Smelly in my merino
April 19, 2014 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Within 2 days I smell in my merino baselayer. Do I just have super bacteria on my right armpit, or do other people with merino wildly exaggerate their experiences?

I have stink problems. My left armpit almost never smells, but my right armpit more than makes up for it. In the summer, especially, I have to wash my clothes the same day I wear them. Deodorant, even the non-scented versions, just makes my b.o a different shade of smelliness. I've been successful in covering my body odor with jackets, changing clothes often, and immediate washing machine protocols, but it's frustrating and the constant washing is so wasteful.

So when I heard about the anti-microbial properties of merino it seemed like the Second Coming. I got an Icebreaker 260-weight 100% merino baselayer in February, and on Day 2 the armpit area started smelling funky. Day 3 I couldn't handle it, so then I washed it, to my dismay. Yeah, it's better than becoming a human hazard within a couple of hours, but I was expecting to be able to wear it for at least a week without washing it. I'm so envious of the accounts I read of people never smelling, and never washing their merino.

Does merino just not work for me, or should I lower my expectations?
posted by facehugger to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It has been my experience, as someone who has probably a typical amount of B.O., that most adults need to change shirts daily. I don't think this is a problem with your merino wool baselayer. Two or more days of wear are going to lead to stink.

Merino is better at not becoming permanently smelly over time than artificial fibers are, in the world of Performance Clothing. It's not a magic anti-odor shield. You do still have to wash it.

People who say they never smell if they wear merino just don't know that they, do, in fact, need to change their shirt on a daily basis like an adult.

Also, fwiw, not washing wool on a regular basis leads to clothes moths, which leads to not having your nice merino base layer anymore. Wash your damn merino, folks!

Merino wool sweaters are better, if you really don't want to be washing wool a lot due to complicated care instructions. Usually the layer you wear closest to your skin is going to be the most stinky, while you can go longer between washes of outerwear.
posted by Sara C. at 11:02 AM on April 19, 2014 [17 favorites]

I'd agree very much with Sara C. For most humans, a base layer of something fairly absorbent and easily-washed that can be changed daily (e.g. cotton), along with daily showering with a strong emphasis on properly washing all the smell-prone bits, is the only reliable way to stay unstinky.

In my 40-odd years on this earth, I've only known a handful of people who seem to be able to wear the same clothing or go without showering/bathing for more than a day or so without becoming whiffy to some degree. I don't know what secret those people share - I would guess that they just don't sweat much, or maybe they just don't excrete much through their skin.

Think of it this way: would you still need to shower/bathe/wash every day if you were going around naked instead of clothed? Of course you would. So how is clothing going to magically make that problem go away?
posted by pipeski at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you tried using an antibacterial soap, like Safeguard? Have you tried a serious antiperspirant, like CertainDri?

I sometimes rewear wool hiking socks if it's been a cool day, and I wash wool and cashmere on the infrequent end of things (yes, I am aware of moths). I think rewearing a wool base layer on consecutive days is asking a lot. I'd at least let it air out between wearings.
posted by purpleclover at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing that seems to be common knowledge is that it's better to have two or more pairs of shoes and not wear the same pair on consecutive days - they smell less, and allowing the perspiration to dry out between uses seems to extend the life of the footwear. The same is probably true to some degree with clothing. Having two or more merino base layers and allowing them to air on alternate days may help. But you'll still need to take a shower every day (or twice if you're particularly prone to smelliness).
posted by pipeski at 11:17 AM on April 19, 2014

Are failing to let the pieces air sufficiently between wearings? I know that can defeat the anti-bacterial anti-smell properties. I have heard people speculate that the sort of deodorant makes a difference, too, but I don't know what the basis for that is.

I wash my merino commuter cycling gear and merino skiing gear once a season. I have asked people to smell it (because I don't trust myself to smell myself or my husband to smell me) and it does not smell. Really. I'm not breaking any speed records, but I do break a sweat. However, I take off and air the pieces between wearings--I don't wear the same pair of leggings a week straight, but I do wear the same two pair of leggings all winter long. I've got a handful of merino tanks/camis and rarely wear any of those twice in 10 days.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:20 AM on April 19, 2014

Antimicrobial properties of textiles like merino usually mean that the textile itself will be either a hazardous or at least unfriendly environment to microbes. It won't likely kill microbes that're on you, and lanolin, which is the micro-hostile component of merino (and other wools, but especially merino), can be overwhelmed (in terms of making a home for bacteria) by the warmth and moisture of your (or anyone's) armpits. It would have the problem in a damp shoe or a sweaty crotch.

Maybe this is a men's vs. women's clothing thing, but you say base layer, I say undershirt. Cotton undershirts are cheap, easy to clean harshly, can be changed throughout the day as needed, and are expendables. Also, you'll never again be short on rags.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:31 AM on April 19, 2014

Anecdote: as a person who's had a recurrent problem with stinky synthetic and cotton armpits, I've never had any of my merino clothes smell (Smartwool and Ibex) and I will wear them several days at a time while being very active - I'm talking mountaineering, ski touring, climbing, running, and pretty much every day for my physically demanding construction job (but only socks and undershirts at work because everything else would get ruined). If you use just regular detergent, you might be interested in trying an enzymatic sports wash detergent, which sort of helped delay the problem for my other, non-ridiculously expensive fabrics - it might resolve the issue for you.

