How to handle your preteen's body odour

“P. U.!” A tween boy’s B.O. is often the first puberty symptom parents will need to address.

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Last year, Teresa Gallagher’s* husband reported that the grade-five teachers at the school where he works have to take “fresh-air” breaks after their students return from gym class. So Gallagher figured the time was ripe to talk to 11-year-old Brandyn, the eldest of their three sons, about wearing deodorant. Brandyn was still odour-free, but had started to sprout underarm hair at age nine.

“He knew that Mom and Dad wear deodorant and was very laid-back about the whole thing,” says Gallagher. In fact, he took pride in the milestone, remarking, “Well, I am a preteen.”

Puberty-causing hormones typically begin to flow, at low levels, as young as age eight or nine for boys. These hormones affect the glands that produce oil and sweat on the skin, says Edmonton dermatologist Gordon Searles, president of the Canadian Dermatology Association. While sweat itself doesn’t smell (it’s mostly water), a wet, closed-off environment is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, which leads to that funky odour.

That’s why proper hygiene is so important at this age: If you get rid of the bacteria, you get rid of the smell. A daily shower or bath — especially in warm weather or after vigorous activity — usually takes care of any issues. According to Searles, simple soap and water is fine, but if the problem persists, wash with antibacterial soap once or twice a week. You can also create your own disinfectant by adding a cap full of vinegar or household bleach to a spritz bottle filled with water. The inexpensive, diluted DIY disinfectant can safely be used to spray the skin in the shower, says Searles.

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Unfortunately, bathing is not always a tween boy’s top priority. Just ask Suzanne Schaeffer*, mother of Cole, 10, and Jonny, 7. “I’m trying to get them to shower more regularly, but we can’t do it every day without a huge fight,” she says. Now the rule is they have to shower every other day, and after hockey and gymnastics. Interestingly, while Cole sweats buckets at hockey and has no odour at all, it’s Jonny, Schaeffer’s younger son, who started to lose his sweet boyish smell first. “I told him, you don’t want to be the smelly kid in class — people won’t want to be around you.” To help address the problem, Schaeffer sourced an all-natural deodorant specially formulated for kids. At first, Jonny didn’t want to use it, particularly since his older brother didn’t have to. So Schaeffer got a stick for Cole, too. “It’s just one or two swipes under each arm in the morning, and it works,” she says.

According to Searles, there are no safety restrictions for children using deodorants, which are basically perfumes activated by body temperature that mask any unpleasant smells. Antiperspirants, on the other hand, block the pores so there is less sweat excreted. They’re also safe for children, Searles says.

Just remember: Damp armpits do serve a physiological purpose. “We have to sweat,” says Searles. “It’s how we regulate our body temperature.”

*Names have been changed

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