Microbiological and biochemical origins of human axillary odour


Correspondence: A. Gordon James, Unilever Discover, Colworth Science Park, Sharnbrook, Bedford MK44 1LQ, UK. Tel.: +44 1234 222706; fax: +44 1234 222552; e-mail: gordon.james@unilever.com


The generation of malodour on various sites of the human body is caused by the microbial biotransformation of odourless natural secretions into volatile odorous molecules. On the skin surface, distinctive odours emanate, in particular, from the underarm (axilla), where a large and permanent population of microorganisms thrives on secretions from the eccrine, apocrine and sebaceous glands. Traditional culture-based microbiological studies inform us that this resident microbiota consists mainly of Gram-positive bacteria of the genera Staphylococcus, Micrococcus, Corynebacterium and Propionibacterium. Among the molecular classes that have been implicated in axillary malodour are short- and medium-chain volatile fatty acids, 16-androstene steroids and, most recently, thioalcohols. Most of the available evidence suggests that members of the Corynebacterium genus are the primary causal agents of axillary odour, with the key malodour substrates believed to originate from the apocrine gland. In this article, we examine, in detail, the microbiology and biochemistry of malodour formation on axillary skin, focussing on precursor–product relationships, odour-forming enzymes and metabolic pathways and causal organisms. As well as reviewing the literature, some relevant new data are presented and considered alongside that already available in the public domain to reach an informed view on the current state-of-the-art, as well as future perspectives.