It's said that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days... literally?!
July 16, 2010 12:34 PM   Subscribe

What can we do about our stinky house guest? We thought we could tough it out, but it has gotten out of hand.

My boyfriend and I live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. His childhood friend, "Bob," has come from afar to visit for a few weeks. Before Bob arrived, my boyfriend warned me that Bob has a certain... unpleasant aroma. I didn't think it could be that bad, and my boyfriend hoped it had improved since the last time he saw Bob. But it really is bad. Oh, it's bad.

At all times, Bob reeks of sour, stale sweat. You can smell him from across the room. He's been here a week now and it's become unbearable. When I come home from work, the smell just hits me. And somehow, olfactory fatigue doesn't seem to be kicking in. Even when my boyfriend and Bob are out, Bob's smell, which has permeated the sofa he's sleeping on, the pillows and the duvet, constantly wafts across the room. I'm talking waves of stench.

Bob's a really nice guy and I like him, but his smell is getting on my last nerve. I work long hours in a stressful job and when I come home all I want to do is kick back and unwind. Now I can't even sit on my sofa because I'm disgusted by the thought of the smell clinging to me, I can't relax when my place smells like a locker room, and my appetite is ruined. Worse, we're moving next month and our landlord is going to start showing our apartment. Our landlord has been good to us, and I don't want to screw him over by turning off his potential tenants.

During the day, my boyfriend has been throwing open all the windows and the balcony door. He picks up every piece of Bob's worn clothing and does Bob's laundry daily, but it doesn't seem to matter. Bob's smell is so pervasive that it doesn't wash out of his clothes. So even though he seems to shower often enough for the average person, the smell remains. Anything that can't be machine washed, I try to deodorize by spraying with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar. Our efforts are not enough to hold the smell at bay for more than half a day, and it's steadily getting worse.

I don't want to make Bob feel unwelcome, so anything that resembles a full-scale biohazard cleanup is out of the question. Bowls of baking soda or vinegar placed around the room would require explanation. Scented sprays or candles would only mingle sickeningly with the stale sweat odor. Is there anything else we can do?

And on a more personal note, what could be causing Bob to produce such a stench? He seems to be in perfectly good health, and has smelled this way for almost as long as my boyfriend has known him, but could there be some underlying medical issue? Should my boyfriend try talking to him about it? And if he does, what should he say? I mean, if I stank and didn't know, I'd want someone to tell me. But would Bob? And how likely is it that Bob already knows?

Please, any advice at all would be highly appreciated.
posted by keep it under cover to Home & Garden (44 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm afraid I don't have any odor-prevention ideas, but re: a couple of your questions, if it's been a lifelong thing for Bob, I doubt that he's entirely unaware or that this visit is the time for your boyfriend to inquire about its etiology.
posted by Beardman at 12:38 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

It could be an open wound. Those are pretty awful.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:46 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: Opening up windows & doors isn't enough - you need some active ventilation. Get some fans, put them in the windows, and set them to make a serious wind blow through your house. Leave them on pretty much all the time. If he's curious why, just say the house was getting musty, so you're airing it out. He's either oblivious and will buy your explanation, or he knows about the problem and will probably appreciate your discretion.

You don't mention this, but: Does he shower?
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:42 PM on July 16 [+] [!]

The OP does mention that.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:47 PM on July 16, 2010

Oh, man. I feel for the guy. But no one is doing him any favors by gagging and bearing it - wouldn't YOU want to know, no matter how shameful the initial revelation might be?

The first thing that sprang to mind was trimethylaminuria - a hellaciously unfortunate metabolic disorder which results in severe body odor.

Your boyfriend (not you!) may want to take Bob someplace with nice cold beer and nice isolated booths and try to be as simultaneously blunt and concerned as possible. Since body odor is such a loaded topic, maybe he could mentally prepare by pretending he was addressing ANOTHER health concern with Bob - you probably wouldn't feel quite so bad saying, "Dude, I really think you ought to get that mole checked out by a dermatologist," would you?

Best of luck with your odiferous friend - I hope he gets the help he needs to get to the (no-doubt fragrant) bottom of his issue.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2010

What is his diet like? If he has intake of highly aromatic foods like garlic, onions, certain dishes etc. They can release odors from the skin in certain people('Bob' sounds like the poster child..)
Some people just have natural bad body odor from their sweat and natural body fluids(saliva,he might have stinky breath too.)

