Roommate with body odor?

Dear Alice,

I am a graduate student. My roommate, also a grad student, has B.O., big-time! She bathes so infrequently, that it takes her almost two months to go through a bar of soap (I'm not kidding)! Given my current relationship with her, I am unable to let her know that she stinks.

This smell is evident in her towels, clothes, and room. At times it also permeates the air of other areas of the apartment that are adjacent and not adjacent to her room. It is so offensive, that I am forced to keep my door closed because the stench from her room finds its way into my room and nauseates me.

My question is: why is it that she does not realize that she has B.O.? Has she grown immune to her own scent? What would possess a 35-year-old woman not to maintain a schedule of regular hygiene? I'm sorry if this letter sounds petty, but you are the only source I can go to and ask otherwise "embarrassing" and "silly" questions.

Living with Pepe Le Pew!

P.S.: I enjoy your "column." Keep it up!

Dear Living with Pepe Le Pew!,  

Frustration with a roommate's standard of cleanliness (or seeming lack of standards) can happen when you’re sharing living spaces. The body odor conundrum is a two-way street: it depends on the actual scent from your roommate, and your individual smell perception and preferences. The scent of body odor depends on how the sweat from your apocrine glands mixes with the bacteria on your skin. There are a number of possible causes for it, like whether your roommate has recently exercised; is experiencing stress or anxiety; has strong body odor in their genetics; has a medical condition that changes their body scent; is undergoing hormonal changes related to their menstrual cycle; or has some kind of diet trigger like sulfur-rich foods. In addition, there could be underlying reasons for them not showering or appropriately taking care of themselves. Read on for more information.

As for your perception of your roommate's body scent, researchers have found that individual factors like gender, age, education level, and genetics were associated with the varying level of odor awareness between study participants. The studies also showed that there are some gender differences in smell sensitivity and preferences. For example, women tend to express more disgust for human or animal odors (including body odor), as well as odors from dairy products, foods with high sulfur content (such as onions) and smoky smells. On the other hand, men found vegetal and floral odors such as cucumber or magnolia to be more unpleasant. In terms of age, people between 20 to 60 years old performed the best at olfactory identification tests. It’s theorized that higher levels of education may be associated with higher levels of personal hygiene; therefore, those who are more educated may be more aware and sensitive to body odors. Other individual factors include biology—genetics has an effect on your body odor preferences.

There may also be cultural differences accounting for the misaligned scent preferences between you and your roommate. Depending on where and how you grow up, you may have certain odor preferences. For example, durian is a notoriously smelly fruit to many in the Western world, but it elicits much less disgust in Singapore because of the popularity of the fruit there. Meanwhile, strawberries, while a common scent in the US, had less positive responses in Switzerland. Is it possible that you are perceiving your roommate has body odor because you don’t like the smells that are emanating from their room?

If your concern is more about your roommate’s personal hygiene routine, it’s possible that it’s due to mental health concerns or executive dysfunction. Someone struggling with mental health concerns may also experience self-neglect, which is when they have trouble taking care of themselves. This may mean struggling with hygiene and maintaining clean spaces, among other concerns, such as getting needed health care or staying properly nourished.

Executive dysfunction, on the other hand, is when someone has trouble managing the functions that allow someone to plan and executive various tasks. Executive dysfunction could be caused by a variety of mental conditions (e.g., addiction, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia) or brain damage and neurodegenerative diseases. Someone struggling with executive dysfunction may have difficulty with all of the processes that it takes to shower, do laundry, or wash dishes. For example, someone who struggles with executive dysfunction may get distracted moving from one task to another and forget that they haven't showered, have trouble finding time to fit a shower into their day, or even get distracted partway through their shower and forget to wash a part of their body. Executive dysfunction is different from just procrastination, laziness, or not caring—usually the person is aware that there is an issue, but they have difficulty managing the all of the processes of executive function that would allow them to successfully complete hygiene tasks in the same way a person who doesn't struggle with executive function would. If you’ve noticed changes in your roommate’s emotional condition or physical state, or possible stressors that might point to your roommate be having a difficult time, it may explain their hygiene schedule.

It seems like the odor in your abode may run deeper than a general lack of personal hygiene. If there are smells emanating from her bedroom, your roommate may have old food or waste, or piles of laundry waiting to be washed, that are contributing to these odors. It is unlikely that body odor alone could waft so far and cause a noticeable smell across your living space.

If the situation has reached a point where you may want to take some kind of action, bringing the issue up to your roommate can be difficult. You mentioned that you don't have the type of relationship where you could talk to your roommate about this issue; the Go Ask Alice! Roommate Rumblings archive could provide some ideas on how to begin this conversation.

Hope this helps,

Last updated Feb 03, 2023
Originally published Jan 01, 1994

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