Cultural body odor?

Originally Published: February 11, 2011 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 18, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I was adopted from Korea as a baby. My boyfriend says that I have a different body odor than other "Americans" but I don't see how that could be since I eat the same food as he does. Could you please tell me if different ethnic groups or races smell different — other than being caused by eating ethnic foods (extra garlic, onion, hot pepper etc.)? I am really interested to know who is right in this matter.

Sincerely, T

Dear T,

Don't sweat it; you and your boyfriend are both right! Body odor (BO) is the result of both biology and environmental factors such as the food we eat. Natural BO occurs when sweat meets with natural elements on your skin. The amount a person sweats as well as the different bacteria that the sweat might come into contact with on the skin may very well differ between races — likely as a result of evolutionary adaptations. For instance, studies suggest that Asians and Native North Americans sweat less than Caucasians and people of African descent. But race is not the only determining factor for individual aromas.

Just like fingerprints, BO is unique to every person, even for people who share living spaces and dietary habits. Unlike fingerprints, however, BO may not always smell the same or be perceived the same way by every person. Sweat is full of hormones and their concentrations may vary depending on mood, health, age, and even a woman's menstrual cycle. These changing hormone levels in sweat may make it smell different. Combined with other scent-producing components of sweat, a person's BO may smell great to some people, whereas others may find it very unpleasant or even odorless. The human nose has 400 different scent receptors and is able sense over 10,000 different smells and some scientists believe sensation of smell may be biologically linked.

Looking at your BO from this perspective, the unique aroma that your boyfriend has commented on may not necessarily be race-related, but it is certainly your own unique identifier. Foods and other environmental factors may change it slightly, but it is most likely the product of a combination of individual biological factors. If you're concerned about your BO or notice any changes, consider speaking to a health care provider. Columbia students may contact Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Revel in the fact that your unique smell might just be one of the characteristics your boyfriend is attracted to! 

Alice