I would suggest continuing to air out your space, but if it's really bothering your living habits(not being able to relax on the couch because his juices are still on it), you should confront him om this. You can be nice about it but let him know it's getting out of hand. Most likely he'll then offer an explanation, from there you can figure out which route you should take to prevent or lessen the stench.
posted by xbeautychicx at 12:49 PM on July 16, 2010

when bob's not in the house, "linen scented" febreze and a strong fan. spray the febreze everywhere, open all the windows, point the strong fan out a window and let it go to town. depending on your set up, set a strong fan at a window across the house/room with it blowing in. bringing in the new air, shoving out the old, and febrezing everything in between should help.
posted by nadawi at 12:50 PM on July 16, 2010

(Here's a neat article about a scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center - right here in town! - who helps people with inborn errors of metabolism. Not saying this is what your friend has, but that it's possible to have an odor issue which ain't necessarily your fault.) :-)
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:52 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: My roommate is stinky. As far as I know he has always been stinky. He showers every day, though, and longer than I do. Something I've come to notice from living with him, though, is that he doesn't use soap. Or toothpaste. Or deodorant. Or wash his clothing/towels regularly. Or wash his hands. Or take out his garbage. Or wash his sheets.

If Bob is using soap, it's probably a medical thing. Make sure you're supplying him with a fresh towel daily. It sounds like you're doing the best you can.
posted by phunniemee at 1:02 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding possible trimethylaminuria.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:02 PM on July 16, 2010

It could be an open wound. Those are pretty awful.

Since childhood?

If he does have an inkling, I doubt he realizes the extent or he probably wouldn't have asked to stay with you for weeks (hell, I wouldn't ask to stay with anyone for weeks and I'm pretty sure I smell fine).
posted by amro at 1:03 PM on July 16, 2010

I have known people whose mysterious strong body odor was caused by:

1. Butt leak problems
2. Persistent, untreated, widespread skin infections, exacerbated by being fairly (but terribly) overweight. The infections could be fungal or bacterial in nature, apparently. I didn't pry.

Showers don't help those kinds of thing, but doctors do. As awful as it will be for you and your friend, you need to tell him he smells. If you frame in the context that you are worried for his health, it may come off better. In fact, that's the only way I've ever been able to have a "you smell" conversation.
posted by Coatlicue at 1:07 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bowls of baking soda or vinegar placed around the room would require explanation.

If he really smells that bad and has done since childhood it seems unlikely that he's unaware of it. Even if most people are too polite to mention it and he's never met an insensitive jerk in his life, surely his parents would have noticed the odor and attempted to treat it.
posted by missmagenta at 1:29 PM on July 16, 2010

Is sending him to a hotel out of the question? It sounds like you're at the end of your rope.
posted by orrnyereg at 1:34 PM on July 16, 2010

for all you know, he goes into the bathroom and runs the shower, he may not get in.
posted by elle.jeezy at 1:36 PM on July 16, 2010

has come from afar

is this a cultural difference? if so, mentioning which one might get better suggestions.
posted by nadawi at 1:37 PM on July 16, 2010

also: your entire post is really how it affects you. what does your boyfriend think? is he better able to adapt to the smell?

any "talk to him, shorten the visit, move him to a hotel" type suggestions really need to be put into action by your boyfriend, not you - so knowing how he feels would be useful.
posted by nadawi at 1:39 PM on July 16, 2010

My roommate is stinky. As far as I know he has always been stinky. He showers every day, though, and longer than I do. Something I've come to notice from living with him, though, is that he doesn't use soap.

Seconding this.

I once knew a guy who showered regularly, but over time we determined that he NEVER used soap, or lifted his arms, or washed his crotch, etc. Believe it or not, some people don't know how or care to bathe properly.

If he was a real friend, I would figure out a way to tell him he has a problem. He's either aware of it, and should be prepared to hear about it again, or he's not and someone should tell him.
posted by General Tonic at 1:57 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: I thought Fabreze covered up smells? Tried Natural Magic Odor Blaster (non-scented)? Or those plug-in electric "odor neutralizing" things you stick in the electric socket? I can't recall which brand I've used but they can help suck some funk out of the air.

