Worried about your teen 'being smelly'? They can't help it, according to scientists, and help is on its way to ease the problem

If you've been struggling to identify those aromas, now you know

Teenage girl with arms raised showing her armpits
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Altered body odours are a normal part of puberty, but now scientists have identified the surprising aromas your 'smelly' teen is actually producing - it's not their fault, it's totally evolutionary.

Although the five most common teenage problems have been identified, there are of course, many more to contend with. As they head into this difficult period of development, you might notice your teen’s behaviour turn increasingly angry, entitled, and rude. You likely find teens sound like they’re talking another language too, and understanding teenage slang words starts to feel like it requires a university degree of its very own. 

Puberty is also a time you find yourself really having to bring home the message that personal hygiene is paramount - mounting piles of sweaty uniform and gym kit make this point even more urgent. Scientists in Germany took the brave decision to study the compounds that make up pubescent aromas, and have made a startling discovery.

You might be surprised to find out your teenager’s armpits are most likely to smell of cheese and goat, with a splash of urine thrown in for good measure. The report, shared by the Guardian, suggested the German study found 14-to 18-year-olds produce two particular chemical compounds eliciting the scents of sweat, urine, musk and sandalwood.

"When sweat glands are activated and the secretion of sebum increases, the chemical compounds in sweat can form a gas - this is then perceived by our noses as a smell."

Pads placed in the armpits of teens were tested, with two steroids found to be present (5alphaandrost-16-en-3-one and 5alphaandrost-16-en-3alpha-ol.) Alongside increased levels of six carboxylic acids, acrid odours released include the whiff of cheese, goat and wax.

We already understand that it’s the puberty-related hormonal changes that increase the likelihood of body odour. However, when sweat glands are activated and the secretion of sebum increases, the chemical compounds in sweat can form a gas - this is then perceived by our noses as a smell.

The scientists compared the teens with infants under the age of three. They were tested by being washed in fragrance-free products, and sleeping in garments with cotton pads sewn into the armpits. Once collected and tested, the armpit pads from this demographic showed higher levels of a ketone (alpha-isomethyl ionone) that resulted in them smelling of flowers and soap.

Researchers explained that body odour changes affect parent-child interactions: “Body odours of infants are pleasant and rewarding to mothers and, as such, probably facilitate parental affection.” They added “In contrast, body odours of pubertal children are rated as less pleasant and parents are unable to identify their own child during this developmental stage.”

Parents of teens might be relieved to know they don’t have to expect their homes to smell of goats and urine until their offspring come through the other side of puberty. It’s thought the discovery could help in the design of deodorants to specifically target those smells. There’s also no wonder we feel an overwhelming urge to sniff the heads of newborns. 

If you’re really struggling to get through to your teen, an expert shares one simple tip that can help - if they’re really struggling with big emotions, reflective parenting could be useful. Has your teenager started dating? Here’s our guide to what to expect.  

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.