Something about this situation stinks.
January 20, 2011 11:49 AM   Subscribe

My 19-year-old brother and housemate stinks. He's smelled funky for years, and it's not getting better. How can I either get him cleaned up or trick myself into not caring?

He's generally very presentation-conscious, which makes this strange. It's not sweat, cologne, or any scented product - just a sickly sweet miasma which clings to him and things he uses habitually. He seems in perfect health - frankly, I suspect he just doesn't clean up well enough after masturbating.

I (the big sister) and other family members have (individually) tried talking with him, without effect. Showering helps some, but it doesn't get rid of The Smell. Laundering his bedding clears the air near his room, but only short-term.

I've read this ask, which is the closest I could find, and may try getting him an air-purifying plant or two, but I'm not going to go clean-bombing his room. My current method is to desperately try to ignore it, keep from being in confined spaces with him (like the car) as much as possible, and keep his bedroom door closed. Most air "freshener" products make me gag, but I'm willing to look into just about anything short of nasal cauterization at this point.

posted by VelveteenBabbitt to Human Relations (48 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Tell him that he stinks and tell him what you suspect the cause of the stink is. Be frank. Tell him that other people likely suspect the same thing when they're in his presence.

He will be mortified. He will be furious. His reaction will be very unpleasant.

But then he'll fix the problem.
posted by The World Famous at 11:52 AM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

If it isn't helped by showering, it's probably not anything related to masturbating. I'd have him get checked out by a doctor.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:52 AM on January 20, 2011 [21 favorites]

Are you sure he's healthy? Smelling sickly-sweet is a symptom of diabetic ketoacidosis.

If you're sure he's healthy, are you sure he's using soap?
posted by phunniemee at 11:54 AM on January 20, 2011 [19 favorites]

Is he washing his clothes enough?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:54 AM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Also, maybe it's his breath. I have a friend who smelled awful. It was his breath, but it was so powerful that it enveloped his entire person. I haven't been in his presence in years, so I don't know if or how he cured it. But it's possible it's his breath and that's why showering doesn't eliminate it.
posted by The World Famous at 11:55 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

This sounds really strange. You should be honest with him and tell him to see a doctor. Being as showering doesn't help completely, it seems like the smell would be coming from inside his body through his breathing and possibly cause by some sort ofinfection / ph unbalance / somting going on in his mouth / stomach / airways or something?
posted by WeekendJen at 11:56 AM on January 20, 2011

Phunnie beat me to it. Is it his *body* that smells sweet, or his *breath*?

Although I doubt someone can have ketoacidosis "for years" without other radically obvious signs and symptoms.
posted by de void at 11:57 AM on January 20, 2011

Oh on preview i second phunniemee as well. That diabetic smell smells like sweet wine that sat out all night after a party.

Another guess - does your brother drink heavily / often?
posted by WeekendJen at 11:58 AM on January 20, 2011

I doubt there's any tactful way to say "Wash your balls, no, really wash your balls", but maybe you can casually send him a link to this twitter rant from Ghostface Killah.
posted by naju at 11:59 AM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

One more thing - does he do things that can cause dry mouth (like smoke pot)? My boyfriend can be smelled for miles away when he has drymouth and it at times smells sweet if he's had something sweet to eat or drink.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:00 PM on January 20, 2011

Um... for the sheets you could 'check' via blacklight. At least I think I've seen that on TV before. Not exactly a CSI watcher but should prove easy enough to google. If they glow like a radioactive curtain at least you've confirmed that suspicion.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:01 PM on January 20, 2011

Could it be towel mildew? The smell is most noticible on towels, clothing & bedding when they are warm and/or wet and the scent transfers to skin when a mildewy towel is used after bathing. Also, the scent can transfer off the towels onto the rest of the fabric in a shared laundry load (agggh!) Regular laundry detergent doesn't really work on it nor does running the tainted fabric through a dryer. Here's a cure.
posted by jamaro at 12:02 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hygiene is not the only possibility here. There are people who have BO due to medical conditions, or just something about their physiology. At my dorm we had one guy who had a persistent fish odor about him. It was absolutely not an issue of hygiene. The guy showered 2-3 times a day, used deodorant etc. - but still smelled of fish. It depressed him. Doctors couldn't help him. Years later I heard he committed suicide. YMMV. I don't know if this is what's going on with your brother, all I'm saying is there are other possibilities.
posted by VikingSword at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

An old room mate of mine (also a nineteen year old man) had a similar condition. A funny sweet smell, not quite BO, clung to his body and emanated from his room. I saw him take showers and brush his teeth, but I don't remember him ever washing his clothes, so I've always believed that was the cause.
posted by milk white peacock at 12:06 PM on January 20, 2011

Best answer: He may not know how to shower effectively. He needs some to tell him to scrub with soap the betweens and underneaths. For girls I say "pits, tits, and bits"

He may also need to know that he needs to put on clean clothes , including clean underwear, after that.

