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What is the deal with deodorant, anyway? Is it good or bad? Is it causing health problems? Natural deodorant has been popping up in the mainstream market more and more, so, I figured it was time to take a deep dive!
I sat down and started reading about deodorant… and I realized I actually knew very little about armpits! So, before I go into any details about deodorants or antiperspirants, I want to take a step back and explain some pit basics.
Where does sweat come from?
There are several types of secretion glands in the skin, and the glands that are responsible for making the highest volume of sweat (which is almost entirely water, by the way) are eccrine glands. If you are too warm, your brain will activate these glands to make sweat to cool your body temperature via evaporative cooling. Sweat from these glands on its own is pretty much odorless, but slightly acidic. While we think of sweat mostly coming from our armpits, if you live in the South, you know all too well that you can sweat just about anywhere! Eccrine glands are found all over your body.
What causes my armpits to smell?
Gotta introduce another gland here. Apocrine glands secrete sweat + odor. We have them at a high density in our armpits (in fact, they are only in a few places on the body). They secrete a thicker liquid that has more chemicals, including things like pheromones and some hormones. Here’s the thing, these glands secrete liquid as a result of emotional-type cues (ahem, nervous sweat anyone?).
Where is the sweaty smell coming from?
Pure sweat by itself doesn’t smell super strongly, but our armpits (and really all of our skin) are populated by bacteria that convert various the chemicals in our sweat into compounds that smell more…unpleasant.
Why does the skin on my face seem so different?
I totally fell down a rabbit hole here, so I wanted to include this. The face/scalp has a higher population of another type of gland, sebaceous glands. These produce a substance called “sebum” which is a complex, thicker substance that plays a variety of roles (and is also responsible for several types of acne, in one way or another). Interestingly, sebaceous glands have a role in the skin’s neuroendocrine system and also respond to stress. These glands really step up their activity during puberty, which explains why acne starts at that time too. They are also present in armpits, but not as densely as apocrine glands.
How does my deodorant/antiperspirant work?
Most folks use a combination of deodorant and antiperspirant within a single product. Conventional deodorants contain scented ingredients like fragrances (more on fragrances in a future post!) that are meant to mask the odoriferous compounds that bacteria have created on our armpit skin. Antiperspirants on the other hand, are trying to decrease the wetness by physically blocking glands.
This is where aluminum comes in, which I know is a topic of interest for many of you.
What’s the deal with aluminum in antiperspirants?
Aluminum is present is most standard antiperspirants as a means of physically blocking sweat glands. Aluminum salts (there are a variety that are used in products) react with chemicals in your armpit to create plugs or plaques that physically block the sweat from coming out of the glands.
Why are people worried about aluminum?
Aluminum at high enough levels in your body will have toxic effects (which is the case for most metals), but most of us don’t have that much aluminum in our bodies.
Aluminum has also been *associated* with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that causes severe mental impairments as it progresses. Inside the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient, there are plaque build-ups, and the plaques have been shown to have elevated levels of aluminum. But what do I mean by “associated with Alzheimer’s disease”? Well, we don’t know whether aluminum in your body contributes to the plaques and triggers the disease somehow, or whether the plaques attract aluminum by some unknown mechanism. The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is still unknown and so is its connection to aluminum.
Are there any other concerns associated with standard deodorant/antiperspirants?
Beyond the concern that aluminum may be absorbed by your armpit, there is a controversy about whether or not the heavy deodorant/antiperspirant use in countries like the United States is connected to cancer. There are scientists making the case both ways — some say that in the increased rates of breast cancer may be linked to increased use of underarm products that are in close proximity to breast tissue, others says that there just isn’t enough evidence to support that claim.
What is spurring on the cancer claims? Some scientists think that applying chemicals over the top of glands may be disrupting the amounts of chemicals or hormones produced by the glands. In theory, this could change what our armpit and surrounding tissue experiences. Overall, the jury is still out on the cancer connection.
On the other hand, if endocrine disrupting chemicals are applied to the skin daily for years, some of those chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and either impact the area, or get into the bloodstream and move throughout the body. This last point applies to pretty much any substance that we put on our skin!
