Illustration by Sibel Ergener

Bacterial Transplants Could Freshen Up Your Stinky Armpits

Incoming research may bring us one step closer to eradicating pit stench

Genetic luck dictates that are three outcomes when it comes to sweating: You smell good, you smell bad, or you smell neutral. Existing research has found that unless you won the neutral sweat lottery (i.e., you’re among the 2 percent of Europeans or the majority of East Asians who actually don’t produce smelly sweat at all), then you fall into one of the two other categories — your sweat actually smells sweet, or it smells terrible.

Terrible sweat-producers may soon have reason to rejoice, however. Researcher Chris Callewaert, aka “Dr. Armpit,” has completed a series of armpit bacterial transplants that, with some finessing, could be the end of the deodorant business.

Sweat itself doesn’t actually smell bad. It’s when sweat combines with the bacteria on your skin in the moist environment that is your pit — a “tropical rainforest” of bacteria — that a smell results.

Callewaert’s breakthrough first came in 2013, when he successfully harvested good-smelling bacteria from one sweet-scented man to the stinky pit of his twin brother, whose pits immediately became more fragrant. There was a hitch, though: For some reason, when he repeated the experiment with non-related subjects, it didn’t take, and the disturbing odor returned in about four days. While that’s promising, it’s not the slam-dunk it could be.

VICE spoke to Callewaert at the Biofabricate Conference in New York City last week, where he presented his continued research on olfactory malfeasance, revealing he’d completed 18 more transplants repeating the original experiment. “It’s not perfect yet,” Callewaert told VICE about the procedure. “Definitely, in the short term, it’s very successful, but people want to be helped for the long run. So we want to optimize the procedure.”

That research is awaiting peer review before it is published in the next few months, but for serious sweaters, progress is progress.

While most of us can slap on some deodorant to kill the bacteria, or an antiperspirant to block the sweating with aluminum salts, some people just smell extra terrible no matter what. That condition is called bromhidrosis — excessive, bad-smelling sweat (not to be confused with hyperhidrosis, which is merely excessive sweating.) It’s the bromhidrosis sufferers who are the real targets of Callewaert’s research. As you might imagine, the condition can really affect people’s quality of life:

“They’ve lost their partners. They’ve lost their confidence. They’ve lost their friends. It really impacts their life. 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. They’re always anxious and that’s why I want to help.”

Current medical options include liposuction, Botox, medicated deodorants, surgery and laser treatments, none of which are permanent.

His previous published work has laid the groundwork for this moment. He has identified the two important clusters of bacteria (staphylococci and corynebacteria) that affect how we smell — the former is not so bad, the latter is wicked awful. He’s also proven something we all suspected: Sweat plus bacteria really does wreak virulent havoc on polyester clothing, but not cotton. He suspects it may have something to do with the temperature of our modern washing machines (clothes used to be washed at lower temperatures) and also a special affinity bad bacteria seem to have for the fabric.

While a pit bacterial transplant may seem like only a fix for the most severe cases, Callewaert also found that using antiperspirants and deodorants may actually alter the microbiome of your pits to encourage the bad-smelling chemicals to overproduce.

This means eventually we may all need a bacterial transplant someday, and of course, who among us wouldn’t be thrilled to never have to wear deodorant again?