Dirty clothes should go in the wash after wearing them once (for the time being, to see if it helps), and not piled in his room. Sheets once per week, and old towels on hand for masterbating..same thing--into the wash.

Tell him a lie---tell him that one of your friends in high school pulled you aside and had a similar conversation with you about hygiene and showering/scrubbing. You can say "maybe it's in our genes, or maybe it's just that nobody told us how to do it."

His other option in life is to find a partner with severe allergies and always have a pet--so he/she is always stuffed up.

You've done what you can to live with it. Be willing to have an uncomfortable conversation with him. Don't make it a joke. Maybe ask him what he thinks is going on and what he's done to try to fix it.

Nthing suggesting a check up.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:14 PM on January 20, 2011

If by chance he has any kind of discomfort so that he rushes through his showers, like if he were overweight enough to have trouble balancing or toe-touching to wash all the way down to his feet, getting him a shower seat along with the bathing admonitions may help.

Another step might be if you could persuade him to try absolutely scouring himself with a loofah all over when he showers for a couple weeks or a month to see if that makes a difference.
posted by XMLicious at 12:18 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bringing up the topic of body odor is tricky and uncomfortable for all involved. One of my comments from a similar thread regarding a coworker's BO:

When you tell someone they stink, they take it very personally. It's important to separate the smell from the person, and to treat them how you'd like to be treated.

What's worked for me, as a supervisor, is to pull the person aside and say that I want to talk to them about something that will be a little awkward. This prepares them. Then the magical words: “there are times when the odor of your body is too noticeable.” It's nice and gentle and so much better than giving them the label of Stinky or having Body Odor. Also, everyone's body smells; it only becomes a problem when it becomes too noticeable. It's the difference between saying “you stink” and saying “you sometimes stink enough that people notice.”
posted by rhapsodie at 12:22 PM on January 20, 2011 [13 favorites]

Is he washing his hair well enough? It's hard to wash your hair unless you are taught how to do it, and heads can get really stinky, even right after a shower.
posted by Addlepated at 12:35 PM on January 20, 2011

Does he regularly take any supplements/herbal products or frequently eat spicy food? When my husband eats garlicy food or takes garlic capsules he exudes a similar distinctive odor through his pores. I once worked with someone like this also. Not pleasant at all.
posted by FormerMermaid at 12:40 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you do choose to go with your Plan B ("trick myself into not caring"), you might start by reading the fascinating book The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.

I am enamoured with a quote it features in a letter from Napoleon to Josephine: "I will return in five days. Stop washing".
posted by fairmettle at 12:43 PM on January 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

Does he wash with soap? I'm going to go with a combination of: laundry piling up and not getting really clean after getting all musty, using a stinky mildew towel, and never opening windows. Once your room has that stench, it's hard to get rid of it.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:43 PM on January 20, 2011

Best answer: RolandOfEld: "for the sheets you could 'check' via blacklight"

I think that might be taking it a step too far.
posted by theredpen at 12:49 PM on January 20, 2011 [16 favorites]

(Now in this case we don't know but just to point out again....)

There are disorders that even with health, good hygiene, cleanliness, etc., a horrible smell can linger around the person.

One such genetic disorder is trimethylaminuria, “Fish odor syndrome,” which is described here in this popular press book called “When a Gene Makes you Smell like a Fish” describes this disorder, beginning on page 4 of google books (hopefully linked here- if it doesn’t go there I searched gene fish smell person in google books and it linked to this book). For a case study they described, a woman had a sudden onset of this disorder in her 30s and was practicing good hygiene, cleaning even her physical surroundings, etc. There is no cure, by the way. Also described in this journal article from Drug Metabolism and Disposition.
posted by Wolfster at 1:13 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, Wolfster, I had no idea! Clearly, that's what our dorm guy had, and indeed his hygiene was not at issue and doctors were helpless. And now I have an explanation after all these years! Metafilter, truly is a resource. Again - the guy ultimately committed suicide, possibly connected with this, so take note to eliminate other possibilities before saying "it's hygiene, 100%".
posted by VikingSword at 1:36 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: >> My 19-year-old brother and housemate stinks. He's smelled funky for years, and it's not getting better. ...I (the big sister) and other family members have (individually) tried talking with him, without effect.

