As far as body parts go, the belly button’s about as memorable as the kid who always gets picked last in gym class. When we finally do remember its existence (and that we should probably check on it), we discover our unintentional neglect has left us with a belly button that smells like a landfill.
This is because, much like our armpits, our belly button doesn’t get a lot of airflows—and for those of us with an innie, this forgettable cavity can become an itty bitty storage unit for dead skin cells, sweat, lint, and over 60 kinds of bacteria. And you know what that means: “When sweat and other grime become trapped, they often also become off-putting in odour,” says Todd Minars, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
As for why your belly button smells like a Dumpster? There are five possible culprits, experts say. Here’s everything you should know.
1. Your hygiene needs work.
“The number one cause of unpleasant belly button odour comes from poor belly button hygiene,” says Dr. Minars. Forgetting to clean the area during showers or baths can cause a buildup of dirt, sweat, bacteria, and dead skin cells that gifts the area with a funky aroma.
But even when you’re on top of maintaining the area, there’s a chance your belly button simply needs more maintenance compared to other people. “Some people have deep folds where their umbilical cord was knotted, and these folds can be great nooks for bacteria to hide and grow,” says Dr. Minars. In which case, a more detailed daily scrub-down using a mild soap, like this one from Dove, should take care of the whole odour thing.
2. There’s lint loitering there.
That funky smell could also be because there’s a foreign object (probably lint) “living” in your belly button. “This is more common with innies, as they’re harder to visibly inspect, so there’s a chance that lint or another byproduct from clothing is stuck in there,” says Dr. Minars.
The type of lint most likely to cause a stink is cotton, since it absorbs moisture as opposed to wicking it away. “Cotton is great at producing heat, but poor at insulating,” says Dr. Minars. “So if you get a bunch of cotton lint in your belly button and then sweat on top of that, you’re breeding a perfect storm for bad odours.”
If you wear a lot of cotton or other fabrics that have an odour-causing reputation (such as polyester), you may want to be more diligent during your belly button inspections.
3. You might have a yeast infection.
There’s a type of yeast (street name: candida) that’s always present on our skin. It’s usually harmless, but under the right conditions—say, the warm and moist habitat a belly button provides—it can grow into a full-blown yeast infection, says Dr. Minars. This is why proper and consistent cleaning of the area is so important, especially within folds of skin.
People with diabetes (especially if your blood sugar isn’t well controlled) and those with autoimmune conditions can be more prone to yeast infections. “It can be harder for the body’s immune system to fight off infection, which can affect belly button odour,” says Dr. Sperling.
A yeast infection might be the culprit if, in addition to odour, you have a rash in the belly button area or are experiencing itching, burning, or patches that ooze clear fluid—and if the smell is due to a possible infection, consult with your doctor for treatment.
4. A cyst could be lurking.
Cysts are pus-filled growths that can show up anywhere on the body, including the belly button area. Epidermoid cysts, for example, form when the top layer of skin cells don’t slough off like they’re supposed to, and instead move deeper into your skin and multiply, causing a bump.
Then there are sebaceous cysts, which look similar to the epidermoid variety, but can happen because of an injury to the area, a faulty sebaceous duct (the glands that secrete oils to lubricate our hair and skin), or for no clear reason at all. (Cue sad trombone.)
Cysts are usually no biggie and don’t require treatment, but depending on where it’s located, it can be irritating or make you feel self-conscious—and if they drain or rupture, the discharge they contain can smell rank. To get rid of it, “you’ll need to see a dermatologist, as efforts to minimize cysts at home isn’t advised,” says Dr. Minars. Otherwise, it might get infected and lead to a whole new set of odours.
5. Your piercing is causing drama.
If you have a belly button piercing and it becomes infected, the infection can cause the area to smell pretty gnarly. Piercing-related cysts are also a possibility: If a cyst develops around the piercing, it can cause inflammation or infection, along with a foul odour, says Dr. Sperling.
Signs of an infected piercing include redness and swelling around the piercing, pain or tenderness when you touch the area, and yellow or green discharge that smells awful—at which time it’s important to seek medical attention.