Phantom Smell?
July 9, 2012 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I apparently have a mildly unpleasant odor that permeates everything I own, and only one person can smell it. How can I find out what's causing it?

Because it's kind of an embarrassing subject, my friend took 2 years to mention that I almost always have a odor (that isn't B.O.) and that it seeps in to my clothes, so that she can smell it on my clothes/pillow/anything cloth that I own. I've asked other friends and none of them are able to smell anything.

The one friend who can smell this notices that it gets stronger if I skip a shower. She can even faintly smell it right after I get out of the shower. I'm just wondering if anyone has any idea what it could be, or how I can find out what could be causing this. Any help at all is appreciated.
posted by sepsis to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would propose that if only one person can smell it and that person is not you, then perhaps the problem is not yours but hers.
posted by elizardbits at 7:32 AM on July 9, 2012 [28 favorites]

You have many friends, many of whom were consulted, but only one can smell this 'odor'? Is this friend able to smell everyone's own particular odor? I think the issue is with your friend's superhuman ability to track scent more than with any smell you may or may not be emitting.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:33 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she's the only person who smells this, then it's either:

a) In her head and there's no smell.
b) She has a super-human sniffer and can smell things that are only barely there.

Either way, there's really absolutely nothing you can or should do if others can't detect it (like a doctor). I mean, if you showed up for a physical and you had an obvious odor problem, they'd almost certainly tell you.
posted by inturnaround at 7:33 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

She might have a super sensitive nose (yeah, mice) - and without being able to identify the "type" of smell (fishy? mildew? sour?) it might be hard to pinpoint what you're excreting and if it's a physiological problem or just an effect from something you regularly consume.

How long do you "own" something before it becomes imbued with it? Maybe changing your laundry routine? What kind of soaps do you use for laundry and self?

Does it bother her significantly? If she's the only one who can smell it and you have no other ill effects ... I dunno.
posted by tilde at 7:34 AM on July 9, 2012

I know a couple of people who I am, for some reason, just really sensitive to their natural body odor (and no, it doesn't smell like "B.O.", it just smells... different than other people). I've never figured out what causes it and I usually don't tell them because it's a bit rude to say, "You smell different."

Is there some particular reason you care about how you smell to this girl, such that you want to change it? If so, it seems like she'd be the best person to help you figure out what's going on.
posted by muddgirl at 7:37 AM on July 9, 2012

It is said that people who eat meat and dairy smell more than people who don't, and that people who are vegan and spend a lot of time around vegans can sometimes pick this smell up. Is there anything you eat that is unusual for your friends' social circles?

Also, I dimly recall reading that some people metabolize onions and related vegetables differently and smell a bit to the sensitive among us.

That said, if you're sure that your other friends are being honest with you and your sensitive friend is the only one who can smell it, you probably shouldn't worry. Everyone has a smell; that's part of having a body.
posted by Frowner at 7:40 AM on July 9, 2012

It's possible it's not a natural smell at all. Maybe she's just smelling your deodorant/lotion/shampoo/detergent/combination-thereof. Even allegedly "odorless" products usually smell like something.
posted by valkyryn at 7:44 AM on July 9, 2012

Maybe she smells your smell because it's different than hers, not because it's especially strong or bad.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:47 AM on July 9, 2012

Most people have a smell. My sense experience is the same as your friend's. I pick up on people's scents when some other people can't smell anything in particular (though I'm no special snowflake!), and it's usually not at all unpleasant.

As she's said (is this verbatim?) 'mildly unpleasant' I dig your choice to try to find out what's going on, though.

What shower products do you use? (Water is a good cleaner, but not thorough, especially in terms of scents. The idea is not to soap/gel up to fragrance yourself but to clean the skin of as much it's picked up as possible, so that you can see what sort of natural scent does emerge. Fragrance is a bonus if you like it.)

Look at toiletries, laundry products, diet, as others have said. You might be reacting to one of these and could try switching, see if it changes your scent.

If you'd like to get an inkling of what your you-scent is, here's a few situations where I can easily identify mine or others':
- returning to my house/room after I've been out
- sniffing worn (but mostly clean!) clothes
- hugging

Think of it as a choice, though, if you can - you don't necessarily need to set about changing your body's scent unless you choose to, same as with facial hair, body hair, head hair, makeup or clothes. If you're anxious about it (I understand! But it seems unclear whether you really ought to be worrying and to what extent) it's harder to embrace something new.

Do enjoy! Good luck exploring.
posted by lokta at 7:52 AM on July 9, 2012

Everyone has a smell. Like Lokta, I often notice people's scent. It's not BO and usually I think it's pleasant, especially when it's my friends or loved ones. If no one else can smell you, this is totally this girl just not liking your smell, and nothing to do with you really.

