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New research could take the stink out of body odor

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(CNN) — Sweaty people around the world may one day sing the praises of scientists at the University of York.

These researchers in England have made a groundbreaking genetic discovery about bacteria called Staphylococcus hominis.

Never heard of Staphylococcus hominis? They are closer to you right now than you might imagine.

They are some of the bacteria that live in your underarm microbiome. There are more of these tiny little guys living under your arm than there are humans living on this planet.

They make body odor smell less than pleasant by breaking down naturally secreted molecules that are in sweat. That’s why scientists are chasing the holy grail of hygiene.

The scientists — Daniel Bawdon and Gavin Thomas of York, along with Gordon James and Diana Cox of Unilever, which makes personal care products — presented their research this week at the Society for General Microbiology’s annual conference in Birmingham, England. What they found literally (but not figuratively) stinks.

“This is the first time the active molecular pathway for this particular form of body odor has been understood,” Bawdon said. “We’ve never known any specific details about how they do this.”

They’ve identified the genes encoding the proteins responsible for producing free thioalcohols, an important component of what makes people stinky when they sweat. It’s part of the reason unwashed gym clothes smell worse on a second day. These bacteria have had a longer time to lunch on sweat and produce more thioalcohols.

One gene the researchers found was not just in Staphylococcus hominis, but also in two other Staphylococcus species that produce thioalcohols.

It turns out you only need a tiny number of these bacteria to create an “extremely smelly amount” of this odor, often described as having an oniony smell or the smell of rotten eggs, according to Bawdon.

“Most of the (bacteria) don’t produce this and only a certain limited number of species seem to create this biochemical reaction,” Bawdon explained. “We really don’t fully understand why this happens.”

But researchers may now know what path to travel to stop this chemical process from happening. You can bet that’s why a food and personal care product company, Unilever, joined the British government to help fund the program.

Currently deodorants and antiperspirants can either stop you from sweating temporarily, mask the smell with other fragrances, or eliminate some of the odor by nonselectively killing your underarm friends. A product that could target thioalcohol production could be more effective.

Most products can only keep you smelling fresh for about 12 to 24 hours, according to George Preti, an organic chemist at the Monell Center at the University of Pennsylvania who made national news in 1990 for discovering the chemical that produced the odor.

He said the research behind the new findings is really solid and does advance this sweaty science, but stopping body odor is still a long way away.

“Even if they could stop this process from happening, it would need to meet a rigorous standard for approval to be used on your skin,” Preti said. He holds more than a dozen patents related to deodorants and related products.

Until this science has a product application, you’ll have to stick with the products that are currently on the market, or turn to Botox, which can control sweat.

Or you could always consider an armpit transplant.

Not a new armpit — just a transplant of the bacteria that live there.

The procedure was pioneered by Chris Callewaert, who calls himself “Dr. Armpit” and works as a scientist at Ghent University in Belgium.

He thinks this new research could help put the science on the right path. But until we get there, he has been experimenting with armpit biome transplants. He discussed it at length in a TEDx talk last year.

Good hygiene helps only so much. Your genes can also play a big role in how good or bad you smell. In fact some people, no matter how much they shower, still smell bad. Callewaert has found these individuals have a larger amount of “bad” bacteria.

His approach is to replace the “bad” bacteria that produce the smell with “good” bacteria. He tried this with a set of twins. In the pair, one individual smelled fine with regular grooming and the other struggled with bad body odor.

He took the good bacteria from the more “natural”-smelling twin and replaced the bad bacteria on the smelly twin. It worked. The first day after the transplant, the researchers saw more of the good bacteria start to take over as the bad bacteria declined.

The bad news is that when Callewaert tried to replicate these results with unrelated individuals, the change for them was not permanent in all the cases. But “50% is better than nothing,” he said. “Especially in our area of science.”

The experts concede there’s still a lot to learn about how to stop body odor.

“We know more about cancer and cell phones than we do about how to get rid of body odor,” Callewaert said. “The science moves slowly in this field, so any advance comes as great news.”