Most of us bring our fingers or hands up to our faces countless times a day without even realizing it. But you might take notice if your hands have a funky odor.
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Bad or weird hand smells are usually temporary and tend to clear up on their own. "Hands and fingernails tend to pick up odors simply because they're touching different things," Miami-based board-certified dermatologist Anna Chacon, MD, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Certain culprits don't just cause smells to be confined to your hands, though. Some foods, drinks and medications can lead to increased body odor in general, which you might notice on your hands. Less commonly, unpleasant smells can also develop due to an underlying medical condition.
So why do your hands smell bad, and how can you get rid of the stench? Here are six common hand odor causes and what to do about them.
1. You Touched Something Stinky
Pungent foods like onion or garlic have a strong, sulfur-like smell that can linger on your hands after you handle them, Dr. Chacon explains.
You might also notice a musty or metallic odor after touching coins or other iron-containing metals, which occurs when compounds in the metals break down in the presence of the oils on your skin, according to an older but often-cited October 2006 study in Angewandte Chemie, a journal of the German Chemical Society.
Fix it: Contact odors typically go away on their own, but you might be able to speed up the process by rubbing your hands with a stainless steel object (like a fork, spoon or faucet) or odor-absorbing bar like the Amco Rub-A-Way Bar ($7.60, Amazon.com), Dr. Chacon says.
Though studies haven't looked closely at stainless steel's de-smelling powers, it's thought that lingering odors are transferred away from the skin when they bind to the steel's molecules.
2. It's Something You Ate or Drank
Strong-smelling foods or drinks — think: garlic, onion, curries and alcohol — don't just tend to linger on your breath. Compounds from the foods can also be excreted through sweat glands that are present all over the body, including on your palms, Beth Goldstein, MD, adjunct clinical professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founder of the skincare brand GETMR, tells LIVESTRONG.com. And when the sweat mixes with bacteria on your skin, you might start to get some funky whiffs.
Fix it: You should notice the smell dissipate as the food or drink passes further into your digestive tract and eventually leaves your system. But if you want to stop your hands from reeking in the meantime, sudsing up with an antibacterial soap can help. Dr. Goldstein recommends Dial Complete White Antibacterial Bar Soap ($5.31 for 8 bars, Amazon.com) or Hibiclens Antiseptic & Antimicrobial Skin Cleanser ($25 for 2 bottles, Amazon.com).
3. You Started a New Medication
Started a new prescription? Certain medications can cause you to sweat more heavily, which could potentially translate to more noticeable odor (think: skunk or foot-like) on your hands, according to an older but still-cited review in the 2008 issue of Drug Safety. These meds include:
- Cholinesterase inhibitors used to treat Alzheimer's and dementia, including Aricept, Exelon and Razadyne
- Opioids used to treat pain, such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) often used to treat depression and anxiety, including Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft
- Tricyclic antidepressants used to treat conditions including depression and OCD, such as Elavil, Norpramin and Pamelor
Penicillin is another common culprit, Dr. Goldstein says. While it doesn't make you sweat more, like strong-smelling foods or drinks, its compounds can still be excreted through sweat glands all over the body, causing an odor when the sweat mixes with your skin's bacteria.
Fix it: Washing with an antibacterial soap can help you combat odors for short-term meds like a course of penicillin. But if you're dealing with hand odor caused by a drug that's been prescribed for long-term use, talk to your doctor. It may be possible to adjust your dose or try a different medication.
4. You're a Heavy Sweater
If your palms seem perpetually plagued by smelly sweat or clamminess, you could have bromhidrosis. The disorder, characterized by excessive sweating, can cause hands or other parts of the body to have an unpleasant odor when the sweat mixes with naturally occurring bacteria on the skin, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Fix it: Bromhidrosis isn't caused by poor hygiene, but not washing often enough can make the problem worse. If the problem seems to affect your hands in particular, frequent sudsing with an antibacterial soap may be helpful, the NLM notes.
You can also manage the sweating by using an antiperspirant on your palms, according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society. In more severe cases, treatments like iontophoresis (a procedure that sends mild electric currents through the skin's surface to reduce sweating) or Botox injections can also help. These would be prescribed by a dermatologist.
5. You Have Nail Fungus
Noticing a foot-like smell...on your hands? If the funk seems to linger around your nails in particular, you could be dealing with nail fungus, or what doctors call onychomycosis. "Oftentimes it smells like rotten cheese," Dr. Chacon says.
Nail fungus is more likely to strike in the toenails, but it can affect fingernails too. In addition to that foul smell, fungus-stricken nails might appear thick, yellow or whitish, brittle or crumbly or have a distorted shape, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: In some cases an over-the-counter nail antifungal treatment can effectively fight the fungus, though it can take months to see results. Stubborn fungal infections might need prescription topical or oral antifungal drugs, the Mayo Clinic notes. See a dermatologist, who can determine the best course of treatment for you.
6. You Have a Certain Health Condition
Certain health problems can cause the entire body, including the hands, to give off an unusual odor. A sweet, fruity smell could be a sign of undiagnosed or poorly managed diabetes, while a bleach-like odor may indicate that a person has liver or kidney disease, Dr. Chacon says.
If you notice that your body and hands are emitting a foul, pungent odor — think: rotting fish or garbage — you could be dealing with trimethylaminuria, a metabolic disorder that occurs when the body is unable to break down trimethylamine, a smelly chemical compound found in certain foods. When the trimethylamine builds up in the body, it can start to be emitted through a person's sweat, urine or breath, according to the NLM.
Fix it: If you suspect a medical condition is behind your smelly hands, see your doctor, who can make a diagnosis and create a treatment plan.
There's no cure for trimethylaminuria, but the smell can be managed by making dietary changes and/or taking vitamin B12, probiotic supplements, antibiotics or activated charcoal, notes the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center.
When to Call Your Doctor
An unpleasant smell on your hands that sticks around for a day or two likely isn't cause for concern, especially if you touched or ate something with a strong odor.
But if you're dealing with hand or body odor that you can't explain or that doesn't seem to be easing up, call your doctor. The intense smell could be a sign of an underlying medical condition that needs to be addressed, Dr. Chacon says.
- Angewandte Chemie: "The Two Odors of Iron When Touched or Pickled: (Skin) Carbonyl Compounds and Organophosphines"
- Drug Safety: "Drug-induced hyperhidrosis and hypohidrosis: Incidence, prevention and management"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Anatomy, Skin Sweat Glands"
- International Hyperhidrosis Society: "Sweaty Hands"
- Mayo Clinic: "Nail Fungus"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Trimethylaminuria"
- Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center: "Trimethylaminuria"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.