That second puberty, like the first in our teens, changes a lot about a person’s body. After all, people typically undergo medical transitions to develop sex characteristics that match their gender identity.
However, a medical transition can also change something else that might come as more of a surprise: the way someone sweats... and smells. In fact, whenever hormones fluctuate in such a big way, increased body odor is a common side effect.
That was certainly the case for me when I took testosterone during my medical transition.
In this blog, I’ll share how hormones affect the way we smell and my adventures with increased body odor during my medical transition.
We have two types of sweat glands: eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands maintain our body temperature and mostly secrete just water, and they function throughout most people’s lives.
Hitting puberty activates our apocrine sweat glands, which are located where we grow hair (our armpits, groin, feet, and head). The sweat that they create is thicker than eccrine sweat since it’s full of proteins and lipids, and it reacts with certain bacteria that live on our skin to cause body odor.
My first puberty was pretty easy, even if I had acne, made questionable clothing choices, and have far too many embarrassing period stories from that time to count.
It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t awful. The only smell I remember feeling insecure about during that time was coming from my feet (which my mom says I get from her mother-in-law!). Other than that, my new body odor as a teen was easily managed by a simple, lightly-fragranced deodorant.
With this first experience in mind, I wasn’t expecting the sudden increase in body odor to be such a strong side effect of my second puberty, but that’s exactly what happened.
I’m a transgender man, and I started testosterone my junior year of college.
Testosterone (or T) can have many effects on the body. It's a medication that my doctor prescribed to me, and part of the transition process involves becoming informed about the effects it has. Effects can be a lower voice, faster and more body hair growth, and increased body odor.
I welcomed most of these side effects since the decision to medically transition was one of the best I’ve made in my life. A couple of changes I really looked forward to was my voice becoming lower (caused by a thickening of the vocal chords) and fat redistributing to other areas of my body so it would take on a more masculine appearance.
“That being said, nothing could have prepared me for such an extreme change in body odor.”
When you take testosterone, your skin is one of the first things to change; it thickens and becomes more oily. As expected, while my body was getting used to this hormonal fluctuation, I broke out. I had deep cystic acne for several months. This is because testosterone makes your skin thicker and oilier, which also alters the way your sweat reacts with the bacteria on your skin. As a result, body odor becomes stronger and more distinct. B.O. also loses the fruity smell that so many of us are familiar with and that many women experience, and it’s replaced with a deeply earthy, sometimes sour smell.
That absolutely happened to me.
I would smell so bad if I skipped a shower or forgot to apply deodorant, which was pretty frequent, because I didn’t have the best track record with regular showers in college. My friend classifies different types of sweat smells and described mine as “beefsweat” if that gives you any idea of how I smelled.
For the first time in my life, halfway through the day, I would catch a whiff of something truly awful. It didn’t take long to realize that the smell was me.
And it wasn’t just on my pits.
While I was living in France, my host mother (who I love very much) told me that I needed to put my sneakers in a plastic bag. She could smell them in the other room! They smelled terrible, and she thought I had athlete’s foot which, to be honest, was a reasonable assumption.
My feet sweat more that summer than they ever had, so I had to wear shoes to everything. I didn’t want to wear sandals and risk people catching a whiff of my smelly feet.
I bought my first “guy deodorant” in college.
I always did sweat a lot, even before starting T, so my friend and I spent 30 minutes smelling antiperspirants.
I needed to find just the “right” antiperspirant. Not only did it need to cover up my excessive sweating, but it was also going to help me settle into my identity as a trans man. We ended up choosing a heavily fragranced antiperspirant that I would wind up applying several times a day.
I used that antiperspirant for four years. By the end, I was using a whole stick every two weeks and still experienced excessive sweating and the hormonal body odor that I was trying to escape. I was utterly convinced that nothing could control my sweating.
All of my clothes had a permanent film of deodorant in the pits. You know the look - white stains on all of my black shirts (really cute, I know). Nothing would come out in the wash, so even if my pits didn’t stink, I couldn’t raise my arms anyway.
I was so reliant on this antiperspirant that I had my parents ship me boxes of it when I was studying abroad.
Smelling “like a guy” was almost too important to me.
Now, I realize there's really nothing wrong with wanting to smell a certain way, as long as I don’t smell like B.O. But back then, smelling good was related to an unhealthy fear that–if I didn’t smell like that “generic guy smell,” people wouldn’t see me as a man.
I was worried about switching to a different product after using that antiperspirant for so long.
Now, I haven’t used it in over a year. Turns out (surprise, surprise!) that my pits just needed a break from aluminum.
Related Story: Why Avoid Aluminum? ...Not for the Reasons You May Think
I am done with antiperspirants that are ineffective at controlling sweat, are super irritating, and try desperately to mask odor with overwhelming fragrance.
I made the switch to a deodorant and found that the best deodorant is one that blocks the bacteria on your skin from reacting with sweat, effectively preventing odor anywhere on your body. If I don’t just have odor on my pits, I am going to opt for a natural, whole body deodorant that I know is safe to use everywhere I need it.
It means a lot to me that I’ve found all of this in a deodorant that has light scents that work for everyone and every body! I can wear a scent like Juniper Berry without fear that picking one over another might make me smell less “masculine,” whatever that means.
Yes, transitioning made me smell differently–objectively, much worse. But that was before I figured out how to work with my B.O. in a way that made more sense. As soon as I found a deodorant that addressed my body’s odor without resorting to overwhelming fragrance, I felt like I didn’t need to smell like a 12- year-old boy in order to be seen as a man.
I’ve come to appreciate my body odor as a normal part of life that everyone experiences. Even though the worst came in my early 20s, it’s something that I don’t worry about anymore.