I had a roommate who had a very specific scent, and when it grated me I'd go over the couch with the vinger/water mix spray, then dusting baking soda all over it, then finally vacuuming it all up (bonus points: I usualy add a scented oil to my vacuum cleaning bags so that the room smells like apples or something nice when I'm cleaning). He just thought I was being a neat-freak.
posted by dabitch at 2:07 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's quite hot right now. You could use that as an excuse to go swimming with him this weekend, and your boyfriend will see whether he does shower and soap up properly.
posted by stereo at 2:07 PM on July 16, 2010

Rethink the bowls of vinegar around the room. I'm sure you could find a way to somewhat hide them or make them not obvious to him (behind picture frames, places he's not really paying attention to, on the floor between/behind furniture, etc). Think about getting small bowls (not your usual cereal bowls, but small ramekins or votive candle holders or something). If you want to be discreet, you may have to have a multi-pronged approach (vinegar, fan, febreeze).

If he asks, tell him that your apartment manager may start showing the apartment soon (he'll need to know if he's there during the day anyway) and you want to make sure it doesn't smell musty with him walking through.
posted by MultiFaceted at 2:08 PM on July 16, 2010

I worked with a guy who had an odor he could not control. He was a nice guy but he just... smelled. It wasn't hygiene... he simply had a strong body odor. What helped -- a lot -- was chlorophyll pills. They knocked the odor back quite a lot. Maybe try that?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:13 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh man, I just had a great idea as to how to "hide" bowls of vinegar around the room: get a bunch of cheap, wide vases and a bunch of cheap, fake flowers...and decorate! Except instead of water, use vinegar!

And if he should ask why the vases smell funny, it must be the plastic from the flowers doing something weird with the water.
posted by phunniemee at 2:22 PM on July 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you know when your landlord is coming over and you want to do a little something extra to make sure the place smells good, brew a pot of hazelnut coffee. It's a strong scent that covers up a lot of lingering odors without being obvious about it like a perfume-y air freshner would.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:27 PM on July 16, 2010

Response by poster: Salvor Hardin, thanks for the suggestion. I'll try to get some fans.

nadawi, I'll snag some linen-scented Febreze on my way home from work tonight. He's from the same country and cultural background as my boyfriend. My boyfriend is also at his wit's end. He's never spent so much uninterrupted time with Bob before and can hardly stand it anymore.

xbeautychicx, his diet is typically bland Northern European, and while he's been here he's been eating the same foods we do.

elle.jeezy, I've heard of people who have an aversion to bathing. I don't think Bob is one though, because he enjoys swimming. I think phunniemee and General Tonic might be correct that he doesn't use soap. It struck me a few days ago that he has a bottle of shampoo in our shower but no body wash or soap. And I haven't seen a tube of toothpaste either, but I had assumed he was using ours. stereo, I'll make that suggestion to my boyfriend.

julthumbscrew, that was a very interesting article, and very sad. I sincerely hope Bob's problem is hygienic rather than medical.

Coatlicue, I've smelled both butt-leak BO and skin infection BO, and Bob's smell is neither fecal nor fungal. He smells the way my boyfriend's sweaty gym clothes do if they've been accidentally left damp in the bottom of the hamper for days.

orrnyereg, I absolutely don't want to send him to a hotel. Well... I wish I could, but I think he'd be really hurt. He really is a good guy and I don't want to harm the friendship between Bob and my boyfriend.

dabitch, I'll try baking soda on the sofa and vacuuming it up. MultiFaceted, I do have little glass votive holders, fabulous. phunniemee, that's genius!

Thanks everyone for the tips so far, I'll try them all asap.
posted by keep it under cover at 2:33 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: Okay, long shot but can you look at what clothes he's wearing? Synthetic fabrics wick up stinkiness like I don't know what. Shorts and t shirts that I have that are regular cotton never get smelly the way that the new fabrics do when I wear them as gym clothes.

So maybe something to look at is what the hell is he wearing?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:38 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you come up with a white lie?

'Bob, our landlord is showing the place and since it is only zoned for 2 people, he is pissed off about seeing your stuff / the air mattress. You're going to have to leave.'
posted by k8t at 2:44 PM on July 16, 2010

Charcoal absorbs odors beautifully. Try putting a few pieces in a sock (to avoid coal dust everywhere) and tucking it somewhere unobtrusive, say under the way stinky sofa!
posted by Allee Katze at 2:46 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: He smells the way my boyfriend's sweaty gym clothes do if they've been accidentally left damp in the bottom of the hamper for days.

Seriously, then maybe it's his clothes. That's mildew smell. And I've encountered people who have a total scent blindness to that smell ... forgot their laundry overnight, pulled it out the next day thinking it was totally fine while I was gagging. They could not smell anything wrong.

