Some folks are lucky to have showers at work. Most of bike commuters probably do not have such luxury. The fear of being stinky and uncomfortable at work or at school is one of top few reasons why people are afraid of bike commuting. Fortunately, there is a way to deal with this problem.
One possibility is to find a gym nearby. Many gyms would allow you to use their facilities for a small fee. If you can do that, the problem is solved.
But what to do if you don’t have access to any shower whatsoever? What if the only thing available to you is a restroom? Lucky for us most workplaces have restrooms. A restroom and a sink will suffice.
Why do we stink?
Before I get into details you need to understand one thing: it’s not the sweat that stinks, it’s the bacteria that use your skin as breeding grounds, your sweat as food and releases strong odors in the process. Bacteria like to breed where it’s warm and moist and your armpits are the perfect breeding grounds for them. Bacteria breed when your skin pH is at certain level. pH is a measure of acidity or basicity of a solution, in this case your sweat. That’s why some people tend to smell more than others, because their skin’s pH is different. Of course, some people simply sweat more than others, like I do
What you eat affects the pH of your body. “Empty carbs” in particular, will affect your body pH and make it abnormal. White flour, white rice, white bread, potatoes, corn, pasta, sugar, fruit juices, carbonated drinks (soda) and alcohol are all examples of “empty carbs” and will change your pH and possibly make you stink more. These foods should be avoided anyway in a healthy diet. If you avoid these you’re less likely to smell.
They key to avoid being stinky at work is to get rid of the bacteria by getting rid of your sweat before bacteria has the chance to breed in it. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t.
The main sources of body odor are: armpits, feet and head hair. The rest of your body contributes little with the lower back and your butt probably contributing most. The pubic area of your body contributes very little to the “global” body odor as long as it’s kept clean otherwise.
Few words on clothing and appearance
Keeping your head hair short and body hair trimmed will help keeping the smell down and help you feel fresher. You don’t have to shave your armpits if you don’t like, but trimming that hair to maybe quarter of an inch will help tremendously.
Do not wear socks that contain more than 10% of polyester or any other synthetics. For best results wear pure Merino wool or pure cotton socks!
Do not wear cheap footwear made entirely of cheap synthetics. If your sneakers smell strongly like plastic right after you bought them, your feet will be miserable in those. Good quality, vented sneakers should be worn in warm weather to avoid feet odor. You can also wear sandals, they’re easy to wash and dry quickly. Short hiking footwear is best for cycling but quality sneakers will do just fine. More on this in other articles.
Wash your footwear as soon as it starts to smell. I wash my sandals weekly and sneakers like monthly or less. Do not wear your cycling footwear at work!
If you can, wear pure Australian Merino wool tops. They do not attract bacteria and they do not smell. You can commute in them for a week without washing them. They will not smell even if you’re drenched in sweat. Otherwise get 2-3 quick drying tops or jerseys. I will elaborate on bike clothing in another article, but specialized bike clothing is not needed. I often wear $10 poly tops from Costco. Bike jerseys are usually of higher quality and have back pockets, but they’re expensive.
Use anything you like for the bottoms: bike shorts make riding easier but are not necessary, I often ride wearing beach shorts or hiking shorts. They dry quickly. I wear high-tech bicycle tights in cold weather, however, they make a huge difference in cold weather comfort.
Get at least two sets of bike clothing (shorts, tights, tops, gloves, socks) and wash them in the shower at the end of the day, they’ll dry by the following day while you’re using the other set. What I do: I put the shorts and the top on under shower, it makes it easy to wash and rinse! However, I eventually accumulated enough clothing that I don’t need to wash them daily.
Do not wear the same clothes more than once without washing them unless they’re made of pure Australian Merino wool!
In hot weather in particular, don’t use backpacks or messenger bags. They’ll make you sweat more and prevent proper ventilation while riding. Rack bags, frame bags or panniers are the best.
Wash your helmet and the helmet pads once a week!
Here is how I avoid being stinky at work.
What you will need:
- a complete change of clothes including socks and shoes
- a towel (microfiber towels are great)
- a box of antibacterial Wet Ones wipes
- a stick deodorant (slightly scented works best)
- feet cream or powder (optional, if you know your feet smell more than average)
- a hair drier (optional, the small, folding travel type will work great)
- rubbing alcohol (optional)
Shower thoroughly before leaving in the morning, wash your hair. Rub some rubbing alcohol under your arms, just wait until your skin cools off, before doing that. Put on clean, fresh clothes. Do not use any deodorants at this time! They won’t make any difference and they’ll just make cleanup at work much harder. Take care of your physiological needs before showering to make sure your entire body is nice and clean. The idea is to start with as clean body as possible, no bacteria.
Leave early enough to have at least 15 minutes to cool off and clean up.
Upon arriving at work, school or whatever your destination is:
- let your body cool off for 5 minutes, while wiping sweat with a towel
- if you have short hair, wash it again in the restroom sink, if you don’t then blow dry it if you can, or at least fluff it to make it dry faster
- wash your face and neck in the sink
- if you can, wash your armpits and feet in the sink
- if you can’t wash your armpits and feet, then at least wipe them, and all the parts of your body you can reach with a towel, then…
- wipe your armpits, body and feet with antibacterial Wet Ones
- you can also use rubbing alcohol to wipe your armpits and feet, just make sure you allow your skin to cool off first, applying rubbing alcohol to hot skin will itch, let it dry
- apply stick deodorant under your arms, spread it evenly and rub it in with your fingers! [See the edit below, I stopped using deodorant at all]
- apply feet cream or powder if you need to, I don’t
- change all your clothes down to socks and shoes
You will most likely continue sweating for a while, maybe another 30 minutes. That’s why it’s a good idea to come early so you can cool off. Don’t worry, this won’t make you stinky but you can continue wiping the sweat off with a towel.
If you don’t have any place to keep your sweaty clothes away from coworkers, put them in a Ziploc bag. Otherwise, hang them somewhere to dry. You shouldn’t really care if they smell for your commute back home.
That is it. If you follow the above procedure and avoid foods that make you stinky you will not smell at work.
If you have friends at work, or at least coworkers that you feel comfortable with, ask them to alert you if you smell. Most people would put up with a stinky person and never complain, so you may not know.
I’ve also discovered recently that using Purell hand sanitizer on your armpits and feet will drastically lower the odors since it kills some bacteria. Applying some of that and letting it dry before applying deodorant helps a lot. You may even get away without using a deodorant. You may have to re-apply it once or twice a day.
EDIT: I actually found that the Purell is an excellent deodorant I haven’t used a stick deodorant since last Fall, I only wipe my underarms with some alcohol or WetOnes and apply Purell, I never smell. I started using it exclusively as my deodorant.
EDIT 2014-04-25: As a reader pointed out in the comment: if you use Purell, you don’t really need to use alcohol any more, since Purell contains alcohol. That’s what I actually do now. Also, Purell is more gentle on the skin compared to rubbing alcohol.