Imagine if someone had told you they didn't like your laugh- you'd probably think they were rude, freak out asking other people of you laugh wrong for a while, they'd tell you you were fine and you'd get over it. This is basically the same thing.
posted by MadamM at 8:03 AM on July 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

There's a pretty cool experiment by Dr Robert Winston (here I think) that talks about how we prefer the smell of people we are genetically dissimilar to. Maybe you and your friend are relatively similar, gene-wise, and her brain is simply making sure you guys don't procreate :)

Anecdata - I once met a guy who was soooo attractive and lovely and talented, but the night we finally kissed after knowing each other for a while, his personal smell, whilst not bad as such, was incredibly repellent to me, in a way I still find hard to describe. I could never explain to him why I went cold so quickly, but that was literally all it was! Stupid brain... I just wanted to have some fun with him, not BREED goddamnit.
posted by greenish at 8:23 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is it possible that this person is attracted to you and is uncomfortable with that attraction? I can think of two ex's of mine with whom I had similar experiences - I could always tell their scent from everyone else's, because something about it was immensely appealing to me. Maybe if she's super into you and unconsciously doesn't WANT to be into you for some reason, she is interpreting this potential attraction smell as a Bad Thing.

humans are so weird
posted by elizardbits at 8:27 AM on July 9, 2012

Could it be something in your house? Damp perhaps? Someone I knew had a damp house and if I went round there for an hour I could smell it on me and my clothes afterwards.
posted by KateViolet at 8:47 AM on July 9, 2012

My ex used to be very sensitive to the smell of clothes turned sour from spending too long time damp after washing. I note the smell, but not in as small quantities as she did. Could it be such a smell, rubbing from a bad towel onto you and not the other way?
posted by springload at 9:20 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't worry about this as I'm usually the one in my group of friends who notices weird smells.

One of my friends smells like an odd mix of blue cheese and a new paperback book to me. He smelled like that to me ever since I met him and none of our other friends have been able to smell it. It doesn't go away if he showers/doesn't shower, wears cologne (that just makes it smell weirder), or try new detergents. I also have friends who smell really really good to me! I've just learned to live with the fact that people and things smell different to me. It's pretty weird, but there's nothing that can be done about it.
posted by astapasta24 at 9:37 AM on July 9, 2012

My ex used to be very sensitive to the smell of clothes turned sour from spending too long time damp after washing. I note the smell, but not in as small quantities as she did. Could it be such a smell, rubbing from a bad towel onto you and not the other way?

This was my first guess too. There is some kind of bacteria or something that gets into clothes and causes this kind of problem. A long soak in bleach, oxyclean or Clorox2 (the peroxide kind) can usually clear these smells up. Scented laundry detergent and fabric softener covers up the smell for a while, but it comes out after a while. Another trick is to double-rinse your clothes to get all the soap residue out.

(Another way to smell this, and other, smells that are in your clothes is to warm them up with an iron and then inhale deeply.)

If it's a personal smell, do the following: switch soaps every other day. The more different, the better- use a glycerine soap followed by a castile, for example. Wash twice and/or use a washcloth. After showering, splash rubbing alcohol over your pits and naughty area, rub it in and let it air dry. Replace washcloth and towel with freshly laundered (and bleached!) more often.
posted by gjc at 9:39 AM on July 9, 2012

Do you smoke? Sometimes people can smell the nicotine and metabolites that you are sweating out. I can even sometimes smell the vitamins I take if I am sweating profusely.
posted by gjc at 9:40 AM on July 9, 2012

Do you eat garlic frequently?
posted by jgirl at 9:48 AM on July 9, 2012

gjc: "Another trick is to double-rinse your clothes to get all the soap residue out."

And throw some plain white vinegar in the rinse cycle. No vinegary smell afterwards, but it helps get that last bit of soap out, especially if you have hard water.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Might be your deodorant. Have you been using the same brand all this time? Try switching it out for something else.
posted by Cuke at 10:16 AM on July 9, 2012

It's contentious, but could this be MHC incompatibility?
posted by cromagnon at 11:17 AM on July 9, 2012

Vinegar, vinegar, vinegar! Find out if it's an environmental issue first. Go buy a gallon of white vinegar, it's very inexpensive. Get an old spray bottle and make a 30% vinegar to water solution. Use it to clean everything in your house, it won't hurt anything. (Well, maybe don't use it on wood furniture.) Clean your floors, walls, windows, bathroom, kitchen, wood floors and tile. DO NOT MIX IT WITH BLEACH. The vinegar smell will go away as soon as it dries and your place will smell just clean. Because it IS clean. Wash all your sheets and towels with it, also. And all your clothes except anything that needs special handling. Use half a cup in your laundry in the wash cycle (where the bleach goes) and about a quarter cup in the rinse cycle (where the fabric softener goes). Get a bucket and soak your tshirts and underwear in 50% vinegar, 50% water, leaving them overnight. If you spend a good week cleaning everything around you, and she still smells it, then you know it's coming from you, maybe something you're eating. I've never used vinegar as a body cleanser, but I believe it can be used for that also, but someone else will need to advise you on that.
posted by raisingsand at 11:45 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have very strong allergies to mold and mildew, and I can smell mold and mildew where almost nobody else can. My guess is with those who suggest that there's some very minor mold/mildew issue going with your laundry that isn't detectable to the vast majority of people.