The pineapple household has a rule: never let a family member leave the house in a condition that will embarrass them. It's not about being mean or taking a pot shot; it's about showing unconditional love.

If you are my loved one, and you are stinky, poorly dressed, stain on your shirt, pants too tight, bed-head hair, lunch in your teeth, a bat in the cave... whatever the situation is, it is my job to alert you at home, so that other people don't mock you or think poorly of you out in public.

So if I tell my teen that I love her but she really needs to floss, or if I tell my SO that I love him but that those jeans have gone from looking "devil-may-care casual" to "I gave up", it's not said with malice. And they get to do the same in return to me. And it sucks at first, but in the end we are each grateful to have been gently saved from embarrassment.

As the sister of the person who smells odd, I think you and possibly your other family members need to stage a body-odor intervention. Two of you should do it, so he can't just dismiss your remarks as one person's wrong-headed opinion. Frame it as concern for his health... and also concern for the impact the smell is having on his interpersonal relationships out in the world. Point out that you honestly dislike being close to him, or riding in cars with him, because his smell is cloying and unusual. Point out that, while it might be embarrassing to have this conversation, you are only doing it because you love him.

But if you give up—at any point short of him saying, "I realize I smell funny. I don't want to fix it and I don't care what people think of me"—I feel you are letting your brother down.

This is what family members do.
posted by pineapple at 1:38 PM on January 20, 2011 [31 favorites]

Maybe I'm in the minority, but it kinda squicks me out that a sister would suspect that she smelled left-over splooge on her brother and in his room. To be honest, the only places I've ever gotten a whiff that that particular aroma have been at an X-rated cinema (back in the days before home video) and in the peep show booths at an Adult Book Store (it was part of a bachelorette party). I grew up with two brothers and assume (presumably correctly) that they masturbated and my Mom wasn't one to wash bed linens daily, yet I never got a hint of any weird odor from their bedrooms.... Bottom line, I would look elsewhere (most likely, as others have suggested, for a medical cause) as the source of his odor. Do not, under any circumstances, accuse him of not cleaning up properly after masturbating....that's just totally weird coming from a sister, and more to the point, is probably not the source of his odor.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:41 PM on January 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Do be sure he doesn't decide that bathing in cologne or body spray will solve the problem. That will just add to the scent load.
posted by Carol Anne at 1:48 PM on January 20, 2011

When I was young, my brother used to wear his sneakers without socks. The stench from that remains burned in my brain. So, I'd suggest investigating his shoes.
posted by chairface at 1:56 PM on January 20, 2011

Unless you're really, really fucking up, masturbation shouldn't be causing that kind of odor.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:06 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

maybe he has a yeast infection. I had one once in between my legs right agin' my privates, it smells sickly sweet, bathing regularly and some Gold Bond lotion got rid of it right quick.

my second suggestion is he is not cleaning his behind as well as he should, I had a friend who would just exude a sweet/sweaty odor after a hard day at work and if you were sitting down and he turned around in front of you, you KNEW exactly where it was coming from.
posted by Max Power at 2:25 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Many years ago, I went to the pub and prior to leaving the house, I'd been sucking on some of those Lemsip sore throat tablets. I was in the pub for several hours until one of my mates said "dude, your breath stinks".

For the first 10 seconds, I was shocked and annoyed that he'd say such a thing to my face - but then I realised that not one other person had said a thing. They had let me sit around for the past couple of hours and chat to people with a stinky breath and said absolutely nothing.

One packet of mints from the bar later and all was good.

Moral of the story: They may not like you for telling them about it, but if they have any sense they'll be grateful that you had the balls to do so - rather than sit back like the others and let them be blissfully ignorant.
posted by mr_silver at 2:28 PM on January 20, 2011

Why can't you just tell your brother flat out? If I were him I'd be plenty pissed... that you waited years to tell me.
posted by cmoj at 3:07 PM on January 20, 2011

There is a larger gentleman at work who has what I guess could be called a sickly sweet smell later in the day. It isn't "shit his pants" smell, it isn't BO. It's just swampass smell. Could that be it?

