “smelling good” as separate and distinct procedures, to be done carefully and in that order. Not smelling bad is a matter of killing bacteria and making it harder for it to return. Once that’s complete, smelling good is just a matter of finding a fragrance you enjoy.
You probably shouldn’t use aluminum antiperspirant
The single least-effective thing in my quest to smell pleasant was aluminum-based antiperspirant. While some people will try to steer you away from it through nebulous, unfounded claims about “toxins,” I’m going to steer you away from it on the basis that it simply doesn’t work very well and tends to ruin shirts with even slightly imperfect use. Classic yellow pit stains aren’t a sweat problem, they’re an antiperspirant problem. The chemical reaction between your sweat and aluminum chloride is what creates those unfortunate yellow splotches, ruining a shirt that would otherwise be fine with basic laundering.
[Related: How often should I shower?]
If you absolutely have to use antiperspirant, here’s how to do it: take a shower before bed and apply the antiperspirant afterwards. Sleep in a shirt that will never see the light of day or a social situation. Wash the antiperspirant off in the shower the next morning.
How not to smell bad
Every time you shower, approach your armpits like a surgeon approaches their hands before getting to work. Using real soap—not Dove Beauty Bars or similarly soap-shaped blocks of perfumed moisturizer—scrub your armpits with the same level of thoroughness you used to wash your hands every time you passed a sink in April 2020. Cover every square inch of your pits while singing “Happy Birthday,” if you need to remind yourself how long to keep going. Use an exfoliating scrubber to rid the area of the dead skin cells bacteria love so much. The goal is to make your armpit imminently perilous to bacterial life. Manually destroying as much bacteria as possible is essential to ensure the efficacy of the following step, as bacterial waste is the main source of foul body odor.
Repeat this process with any offending non-armpit body areas as needed.
The cure: mineral salt stone deodorant
Here is the part most people are unaware of or disbelieve because it seems like it may be crystal healing pseudoscience. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find it’s based in science. Instead of using common drugstore deodorant brands, use a block of mineral salt. This won’t cover up body odor with excessive fragrance, but will truly eliminate your body’s capacity to smell bad in that spot by making it chemically untenable for bacteria to multiply there for a while.
I use specifically the Thai brand crystal deodorant stone blocks, not for any greater efficacy compared to other companies’ formulations, but because some other companies use twist-to-extend packaging like standard deodorant sticks, and this mechanism can become jammed with salt. Others will sell you a completely unpackaged chunk of salt, which can be hard to hold onto. Thai sells a cylinder of salt with a plastic base for easy gripping. You want a good grip, because if you drop the stone, it can—and will—break. You can’t use the stones after they break unless you want to rub sharp shards of salt into your skin.
Deodorant stones only work immediately out of the shower, right after a thorough scrub. While your pits are still wet, rub the salt all around in there, covering the entire area. When you’re done, quickly rinse the stone and shake off any excess moisture to prevent salt crust from forming wherever you put it down.
Wear natural fabrics
Once you’re clean and fresh, make sure you don’t negate all that scrubbing by putting on synthetic fabrics. They’re the reason a gym bag can reach truly chart-topping levels of odor. Synthetic fabrics—polyester especially—are fertile ground for bacteria. Cotton, linen, and wool can go longer before becoming notably ripe.
How to actually smell good
Congratulations, you now smell like nothing. From this baseline you can build back up with the fragrance of your choice. As a person with an enormous beard, I use Duke Cannon’s solid cologne mainly because they produce it in the same scents as their beard oils, so I do not have competing fragrances vying for attention. Duke Cannon’s scents defy their comically hyper-masculine branding and are far more pleasant than their beer- and whiskey-related names would suggest.
If you are unburdened by a large volume of facial hair, you have the whole range of the fragrance industry to choose from. Just remember the basics: don’t over-apply. A quick spritz or dab on the wrists and neck are all you need.
Maintenance on the go
When out and about, it’s important to still approach the tasks of not smelling bad and smelling good as separate endeavors. I carry Cremo body wipes for scrubbing myself when the bacteria have regained their foothold, and a tin of solid cologne to re-apply my scent of choice after it fades. Of course, any cleansing wipe and fragrance will do, though I recommend using wipes instead of small deodorant sticks because wipes let you do the kind of manual scrubbing required to actually eliminate the bacteria and remove any stagnant dead skin or sweat. Rubbing yourself vigorously with deodorant, on the other hand, will just coat you in a thicker layer of fragrant slime. And while I find solid cologne more convenient to carry, any fragrance will do, provided you can carry it without accidentally dispensing it into your bag.
Another option, which is harder to find and carry but less harsh, is Bioderma Sensibio H2O micellar water. While marketed as a gentle makeup remover, the low concentration of surfactants within it mean it functions essentially the same as soapy water, without the need for any additional water to remove residue.
With this knowledge, you are now prepared to enter the brave new world of once more standing close enough to people that they can smell you. Good luck out there.