Some people suggest that bike commuting is not that messy and you won’t sweat too much. It is as if they wanted to downplay the uncomfortable part of bike commuting. Since body odor can put you in a very uncomfortable situation at your workplace the issue deserves some detailed attention. Understanding what causes body odor will help you figure out what you can do about it and find the solution that works for you.
What causes body odor when cycling? Body odor (BO) is caused when sweat is metabolized by bacteria. To overcome BO you should either focus on preventing sweat or preventing bacterial activity on your skin surface. Thankfully there are several ways to wage the war against BO on both fronts.
Sweating enhances the body to regulate its temperature and cools down the body by evaporating on the skin surface. This way sweating does contribute to BO in part but sweating itself does not result in BO, only if it is combined with bacterial activity.
Tips to prevent bacterial activity
It might sound radical and a bit weird but it makes a lot of sense: taking a shower before getting on your bike in the morning cleans off your skin and all the bacteria that’s built up on it since your last shower. Your sweat will interact with much less bacteria on your skin so your body odor is going to be noticeably duller.
Anti-bacterial deodorant and soap
There are deodorants specifically designed to kill the bacteria on the skin. They achieve this with antibacterial compounds. There are various brands and types. Check which deodorant works for you. The more common deodorants are usually a combined with antiperspirants. If you sweat excessively this might not be enough and you need to look for stronger antiperspirant.
You can also find antibacterial soaps that prevent bacterial activity on the skin, although generally speaking soap isn’t as efficient as the deodorant itself. The best results will be achieved by combining both.
Dry your skin
Another way to prevent bacteria growth on your skin is to keep it dry. After shower make sure that you wipe your skin bone dry, especially those areas that produce more bacteria and tend to smell more intensely like the armpit or the groin. These parts of the body contribute to BO in a twofold manner: they provide a moist environment for bacteria to grow and they produce sweat which is metabolized by the bacteria.
Excessive sweating is often caused by overdressing. It is quite easy to fall into the trap of “Oh, it looks really cold, so I may as well dress up really warm today”. 5 minutes into your commute you already feel the sweat running down your body. Understanding how your body-temperature is affected by your effort and the weather takes some experience, but you will soon get to know how your body reacts and you start to think in terms of “temperature zones”. It’s a good rule of thumb that if you feel just a bit cold when you get on your bike then you will be okay because your body will generate enough heat.
It is wise to prepare yourself to know what to expect by checking the weather forecast the night before and to prepare your clothes accordingly, especially when the weather is more unpredictable (fall and spring). You can also go outside or open the window to check the weather before you get on your bike.
If you need to carry a lot of stuff on your commute avoid using backpack. The backpack blocks all ventilation and makes your back sweat much more intensely. Instead of a backpack carry your stuff on the bike. Depending on how much you need to take with you and the type of bike you have this can be a pannier, a frame bag or a seatpost bag.
You don’t need to go full steam all the way. Try to enjoy the ride. Make your commute a pleasant experience. Speed and physical fitness are not the only reasons for bike commuting. If you like riding as fast as you can then slowing down for the last couple of miles before arriving at your workplace can help a lot. With the reduced effort and a nice breeze your body can cool down on your last stretch.
Deal with sweat upon arrival
It’s a good idea to aim to arrive a bit earlier to have some acclimatization time for your body, when you can sit down and relax for 10 or 15 minutes before you get changed.
Once you feel cooled down enough go to the restroom to clean up and get changed. You can use wash rag or a microfiber towel, unscented baby wipes. There are sport towels instead of the baby wipes, which are basically cleansing body wipes to be used specifically after sports. These wipes were designed to be used to clean your body surface properly without taking a shower. These wipes moisturize and deodorize your body.
Sometimes people’s needs and circumstances line up perfectly and there is a possibility to take a shower at the workplace. If your company is small you will know this without asking, but if you work in a big building you may want to ask around from other bike commuters or someone from facilities. If there is no shower in the building and you really want one you can still look for a nearby gym where you can shower, get changed and keep your clothes too. There are plenty of people who don’t take a shower at their workplace despite having the possibility to do so. For most people shower is not something without which they can’t commute.
Not only the bacteria on your skin but also what grows in your shirt that has an effect on body odor. Some clothes make you sweat more some others less and bacteria grows in them differently. Wool naturally hinders bacteria growth but it is quite itchy if it comes in direct contact with your skin. Merino wool is a special type of wool that has the antibacterial characteristic without itching the skin. The clothes made of high-quality merino wool are pricey, but they are a worthwhile investment. You don’t need to buy many of them because merino wool doesn’t need to be washed often.
Different pieces of clothes and other belongings like your backpack or shoes can also be the cause of bad smell. Isopropyl alcohol disinfects and deodorizes, which is why they use it as an ingredient of some detergents. It can be purchased in pharmacies. Put it in an empty spray bottle and sprinkle it on whatever you want to disinfect. A word of caution when using isopropyl alcohol: it can’t be used on every type of fabric. You need to make sure that it doesn’t damage the clothes you are wearing. For example, merino wool shirts can be damaged if you sprinkle isopropyl alcohol on them.
Start your commute super early
This tip might sound a bit too radical but if you can leave super-early during the hottest periods of the year can help too. You will definitely sweat less if you ride at 5 am when it’s “only” 90 degrees instead of 7 am when it’s 115. There’s nothing you can do for the ride home, but you’ve got a shower there.
Use dry shampoo
A common problem for commuters that the helmet messes up their hair. What can you do about it? Well, if it is really that bad and there’s no shower in the building you can use dry shampoo. There are some specifically designed for workouts.
Watch your mouth (aka mind your diet)
If you have difficulty with body odor in general you should also check whether your diet is okay. Body odor also depends to some extent on what you bring into your body. For instance too much garlic, curry, red meat and alcohol or caffeine can enhance body odor. Some other foods such as yogurt or pickles can have a positive effect on alleviating the problem.
Bike commuting is such a hero-like activity, it’s worth asking yourself this question: if you used public transportation wouldn’t you get sweaty anyways? Even worse, wouldn’t you have to put up with the BO of so many other passengers? For me the answer to the latter question is enough to be a bike commuter.