Smells Like Teen Spirit

How Do You Tell Your Tween Or Teen They Smell Bad? Because Damn

Kids don't just grow, they ripen. Dr. Kathryn M. Lowe offers tips for introducing bodily hygiene without making young adults too self-conscious.

Preteens need to start using deodorant.
Philippe TURPIN/Photononstop/Getty Images

Gah, I remember all too well the toddler "diaper smell test," in which, like parents before me, I tried to determine if my 1-year-old had pooped by smelling his butt. That was bad. But you know what might, I swear, be worse? Trying to sniff the armpits of my son's shirts to determine if he's worn them or just thrown them to the floor during what-to-wear drama. If a shirt is clean, all good. But if dirty, OMG. Teens (and their clothes) can smell really bad.

Why Teens Smell Like Farm Animals

"Some sweat glands work before puberty. But others, the apocrine glands, get turned on by puberty hormones. And those glands are located in armpits, feet, palms, and around our genitals," says Kathryn M. Lowe, MD, a pediatrician and coauthor of You-ology: A Puberty Guide for Every Body.

Buckle up, because the rest of the science is gross. "These apocrine sweat glands release a bit of an oily substance along with the sweat," explains Lowe. "It's important to know we all have bacteria living on our skin, and that's totally normal. When our apocrine sweat glands release oil, the bacteria on our skin eat the oil and digest it. Then they release strong odors as a result of that digestion." In other words, your formerly sweet-smelling kid turns stinky from bacteria waste.

Wait, It Gets Worse for These Poor Kids

When the preteen years hit, kids don't just sweat during exercise or on a hot day. "During puberty, they'll also start to sweat when they're having embarrassing moments, or they'll sweat in response to emotions," says Lowe. Yikes, is there no dignity for these young people?

How to Tell Your Teen They Need a Shower

Though I can joke about a lot of things with my kids, I try to be careful when addressing their bodies, lest I give them body issues. My firstborn liked showers, but my baby, not so much. When I point out that he could probably use a shower, he turns a deaf ear half the time. Teens can literally tune out the sound of Mom's voice.

But Lowe emphasizes it's important to talk about your own body out loud — and that teens, for all their apparent apathy, will listen. "The best thing parents can do is normalize body odor. Don't make a speech about this being a new growth thing. As parents, we can share with our kids when we notice we're stinky. So, for example, if you come in from exercising, say to your child, 'Oh, I can tell I'm really smelly. I'm going to go take a shower to get rid of that smell.’”

Her point is that if you talk about hygiene as a normal part of adult life, preteens and teens absorb the lesson. "Then if we notice our kids are smelling, we can say in a really nonjudgmental way, 'I can smell your sweat a little bit. You want to go take a shower?'"

Give Them All the Tools

If you can get the kids into the supermarket or drugstore with you, give them the chance to pick out their own soap. They're ready for adult-strength, but Lowe points out that the best soap for teens is any soap they will reliably use. "Educate kids that when they shower or bathe, they have to wash their feet as well. Letting the water run over their feet isn't enough. They need to start actually taking the soap to their feet to get that oily substance off," says Lowe. It's also time to buy them deodorant. Again, the best deodorant for your preteen or teen is whichever one they will use. "Let them have control over which products you pick out," Lowe suggests.

Both the deodorant and soap aisle are gendered, so Lowe says you might address that, too, and welcome your kid to choose whatever they want. "You can point out how options are marketed to be masculine or feminine, but deodorant doesn't have a gender. It's not just for boys or girls, and it will work on any body," Lowe says. "They're all just deodorants, and kids can take any they want."

But maybe steer kids away from straight perfume and cologne. Teach kids that soap takes away the oil and bad smell — like dishwashing liquid cleans oil off a pan — but a body spray just "adds a new smell on top of the bad smell," says Lowe. "A combination of a body odor and a body spray can be unpleasant for anyone."

Indeed, we all remember what our high-school classmates could smell like, and there's no need to repeat that!