Where else might I be getting aluminum?
Aluminum is found in a lot of other places, including water, processed foods (as part of the preservatives), cooking utensils, and of course, aluminum foil. This makes a case for being mindful about your water (see water filter post here!), and making swaps in your kitchen to use less aluminum (cook from scratch when possible, don’t use aluminum foil all the time). If you use aluminum frequently, and are now concerned you might be ingesting a lot of aluminum, here are a couple easy swaps:
-Roast veggies in a glass Pyrex-type of dish (like this one)
-Cook fish, meat, or other foods that you don’t want to dry out in a dutch oven or a stasher bag instead of wrapping in a tin foil pouch
-Choose a ceramic, silicone, or wooden cooking utensils over aluminum ones
Okay, back to deodorants/antiperspirants, how do I choose a good one?
The first place I usually check is the EWG website to see what they recommend, but as good as they are, they are not comprehensive. In the store, you can look for aluminum-free and fragrance-free alternatives. But don’t be fooled by the marketing of different companies. Often times a product will *look* natural and safe, using buzzwords like “natural” and “organic” but they still may use fragrances (example: Target’s “natural” deodorant section contains several products that use artificial fragrances and not essential oils). I’ll have a post soon on greenwashing for more about this.
Reality check, *HOW* do I switch to a natural deodorant without smelling horrible all the time?!
The good news, if it’s winter, it’s a great time to make the transition without the sweat-inducing summer humidity blasting us with moisture! I used the recommendation of a friend and tried Schmidt’s first. This product is *not* an antiperspirant, but a deodorant. Natural deodorants/antiperspirants use baking soda as the main active ingredient to neutralize odors. You will figure out within the first couple weeks of use whether or not you are sensitive to baking soda. I’m not, so I’m able to use baking soda formulations. If you are sensitive to baking soda, and your armpit is getting red and irritated, do not despair! There are baking soda-free options too! Schmidt’s also avoids fragrances, which was important to me.
I found that for the first couple of weeks of use, I felt more ‘wet’ due to the lack of antiperspirant in the product, however, my body seemed to adjust and now I don’t feel like I sweat an extra amount in my armpits. One thing I do notice with natural deodorant, is that if I do have a really stressful/nervous-sweat producing day, I may need to re-apply. I keep a small, travel stick of deodorant in my bag/purse for such occasions. 
Terrified of using natural deodorant in the summer? That’s okay! Consider using it only in the winter, when you are likely sweating less. Or, consider using natural deodorants some of the time (like at night, or on the weekend). Even small changes, or partial changes, make a big difference over time!
For me personally, my next step will be to find a natural deodorant (that I like) that comes in a glass or reusable container. Schmidt’s has been great, but I would like to further decrease the amount of plastic/waste in my bathroom products. I hope to be able to update this post later with some zero-waste options!
Do you have a favorite natural deodorant?? I would love to hear what you use! Join the conversation on social media!
Sources used to research this blog post:
1. Evans, R. L., Marriott, R. E. & Harker, M. Axillary skin: Biology and care. Int. J. Cosmet. Sci. 34, 389–395 (2012).
2. Darbre, P. D. Underarm Cosmetics and Breast Cancer. J. Appl. Toxicol. 23, 89–95 (2003).
3. Klotz, K. et al. The health effects of aluminum exposure. Dtsch. Arztebl. Int. 114, 653–659 (2017).
4. Exley, C. Human exposure to aluminium. Environ. Sci. Process. Impacts 15, 1807–1816 (2013).
5. McGrath, K. G. Apocrine sweat gland obstruction by antiperspirants allowing transdermal absorption of cutaneous generated hormones and pheromones as a link to the observed incidence rates of breast and prostate cancer in the 20th century. Med. Hypotheses 72, 665–674 (2009).
6. Tobin, D. J. Biochemistry of human skin – Our brain on the outside. Chem. Soc. Rev. 35, 52–67 (2006).
7. Bassioni, G., Mohammed, F. S., Zubaidy, E. Al & Kobrsi, I. Risk assessment of using aluminum foil in food preparation. Int. J. Electrochem. Sci. 7, 4498–4509 (2012).