How to Tell Someone They Have Body Odor

Body odor happens to all of us ... but how should you tell someone about theirs?
Body odor happens to all of us ... but how should you tell someone about theirs?

Spending time around someone with body odor is definitely disagreeable. Deciding to tell someone there's a problem is positively cringe-inducing. Unpleasant body odor can sometimes be caused by stress, medications, diet or medical conditions [source: Andersen]. So if you have the courage to bring up the topic, don't be judgmental. You're not in charge of the person's hygiene, and you aren't privy to other private details about their medical history. Just state the facts.

You may wonder why it's up to you to bring it up in the first place — and maybe it's not. If you find a stranger's aroma offensive, you really don't know what's up, and it's not your place to interfere. If you're reluctant to tell someone you actually know there's a problem, consider this: Wouldn't you want to know if you were in their place?

Though relaying this information will probably feel awkward, imagine how crushing it is to be on the receiving end. Start from a place of compassion. Don't be resentful; you've chosen to take on this job. Have the conversation in private. Though others might be aware of the issue, your listener doesn't want an audience. Don't spend a lot of time building up to the observation; be direct. Use clear language, but don't be insulting. Try saying, "Look, this is awkward, and I'm sure you're not aware of it, but I really thought you'd want to know that you have a strong body odor." There's no need to lecture or get into a long discussion. It's likely both of you will be embarrassed, so change the topic as quickly as you can.

Somehow, it seems like this task often falls to people at work — like direct supervisors and members of the HR team. And, it's one that people in those roles often talk about with dread. In this case, be professional. This is about ensuring a pleasant environment for everyone. In addition, a perceived hygiene problem could stifle someone's career, so you're being helpful in multiple ways. If it's clear that the problem is related to hygiene or dirty clothing, and not a medical condition or other physical issue, explain your company's expectations for dress and professional presentation. You don't need to mention that coworkers have been complaining; your goal here isn't to embarrass or shame the offender.

If the issue continues, you may need to have a second conversation. Mention how the odor issue impacts the work setting. Ask questions to find out if there are specific causes contributing to body odor, such as a lack of access to laundry or bathing facilities. Your company might be able to help out, at least temporarily. Ask if there are any underlying medical conditions that you need to accommodate. Finally, if that first conversation wasn't enough to do the job and you're having to talk about it again, set a follow-up date to reassess the situation, and stick to it.

No matter who you're trying to help, keep one thing in mind: Different cultures have different views on hygiene and diet, and a number of religious and cultural practices involve spices, incense and other fragrant substances. So before you head off to tell your neighbors, newly transplanted from another country, that they all have an odor problem, make sure there's an actual problem going on, and not just a difference between your cultures.

More to Explore