Each person naturally emits a unique body scent. This odor is primarily determined by skin secretions, bacteria on the skin and, to a lesser extent, diet and environment. Body odor typically becomes noticeable at puberty, when sweat glands known as apocrine glands become active. These glands occur primarily in the armpits and pubic area. Breakdown of aprocrine sweat by bacteria on the skin is the main source of body odor. All adults have some body odor. However, a distinctly unpleasant odor or a change in body odor arising from your pubic area might signal an infection.
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Apocrine Sweat and Body Odor
You skin has two main types of sweat glands. Eccrine sweat glands are far more numerous and occur on virtually all skin surfaces. They become functional shortly after birth and produce a clear, watery, odorless substance in relatively large amounts to cool the body when overheated. Apocrine sweat glands occur only in the armpits and pubic area, and around the nipples and navel. They do not become active until puberty and secrete small amounts of a milky, thick substance that is rich in fats.
Although apocrine sweat is odorless when secreted, bacteria normally found on the skin feed on the fats, releasing breakdown products that emit odors. This is the primary source of body odor arising from both the pubic region and the armpits.
Hair and Skin Oils
The presence of pubic hair in the genital region contributes to body odor emanating from this area for several reasons. While eccrine glands discharge their watery secretions directly onto the skin surface, apocrine glands empty into hair follicles -- as do skin oil glands. The combination of apocrine sweat and skin oil, or sebum, sticks to pubic hairs. Bacteria that feed on these substances also adhere to pubic hairs. Thus, pubic hair provides a physical matrix that supports the processes that lead to body odor. The same holds true for armpit hair. People who shave their armpits generally exude less body odor. Similarly, people who trim or remove their pubic hair also usually have less body odor in their pubic area.
Yeast often normally inhabits the pubic skin of both men and women. However, a yeast infection can develop if an overgrowth occurs. This might cause an increase or change in the body odor emanating from the pubic area. Such an infection might develop in the skin folds around the genital region, causing a red, painful rash. Women are also susceptible to vaginal yeast infections. Additionally, bacterial or parasitic vaginal infections can develop and cause an increase or change genital odor.
When To Seek Medical Care
Pubic body odor is often simply the scent of being an adult woman or man. However, if you find this scent is excessive or malodorous, or if you notice a recent change, see your doctor. This is especially important if you develop a rash in your pubic area, or a change in your vaginal discharge for women.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.