WHY Does My Hockey Equipment Stink?!

23 January 2012

Have you ever wanted to hold your nose in the change room? Does the aroma of your hockey bag drive your Mom to distraction? Have you ever wondered what on earth makes your sports equipment smell that bad? The short answer: bacteria are feeding on your sweat and body secretions to produce bromidrosis, otherwise known as B.O.

Have you ever wanted to hold your nose in the change room? Does the aroma of your hockey bag drive your Mom to distraction? Have you ever wondered what on earth makes your sports equipment smell that bad? The short answer: bacteria are feeding on your sweat and body secretions to produce bromidrosis, otherwise known as B.O.

Setting the Stage: The Bacteria

To get the whole story one must enter the world of skin, where tiny creatures do battle on a dry field, surrounded by the towering trunks of hair follicles. It is a world where food, moisture and warmth are valuable commodities, and wherever bacteria can find these commodities, they can multiply in the millions! In this world, skin microbes find their food in the form of a liquid called sweat, which is secreted by glands in the skin.

Although sweat is ninety-nine percent water, it also contains small amounts of inorganic and organic compounds including salts, ammonia, and urea. Bacteria, like Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermis, and Propionibacteria acnes, feed on these compounds, break them down into smaller compounds, and release byproducts into the air in the process. These byproducts, or "microbe manure", produce the 'smell' of sweat.

Fast Fact: Sweat is virtually scentless, but the compounds that bacteria excrete when they feed on it have a distinct aroma.

There are between 2 and 5 million sweat glands on a person, with an average distribution on the body of 150 - 340 sweat glands per square centimeter. The palms of the hands and soles of the feet have the highest concentration, followed by the head, trunk, and limbs. As a hockey player, you can imagine that with nearly your whole body covered in sports gear during a game, your equipment is a sponge for sweat, and a prime target for some serious sweat-soaked scents!

It's the Pits!

There are, actually, two kinds of glands in our skin which secrete liquids that bacteria feast on: Apocrine glands and Eccrine (sweat) glands. Apocrine glands spring into action during puberty, and continue to operate throughout adulthood. They are predominantly found in the arm pits and genital regions, and are packed in together so tightly that that they form a solid, spongy mass of tissue. These glands exude a thick, milky substance that is rich in protein and fat molecules.

Bacteria LOVE this stuff, and when these microbes break down the apocrine secretions, they produce a strong, distinctive odour. Eccrine glands are found under the arms as well, and the sweat they produce provides a fluid base that helps slather the apocrine mixture around, including along the shafts of underarm hair.

Believe it or not, the whole armpit system, from the composition of apocrine secretion to the presence of hair, is designed to create a stench. Armpit hair is thought to have the sole purpose, in an evolutionary sense, of helping our bodies advertise its unique odour to others. The hair provides substantially more surface area for the oily secretions, for the secretion-loving bacteria…and for the stinky bacterial waste products to evaporate from.

Along with other chemicals secreted by apocrine glands, armpit odour is sending messages about things like your sexuality, your social status, and your immune system. In fact, though it might seem strange in our clean-obsessed society, B.O. actually carries all kinds of information about you that the opposite sex may find attractive!!

What's In the Bag?

Let's take the leap from smelly skin to smelly equipment, and delve into the gym bag. Some of the same microbes that live on our skin, are transferred to onto gym equipment, and can create the same set of unpleasant odours as they continue to feed during the post-game festivities.

Bacteria and certain types of fungi survive and reproduce wherever there is food (sweat), moisture and warmth…just the type of environment you create when you close your gym bag or shut your locker full of sweaty sports equipment! What with the numerous species of fungi and bacteria able to grow on sports equipment, you might have a genuine microbial zoo in your sports bag!

All these life forms only serve to enrich the smells emanating from your equipment. But you can take heart in knowing that the stinkier your equipment is, the happier your microbes are.

Fast Fact: Microbes living in sports equipment can be the cause of more than a reputation for foul odour. In at least two cases, members of high school teams that shared equipment also shared a strain of disease-causing Staphylococcus aureus that is resistant to antibiotics.

A Happy Ending

Your smelly equipment need not chase your teammates away (or attract unwanted admirers). There are things that can be done to fight against microbes and their stenches - and win! Taking care of your equipment is the first line of defense. Since microbes thrive in warm, moist environments, airing out your equipment until it is dry makes it more difficult for bacteria to survive.

Using deodorants and antiperspirants can help as well. Deodorants dissuade bacteria from growing on your skin, and antiperspirants reduce the amount of sweat secreted. The use of both can limit the development of foul odours on your gear.

If prevention fails, there are now several options on the market for cleaning and rejuvenating offensive equipment, from goalie pads to helmets. One of the simplest products you can buy is volcanic ash, which can be put into your sports bag or locker. The ash doesn't prevent the odour or affect the bacteria that are producing the stench in the first place, but it DOES absorb the bad smells.

Some sporting stores and facilities offer an equipment cleaning service. One method involves bathing the articles in ozone gas. Ozone generally destroys those smelly organic compounds, the microbes that produce them, and the bodily secretions that they feed on. Other cleaning methods involve soaking the articles in mild detergents to remove oils and other compounds that provide food for bacteria, or soaking in disinfectants to kill the microbes.

The future of sports equipment cleaning may take some interesting twists as researchers experiment by impregnating fabrics with bacteria that feed on dirt, sweat and body secretions WITHOUT producing any stinky byproducts. The idea is that these bacteria living within the fibers will keep them perpetually clean as the microbes eat up all the dirt; no laundering required.

However, some of the challenges that need to be overcome before self-cleaning sports clothing and equipment can become a reality include: i) how to keep the bacteria in the fibres permanently, and ii) how to keep the bacteria alive when they run out of bodily secretions to eat.

Meanwhile, the stench of sweat and B.O. will continue to emanate from your gym bags. Perhaps knowing that these smells are your own unique signature, advertising to your peers that you are a healthy human being who is attractive to others, is a consolation. You could try relating to your teammates and parents the story behind the fragrance you're emitting. If that doesn't make it easier for them to breathe deeply in your presence, you can always truthfully blame the smell on someone else. It isn't YOUR fault your equipment stinks - it's your microbes.

Judith Wearing lives in a century house in the Ontario countryside with her family, a dog, two cats, and 43 other assorted animals.


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