Maybe he hasn't been drying his clothes properly and/or not washing them enough, and that's been going on for so many years the clothes are ruined. For a day or two, can he borrow something of your boyfriend's that you could stand to lose afterwards? Everything, including underwear and socks.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:49 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: Get hospital grade odor eliminator, it's expensive(8oz/$15-20 USD). I can't remember the brand name of the stuff I had from the hospital, but it is amazing - way beyond the abilities of Febreeze.

This isn't what I had, but it's similarly priced so I assume it is equal:

Call some medical supply stores and see what they have.
posted by thylacine at 3:15 PM on July 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

This may be way out of left field but does he have problems with his sense of smell?

I worked with a girl in the field who would walk into the living area in her bird-shit-covered coveralls and stink the place up amazingly, even after being told that work clothes were to be kept outside. It turned out that she couldn't smell and somehow just didn't think that her clothes were that bad. Relatedly, her cooking was a little off (amazingly bland) and it took us a while to figure out that she went exactly by the recipe and didn't really get that dried parsley had no flavour. In conversation she denied that her sense of smell (or lack thereof) had any impact on her life but yeah, no poop in the sleeping place!
posted by hydrobatidae at 4:04 PM on July 16, 2010

Sorry, what I meant by In conversation she denied that her sense of smell (or lack thereof) had any impact on her life was that we couldn't convince/argue her into changing what she was doing because she didn't think there was an impact. The camp manager just basically had to put his foot down. So if this is the problem with your boyfriend's friend, he may be hard to convince that this is a big issue. Or he may not be.
posted by hydrobatidae at 4:07 PM on July 16, 2010

Seconding Ashely801. A lot of people don't notice this smell, especially, in my experience, if they smoke.
posted by wayland at 4:08 PM on July 16, 2010

Have your boyfriend buy Bob a roll-on of Dry Idea brand antiperspirant/deodorant--I normally buy unscented but for Bob maybe get the Original or Baby Powder. I have a somewhat strong smell and tend to sweat a good bit (not as bad as some guys I know) and Dry Idea is about as strong as you can get without getting into medical products (which you should also know do exist.)

I'm guessing that not only does he rinse and not wash, but he probably doesn't put anything on to deal with his problem.

Also, does he habitually wear the same overclothes, that may not be getting washed? Like, the same smelly jacket everyday? I've known some guys whose ethnicity tends to come with some strong BO to have favorite dry-clean only (read: never) jackets that could knock you out from across the room.

You may want to look into Nature's Miracle products for cleaning and deodorizing. You can mix a dilution of the liquid up in a spray bottle, or use their other products as you see fit.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:27 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: I'm a bit of a super-smeller, and feel your pain. If I should catch so much as a whiff of some stranger's dirty hair, I'll hold that scent in my nose for way too long. I work really hard to keep things in our house clean-smelling - not scented. And aside from the hound dog, it's pretty good.

Baking soda added to the detergent in the laundry will help with sweaty and mildewy odours, in clothing, really! Or, adding 20 Mule Team Borax helps too. In white clothing, especially in the armpit area, hydrogen peroxide works. And the won't add a cover-up smell. And hot water and drying well in the dryer really does help kill the nasty things - I know cold water washing and line-drying is good for the earth, but sanitary laundry is one of my bugaboos. (PSA Please clean your laundry baskets that had dirty clothes in them before putting the clean ones back in!)

But I find coffee beans to be a nice scent that wouldn't be out of place in a home, and won't mingle too sickeningly. You could just love them so so much that you want to smell them all the time!
posted by peagood at 4:50 PM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

The first thing that sprang to mind was trimethylaminuria - a hellaciously unfortunate metabolic disorder which results in severe body odor.

Seconding possible trimethylaminuria.

Yes, this sounds like trimethylaminuria. If so, there's nothing that he's doing wrong.
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:53 PM on July 16, 2010

If it turns out that he does wash adequately, you might check if the smell is coming from his clothes alone: if you leave clothes in the washer without drying them for a long enough time, they can get that horrible stink. Re-washing does no good (that I've seen). How about offering to take him on a shopping trip? It might be something you have to help fund...maybe mention that you've noticed that his clothes are getting "worn out" and perhaps he'd like some new ones.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 5:00 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: If he had a medical condition, all of the pussyfooting around everyone is suggesting would be the compassionate thing. But we're talking about a person where the indications are that he doesn't use soap or toothpaste.

You or your boyfriend needs to have a serious conversation with your friend. "Dude, I love you but you stink and if you're staying here, that's not OK. Go take a shower, with soap and brush with toothpaste and we'll go get a burger."