Adding vinegar to your wash is one good way to address mold. Using borax as a detergent supplement also helps. If you own your own washing machine, running a cycle without any clothes in, but with the hottest possible water and a full cup of bleach might kill any mold or mildew that is living in the machine. (Then you should run another empty cycle with nothing but hot water to get the bleach out so it doesn't bleach colored clothes the next time you use it.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:47 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

And if you do the mold remediation and it doesn't make a difference, then it's her problem. Seriously, if one person thinks you smell weird and nobody else notices it, you don't smell weird.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:48 AM on July 9, 2012

If the mold is in your dryer, this is a good how-to for addressing it. Remember to clean the rubber gaskets on both the washer and dryer doors carefully--they frequently harbor mold and mildew.

If you do your laundry at a laundromat, you may be bringing home their mold and mildew. I'm not sure, quite, what the answer to that is. Maybe a different laundromat?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:40 PM on July 9, 2012

Do you take any vitamins, supplements, or medications? Many of them can create an odor that can be detectable in your breath or perspiration, and then persist in your clothing. I've tried taking various forms of fish oil, but I've had to give it up because my clothes and I stink so bad.
posted by Corvid at 2:08 PM on July 9, 2012

Look into your consumption of sulfur containing vegetables-- onion & garlic, and also the cruciferous family [including broccoli and cauliflower.] Some people do not break down sulfur compounds, and they excrete sulfur vapors through their pores.

Also, visit a dentist. If you have pockets of decay in your mouth, you may be oblivious to the smell/taste.
posted by ohshenandoah at 2:51 PM on July 9, 2012

This is a very interesting situation. If you'd like to track this down, and your super-sniffer friend is willing, I propose a fun, yet scientific, experiment.
  • Give your friend a complete set of your clothes, plus a pair of pajamas, for her to wash and dry using whatever detergent, washer, and dryer she uses for her own laundry. (If she can still detect The Smell on them, she must continue washing and drying them until she can't.)
  • When all this is ready, arrange a special overnight with her. Shower well and put on clean clothes.
  • When you arrive at her house, remove your clothes and seal them in a clean plastic garbage bag (along with your wallet, shoes, etc.). Leave the bag sealed for the duration of the experiment.
  • Shower again thoroughly, using her shower, soap and shampoo, then dry with one of her clean towels. When she sniffs you, can she smell The Smell on you? If she can, shower again until she can't.
  • Put on your pajamas that she has washed. Then spend the night on her clean sheets. In the morning, have her sniff you and your pajamas — is The Smell there? If yes, it's you. If not, continue with:
  • When you get dressed, put on your clothes she has washed. Spend the day with her, eating foods you usually eat, but stay completely away from your home. Then have her sniff you and your clothes some more.
As you can see, this experiment is designed to separate you from your home, and should determine whether The Smell is coming from your body or your home environment.

(MeFites, feel free to suggest alterations to the experiment or offer complete new experiments.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 3:30 PM on July 9, 2012

Was she complaining or just telling you about how her nose works? Does she notice other people's smells as well? If she only notices your smell, and you don't have a rather intimate friendship, then I'd be curious and try some of the methods above to see if I could figure it out.

Everyone smells different to me, if I get close enough to them. "Mildly unpleasant" describes how most people smell, really. Even people who I am very attracted to - and the smell is part of that attraction - often have a smell that's technically not a pleasant smell. Sort of like how garlic is not "pleasant" but still very delicious.

I'm FAR more aware of the smells of people I'm veeery close to, am sleeping with, or am thinking about sleeping with. Gal who sits next to me at work? No idea how she smells. Hot guy I have a thing for? I know his smell exactly.
posted by bunderful at 6:57 PM on July 9, 2012

I have a friend who has a smell that's obviously not a neglectful body odor kind of smell, but just...him. Every time he's in my car, it smells like him for days. It's subtle and I wonder if anyone else would even notice it, but it would never occur to me to say something to him about it because it's clear that it's not, ya know, perspiration or something that needs to be addressed. I wonder why she felt like she even needed to bring it up.
posted by FlyByDay at 8:53 PM on July 9, 2012

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