An eight-year-old with smelly armpits? Isn’t that a little young?
Not necessarily. For the vast majority of kids, stinky sweat is an early sign that puberty has begun, says Beth Cummings, a pediatric endocrinologist at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. The onset of puberty is happening earlier for many girls — according to Cummings, it’s within the range of normal for girls to begin experiencing some changes at age eight. With boys, it’s about nine. And, she explains, “if we’re seeing pubertal changes in a seven-year-old girl, most of the time it’s a normal variation in development.” Boys, on the other hand, should be assessed by a doctor for changes happening before age nine.
That funky smell that pubescent kids have is associated with adrenarche, the medical term for body changes that begin when the adrenal glands become more active. This is also the reason for the oily skin and hair, acne and pubic hair that come with puberty. Sweating increases in pubescent boys and girls, especially in the underarm and groin areas because the apocrine glands mature under the stimulation of hormones. “The increase in hormonal activity is what causes sweat to develop an odour,” says Cummings. If a girl this age has stinky sweat, but no other concerning symptoms (such as other signs of puberty, a growth spurt or headaches), there’s probably no reason to worry, says Cummings. But she suggests parents mention it to the doctor during a regular checkup.
Help your kids maintain good hygiene
There’s no way to prevent body odour related to early adrenarche except good hygiene. “Kids this age can be pretty vulnerable to teasing, so you want to help them try to prevent it,” says Cummings. Regular bathing is the key to prevention, including a thorough scrub under the arms. Kids this age may no longer want a parent to bathe them, but probably need some encouragement to do a thorough job themselves. Hint: A nylon body scrubber along with a liquid body wash are much easier to manage than a face cloth and bar of soap.
Introduce them to deodorant and antiperspirant
For some kids, bathing won’t be enough to prevent body odour throughout the day, especially when they’re active. Cummings recommends either a deodorant or antiperspirant. Deodorants work by covering up the smell of sweat, while antiperspirants actually stop or reduce the amount of sweat produced.
While Cummings says there isn’t a concern with kids using deodorants or antiperspirants, there are several natural, unscented products on the market, including deodorant crystals and baking-soda-based products. Health-food stores are a good place to look for these. The website of the Environmental Working Group rates hundreds of brands for chemical content. Visit ewg.org/skindeep and click on “Skin Care.”
For sweaty kids, clean underwear and T-shirts every day are a must. Cotton or other natural fibres absorb sweat more readily.
The anatomy of sweat
Our bodies contain two kinds of sweat glands.
The eccrine glands are spread all over the body and help to cool us down when we’re too hot because of the weather, a fever, exertion or spicy food. Sweat, which is mostly a combination of water and salt, cools the body as it evaporates.
The apocrine glands are located under the arms and in the groin, and they produce oils as well as sweat after puberty begins. They also cause sweating when we’re hot, as well as when we’re stressed.
Now that the kids smell better, next stop: their closets.