Maybe it is pheromones? Do people you are attracted to smell really good to you? It would stand to reason that a family member would smell like "do not want".
posted by gjc at 3:14 PM on January 20, 2011

I (the big sister) and other family members have (individually) tried talking with him, without effect.

It seems clear that she and other family members have told him flat out.
posted by peacheater at 3:24 PM on January 20, 2011

Is it possible the odor is coming from his hair - a smelly scalp condition that is a fungal condition, and the fungus thrives on oil from your skin. Regular shampooing with ordinary shampoo just doesn't do the trick. Only an advanced soap with lots of sulfur can act on the fungus, while it cleanses your scalp. You can find lots of info on the internet on treating this condition. Approach your brother with a sulfur shampoo for his dandruff and it may be less embarrassing for him.
posted by sandyp at 4:17 PM on January 20, 2011

Does he work out a lot? I've noticed a persistent funk in rooms where people always have their dirty gym clothes sitting for the ten days before they clean them.
posted by whoaali at 4:19 PM on January 20, 2011

just a sickly sweet miasma which clings to him and things he uses habitually.

It occurred to me (like you need yet another random internet diagnosis) that I used to smell something like this as a kid. It was any time I visited the home of a bed-wetter. There is a lingering smell that hangs around when urine is constantly being washed out of linens, clothes, and mattresses. Is there any chance your brother is dealing with incontinence?
posted by pineapple at 5:32 PM on January 20, 2011

Maybe I'm in the minority, but it kinda squicks me out that a sister would suspect that she smelled left-over splooge on her brother and in his room.

Good god, seriously. Whatever problem your brother has, it's not this.

There's lots of decent advice in this thread, but the bottom line is you have to sit him down and say, "Really. No, really. We need to talk about this."

If it's a health problem, he should know. If it's a hygiene problem, he should know.
posted by torticat at 6:22 PM on January 20, 2011

Oh, and be sure he's not using anything made by Axe. That crap smells like the corpses of a million low-paid ladies of the evening.
posted by Addlepated at 6:26 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Does he let his clothes hang out in the washer for a while before putting them in the dryer? When I taught high school there was a family with three boys that all had a particular funk that definitely came from this habit.
posted by a22lamia at 7:37 PM on January 20, 2011

It's not sweat, cologne, or any scented product - just a sickly sweet miasma which clings to him and things he uses habitually. He seems in perfect health - frankly, I suspect he just doesn't clean up well enough after masturbating.

If he's not washing, he'd smell like traditional BO, if he weren't doing his laundry, he'd smell mildewy. As for your hunch, I can't fathom how a splash of semen on his body and/or hands could create a "miasma which clings to him and things he uses habitually." And if this were the case, it would be a more widely-known miasma issue. (Does it even smell like semen? Y'know, a little like bleach and a little like spit?)

Seconding that it's sounding more like a medical issue, either affecting his general body odor or his breath.
posted by desuetude at 7:58 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

The best approach is to be honest and assertive. He will probably get defensive and upset, argue with you, or make excuses. If he does this, just broken record him (i.e., "I understand how you feel, but I still want you to improve your hygiene"). It's not about what you or he "should" or "shouldn't" do -- the bottom line is, you would like him to do something, and the best way to express that is through clear and assertive communication. Ultimately it's up to him whether or not he wants to improve, but hopefully you can at least compromise with him.

I have a friend that I have known almost all my life who has had particularly bad hygiene in the past (we were roommates in a dorm our first year of college, so I had to deal with it first hand). He played computer games a lot, and to be honest, I don't think he took effective showers. It was obvious that he just plain didn't care. He once asked me and another roommate, "Why are you guys taking so long to shower? It takes me like 2 minutes." He may have just been rinsing his body off lazily and not really showering, y'know? Anyway, eventually he developed psoriasis on his scalp, which I've always thought was caused by his poor hygiene. Long story short, as others have said, this can become a rather serious medical and chronic problem so it may be in his best interest to encourage him to deal with it.
posted by nel at 9:52 PM on January 20, 2011

Anyway, eventually he developed psoriasis on his scalp, which I've always thought was caused by his poor hygiene.

, actually psoriasis on the scalp is usually the result of genetics, stress, diet, and over-zealous shampooing and conditioning.

Both my father and myself have psoriasis, and my GP has lectured me repeatedly about how I need to avoid shampooing/conditioning every single day.

My preference would be to wash/condition every single morning, but doing so makes my psoriasis much worse.