It has to be said. You're doing nobody any favours by not saying it. He's going to be an adult his whole life and needs to sort this shit out.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:22 PM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some people have terrible body odor that isn't the result of an open wound, trimethylaminuria, or poor hygiene. I've known a few of them. Your friend may or may not be one of them, but they do exist.

There are already lots of good suggestions for dealing with the odor while he is staying with you, but I wanted to let you know that when he leaves you should be able to wash the cushion covers on your sofa (assuming they come off). Every sofa I've ever had has specifically stated not to remove the covers let alone wash them. I have disregarded these warnings, usually because a stinky house guest or projectile baby diarrhea has rendered the sofa useless if left unwashed, and have always been pleasantly surprised by the result. Don't use bleach or hot water, do use a lot of soap and vinegar, then soap and baking soda, then rinse and rinse again and hang to dry. One sofa fared best when the covers were put on the cushions while still damp. Best of luck!
posted by defreckled at 8:04 PM on July 16, 2010

Best answer: thylacine: "Get hospital grade odor eliminator, it's expensive(8oz/$15-20 USD). I can't remember the brand name of the stuff I had from the hospital, but it is amazing - way beyond the abilities of Febreeze.

This isn't what I had, but it's similarly priced so I assume it is equal:

Call some medical supply stores and see what they have.

I have some of this (unscented) MediChoice biological odor eliminator (not the Medi-aire listed above). It is really good. I was in the hospital visiting someone and in the room while they were on the bedpan (consciousness issues) and the spray really worked. The site I just linked to is a medical supply site but it looks like you can buy individual bottles.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:12 PM on July 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

If he really smells that bad and has done since childhood it seems unlikely that he's unaware of it. Even if most people are too polite to mention it and he's never met an insensitive jerk in his life, surely his parents would have noticed the odor and attempted to treat it.

body odor doesn't usually become pungent until some point after adolescence, at which point parents may be less involved in semi-aesthetic issues... Also, parents may not mind the smell as much as strangers (they even tolerate the smell of their own kid's poop), and it could have been kept under control when he was a teen living with parents, but something he changed later. There are people who claim to discover they don't need deodorant, etc, who may just have no idea that they stink, or who think that they just sort of smell "natural", not offensive, so on those rare occasions that someone tells them they smell, they mark it off as that person being overly judgmental.

I would talk to him (or have your BF talk to him). Even if it's medical, there are things that he could do (although that specific disorder linked above mentioned a "fishy" odor, so doesn't seem to fit). And if it's due to his own insensitivity to the smell, he may just need some strong soap and deodorant, and some new clothes, to seriously have a positive impact on his life. Where does he work? Does he have a girlfriend? This has got to effect him in other ways...
posted by mdn at 8:04 AM on July 17, 2010

A negative ion generator or ozone generator actually neutralizes odors, rather than masking them. Sharper Image makes one and it has worked well to eliminate fishy cooking odors in our kitchen.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:59 AM on July 17, 2010

Response by poster: We managed to get the smell under control. What helped the most was treating the sofa that he sleeps on and has his butt parked on for much of the day. We now know that it was the smell epicenter, and the reason why our apartment still stank even when the friend was elsewhere.

I waited until I knew my boyfriend and his friend would be out for several hours, then I went to town. Unfortunately the sofa cover was too big to fit into our washing machine (it's one piece) so I just sprayed it down with vinegar, waited for it to dry, then covered it in baking soda and vacuumed it all off as per dabitch's suggestion. Then I did the same with the underlying cushions. Then I washed and dried all his bedding and put it out on the balcony and hung it up to air out. What a huge difference!

Ashley801, you hit the nail on the head with the smell. That must be it. We figured that it is probably a combination of years of not bathing himself properly and not washing his laundry often enough, so that his sweaty, smelly clothes spent too long stewing away and the smell eventually became permanent - just as you theorize.

Thanks to thylacine and IndigoRain for the suggestions to get medical grade odor eliminator. Even after the friend leaves, it would be handy to have it on hand.

I asked my boyfriend to talk to his friend, but as it turns out my boyfriend has already tried several times in the past. His friend either doesn't care or is in denial, as he wasn't interested in hearing any advice or getting help. His choice, I guess.
posted by keep it under cover at 4:56 PM on July 22, 2010

aaah, baking soda. is there anything it can't do? :) Glad you got most of the stink out!
posted by dabitch at 8:04 AM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

One last suggestion for anyone perusing this in the future: look into some of the solutions they have for pest control, ie "got a dead rat in the walls."

For example.
posted by BleachBypass at 2:05 PM on July 26, 2010

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