Having said that, somehow I stay dewy fresh in other fabrics much longer if I use just deodorant, as opposed to antiperspirant.
posted by halogen at 11:44 AM on April 19, 2014

So, you wear the same baselayer two days in a row without taking it off to let it air out for 24 hours? That seems problematic. Clothes should definitely be aired out before being worn again. Also, this may seem unintuitive, but for some people deodorant alone doesn't actually prevent odor - it just masks it. In this case you might need to try a deodorant with anti-perspirant. The anti-perspirant will significantly minimize how much odor you produce in the first place.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:01 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can suggest a product that literally changed my life. Certain Dri is a nonprescription antiperspirant that you use every two or three days before bedtime (don't worry about it washing off in the shower.) In the morning, use your regular antiperspirant or deodorant. Some change in my metabolism a few years ago made my pits start smelling bad and Certain Dri has ended that completely.

To de-funk your clothes, try Atsko Sport Wash, which is a product designed to keep hunters from tipping off their prey with their BO. It's safe for wool, synthetics and breathable membranes like Gore-Tex. You can buy Sport Wash at most outdoor stores or at Wal-Mart, but it's in the camping/hunting section, not the detergent aisle.
posted by workerant at 12:02 PM on April 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also - you mention using a deodorant. Do you use an anti-perspirant? They seem to work better for most people. The deodorant doesn't prevent you from sweating, it just helps to mask the smell once it's there. The anti-perspirant will help prevent you from sweating there, which is the stuff that leads to the stink.
posted by barnone at 12:28 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if not washing, try at least airing them out in between wearings.
posted by suprenant at 12:41 PM on April 19, 2014

Not the question you asked, but I find it very helpful to saturate the pits of my shirts with rubbing alcohol before tossing them in the hamper. The alcohol kills the bacteria that causes the stink. Perhaps this could keep you from having to wash items the same day as wearing. I also splash rubbing alcohol on my pits a la aftershave before applying anti-antiperspirant.
posted by fozzie_bear at 12:50 PM on April 19, 2014

Have you tried shaving the stinkier armpit? There was a case presented in the NEJM last year in which a dude had a stinky armpit that turned out to be due to a bacterial infection in his pit hair, which was solved by shaving + antibiotics.

The story. (Warning: kinda gross.)

To answer your original question, I need to wash my cotton T-shirts after each wearing. I wash my Icebreaker merino (200 weight) after 2 wearings, even though it's not stinky by then. (I haven't tried wearing it longer because I don't want to make it stinky if I can avoid it—that shit's expensive.)
posted by homodachi at 1:07 PM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think I have normal stink. I change clothes every day. I'll occasionally wear the same pair of pants if they pass a sniff test (and they sometimes dont). Summer is different than winter due to how cold it is. I generally bathe every day in the summer but every 2 to 3 days in winter.

That being said I'm not terribly active. I use antiperspirant .

Shaving may help. Different brands are slightly different and one may work better than another. There are prescription antiperspirant that can be prescribed by a doctor.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:25 PM on April 19, 2014

Nth-ing that you need to air everything out sufficiently (also check the washing instructions, I always forget to check how you're supposed to wash/dry Icebreaker, so I've been doing both by hand; unsure if that affects odor-fighting capabilities, though I could imagine some weird "baking in the scent" scenario with a washer/dryer).

In my personal experience, Icebreaker tops/bottoms are almost suspiciously odor-free (I wore them everyday, including aerobic exercise, all winter in NYC). It's like magic. I didn't wear the same set two days in a row, though, and I have no idea if I'm more/less stinky than average.
posted by unknowncommand at 2:26 PM on April 19, 2014

I have a wool hoodie that I wear regularly as an outer layer or mid layer for cycling, especially in the fall through spring. I rarely wash it.

I can't wear my merino base layers (Icebreaker too) without the pits getting smelly, whether or not I wear deodorant/anti-perspirant (which I usually do wear). If I wore my wool as a base layer and I wasn't active (like, just at work), I might wear it a second day, especially if the second time was for exercise and I wasn't going to be around people so much.

But once I've actually worn it to exercise, I do need to wash it (on the hand wash cycle, with wool-friendly, mild detergent). Even if I air it out, the pits are way too stinky to wear again.

Really, I can't imagine getting more than one day out of a close-to-skin base layer unless it was super cold and I wasn't very active. I think the difference with wool and synthetics is that synthetics sometimes get a perma-stink that doesn't go away even after washing.

Here's a true story: a friend of mine was telling me how he rarely washed his wool stuff because it never smelled. He suspected it was some sort of miracle wool thing. Then he and his wife went cross-country skiing. He was wearing his wool underthings and changing, and thinking about how he didn't smell, his wool was a super fabric, etc. His wife walked in the room and said, "Eesh! You stink!"

So, I'm not sure we're always the best judges of our own stickiness.

I also suspect your right pit is stinkier because you're using your right arm differently somehow and are sweating more.

In any case, you're saying all that washing is wasteful. But it's not wasteful if stuff your wearing is getting dirty.

If you want something not to worry about, just put lots of lightweight, cotton undershirts and plan to wear them only once and then wash.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:42 PM on April 19, 2014

It's really weird that only your right armpit produces odor. Have you asked a doctor about this? A lot of bacteria produce odorous byproducts, and there are a few skin infections with characteristic odors.

For what it's worth, I wash my merino wool only every couple of months, and I often wear the same garment against my skin for two days in a row. Although I do usually shower every day; I just put the same thing back on. I don't think I smell, and I actually asked people to sniff me when I started doing this. It may help that I'm Asian: we're notoriously poor at producing apocrine sweat.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:35 PM on April 19, 2014

Are you actually using deodorant or do you use an anti perspirant?

I used to have horrible armpit stink and sweat problems and had been told to keep trying increasingly strong antiperspirants.

I have up about 7 years ago and switched to deodorant only. It took maybe a week to stop being so damn sweaty and stinky, but then it worked out.

I use arm and hammer kind. I may get a little smell from synthetics now and then but nothing like I used to.

I even asked close friends to make sure I wasn't actually smelly and didn't notice.
posted by McSockerson The Great at 6:29 AM on April 20, 2014

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