In order to better manage my psoriasis, I've been ordered to cut back to shampooing/conditioning only every second day.
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 12:53 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does he let his clothes hang out in the washer for a while before putting them in the dryer?

Yeah, any damp clothes which don't get the chance to dry properly whiff really badly. It's a really peculiar odour, sweet-sour, like nothing else I've ever smelled. And it hangs around.
posted by andraste at 4:15 AM on January 21, 2011

I'm going to second the yeast infection idea. My mother has this, and it is indeed a sweet miasma that clings to her. In her case, she's obese and as a kid I used to help her powder between the rolls of fat on her back, and that's when I smelled it intensely first. Now that I'm older and don't live with them, I mostly notice it in summer, but it's part of her personal scent to me. It's on her clothes and sheets. Back then, I didn't know what it was exactly, but then I also would smell it when I worked at a dry-cleaner, and when some people's clothing would go on the steam forms that smell would come out in giant clouds. It took me right back home, and it was surprising to find that it wasn't a smell unique to my mother - so I asked, and one of the pressers there told me that's what it was. Dry-cleaning doesn't remove odours, only dirt.

So, I'm also saying - if he's got dry-cleanable clothing (because he presents himself well, as you've said), that doesn't take the smell out. I learned that soap and water, baking soda and vinegar are all great things when it comes to cleaning fabric whenever possible, and hanging things outside and letting sunlight do its work is huge too. Things need to be washed properly, in hot water to kill germs and dried thoroughly and aired out. So, bedding (pillows, mattress pads - all of that) and shoes and everything people get lazy about really really really cleaning needs to be taken care of too.

(And if anyone gets that funky mildew smell in the wash, I swear that running it through again with a cup of baking soda takes that smell right out - and vinegar in your liquid fabric softener also really helps to take extra detergent residue away.)
posted by peagood at 6:10 AM on January 21, 2011

The fact that changing his sheets works to clear the air for a while is kind of a red flag to me. I think this is probably a laundry issue. Get his stuff together, take it all to the laundromat, wash on hot, dry right away. Then steam clean his mattress and rug.

If you suspect this is a medical issue, try like hell to get him into the doctor. In the meantime, buy him a bar of pine tar soap (good for most skin AND scalp conditions) and a pumice stone.

As a big sister, and I used to tease my little brother about masturbating. In fact, I still do sometimes, even though I'm 32 and he's 28. He in turn, used to tease me about having periods. (It's not that girls don't jerk off, or that boys don't have hormone shifts- it's about the mess, people, that's all.) He was stinky, but that was a combination of smoking pot and cigarettes, never doing laundry, drinking to excess, and having a diet based around processed food. Now that he's put down the cancer sticks, stopped getting puking drunk, started doing some basic housekeeping, and learned to cook, he smells fine. So this might just be the "I don't give a fuck" 19 year old thing. Oh, and stinkiness/swampass is not confined to the overweight- my brother is still built like a whippet, and was downright gaunt during his smelly years.

I did notice a turning point when my brother was about 20 or 21, and I went to his house and peered into his death pit of a bedroom, and turned to him and said, "Dude, you do realize that there is no way you are getting laid in a bed like that, right?" The next time I saw him after that, his place was tidy and he had actually bought himself two new sets of sheets.
posted by Leta at 9:49 AM on January 21, 2011

You might want to try & figure out whether it's coming from *him* or the things he's *wearing/sleeping in*. If just the latter, then laundry hygiene may be the issue (leaving it in the machine too long, leaving it lying around etc). If the former, medical condition. If both, it's likely something like yeast infection that's being transferred to clothing/bedding.

When you described the smell it reminded me of the odor of some brands of generic steroid nasal spray, which my husband uses and which tends to hang around (my mom describes it as "sweet moldy bread"). But if it's in his room/clothing that doesn't make sense.
posted by media_itoku at 10:02 AM on January 21, 2011

Response by poster: Update: The air's starting to clear. The solution? Improved showering practices, more toothbrushing, and a beefed-up laundry schedule. It took everything. Apparently he just doesn't think of his own cleanliness as part of how people perceive him, or particularly notice it as part of his general presentation on a day-to-day basis. Gross, but manageable, and I'm fine with his habits taking a bit longer than overnight to improve. At least there weren't any rotting foodstuffs involved!

Thanks, everyone, for the great answers and reassurance that he'll probably grow out of it soon.

Wolfster, that fish odor syndrome stuff was fascinating! Bodies are weird, weird things.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 12:19 PM on February 15, 2011

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