Sweat doesn’t smell bad. The problem comes when that sweat is consumed and broken down by the bacteria that live on your skin. And even then, not everybody’s armpits stink. The kind of smell that wafts off your underarms while you hang from a strap on the subway after a long day depends on the kind of bacteria that you have living in your pits. And the stink may be fixable–with a bacteria transplant.
Chris Callewaert, of the Ghent University in Belgium, is obsessed with body odor. In 2013, he gave a TED Talk on underarm odor, and in 2014 he discovered that bacteria in the fabric makes you smell worse when you wear a polyester T-shirt than when you choose a cotton one, publishing a paper on the subject. Now, he has successfully reduced body odor in one twin, by transplanting bacteria from their less fragrant sibling’s armpit. The results should be published in the next few months, and although the other 18 transplants weren’t all as successful as the twins’, Callewaert is optimistic that his procedure can be improved.
B.O., he says, is an acute problem for some people.
“They’ve lost their partners. They’ve lost their confidence. They’ve lost their friends. It really impacts their life,” Callewaert told Kaleigh Rogers at Motherboard. “And it’s such a taboo. People just think, ‘Why don’t you use deodorant?’ They actually wash themselves more than the average people and change their clothes more often.”
The principle behind the transplants is simple: you introduce “good bacteria,” and wait for it to outgrow the “bad bacteria.” The goal is for the newly transplanted bacteria to take over and colonize your armpits. If successful, the recipient will no longer stink when their sweat turns stale.
If it works, it could be a relatively simple fix to an old and embarrassing problem. And it might also make the crowded evening subway journey home a lot more pleasant for the rest of us. Now, if only there was a kind of transplant that could stop people from eating doner kebabs and hamburgers on public transport.