I am going to drop a major truth bomb here.. since spending most of my time around the house, I haven’t used deodorant every day. I know, I know.. just being honest here, but I’m actually glad I have been doing this because I discovered some very interesting things about my natural deodorant in the process and I wanted to share.
I stopped using conventional deodorant several years ago because I was led to believe, from many sources, that aluminium-based products and antiperspirants were harmful to our health, and while there is some basis for that (arguably, which I won’t go into too deeply), natural deodorant can be harmful as well, in different ways. Since using deodorant less regularly in the past few weeks of being home, I’ve had significantly less irritation. I have sensitive, reactive skin, so this is something I have struggled with for years, but the improvement was something I noticed. Last summer I discovered some information about how body odor is really just bacteria (I’ll explain more later) and using benzoyl peroxide body wash under your arms can minimize or pretty much eliminate odor. Now, at this point I had tried so many natural deodorant products that I had finally found a couple that worked really well for me, but I was using the benzoyl peroxide wash anyway, so I thought “what the heck, why not!”. I did this for a while, until I ran out, and I had some pretty great results from it. I felt like it was helping my irritation as well, which I didn’t think much of at the time, but it was a bonus. Fast forward to now, and I coincidentally stumbled across some new posts from two of my favorite skin care experts about natural deodorant, at the same time I was starting to question the efficacy of mine. They basically had the same points and it made so much sense to me!
Although I have enjoyed the peace of mind since using a natural deodorant, I have been researching better ways to go about the whole “non-toxic” thing. I want the deodorant I use to be very effective, obviously, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of my skin health.
Here are the questions I had along with the answers/info I found on body odor and how deodorant actually works.
First of all, what is body odor and where the heck does it come from?
The basic run down of BO is, your sweat doesn’t stink until certain bacteria come along and ruin it. From the research I read, the main type of bacteria in the armpit area that causes body odor is corynebacteria, but staphylococci is another one I saw come up a lot. When sweat (namely from apocrine glands) comes into contact with corynebacteria, the bacteria have a field day with the proteins and this is what releases chemical compounds that create various odors (yay!). Since your armpits are a more damp and humid part of the body (or as I like to call it, tropical pits), this creates the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive in.
Antiperspirants work by plugging your sweat glands and basically shut down, or minimize, sweat production in that area. Also, antiperspirant is different from a deodorant (see below), and this post will mainly focus on deodorant. However, I feel it is important to note that while aluminum-based products have been greatly touted for being harmful, and a lot of people find them irritating, for someone with a condition like hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), it might actually be a dermatologist-prescribed treatment for the condition and a very useful one at that. A tip when using an antiperspirant, use it at night when your sweat glands are less active. This allows the plugging effect to do its thing and makes the product more effective.
The main focus of a deodorant is to mask smell. Deodorant on its own does not affect the production of sweat.
Natural deodorant is generally marketed as a safe, non-toxic alternative to conventional deodorant, free of any harmful aluminum or other potentially unsafe ingredients. The most common active ingredient in natural deodorants is baking soda, but there are baking soda free options that have ingredients like magnesium hydroxide and/or zinc. They also have ingredients like essential oils and other natural fragrances which aid in odor-masking (and some claim to be antibacterial as well). I’ve even seen some with probiotics, which is a newer trend in skincare, and one I find very interesting.
So, if decreasing the bad bacteria and minimizing odor is the goal, you want to stay away from antiperspirant and conventional deodorant, and you have had undesirable results with the natural deodorant you’ve tried, what are the alternatives? This is where it gets interesting!
Why pH matters:
Our skin’s pH naturally sits around 5.5, but is slightly higher in your armpit area. Because bacteria, like corynebacteria, thrives in a more alkaline environment, the higher the pH, the worse the body odor will be (in theory). Because a lot of active ingredients in natural deodorants are more alkaline, namely baking soda, it makes sense that some of these products can be less effective than a common antiperspirant. In my opinion, this could also be one reason for the armpit “detox” you go through when switching from a conventional deodorant to a natural one, since changing any product can have an effect on skin health and pH and can reconstitute the amount and type of bacteria in the area.
* pH: A scale of 0-14, used as a way of measuring a substances acidity or alkalinity; 0-6 being acidic, 7 being neutral, and any number above 7 being basic or alkaline
Benzoyl peroxide is antibacterial and is very common in the treatment of acne, but not so much talked about for it’s deodorizing effects. The idea is that by using a benzoyl peroxide wash under your arms, you are essentially killing the odor causing bacteria, therefore lessening and preventing odor all together. The way I use it is by lathering it on my armpits and letting it sit (like a mask) for a minute or so before rinsing it off.
The deal with acids:
If you want to stay away from antiperspirants and err on the side of less conventional products, this is where acids come in. Chemical exfoliates (AHA and BHA) are generally formulated with a low pH, around 3-4. They work by breaking down dead skin cells and can have many benefits including being anti-aging, helping improve hyperpigmentation, and reducing inflammation. One of my favorites, salicylic acid, is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, which is a great double whammy if you also struggle with irritation and/or razor burn. The idea of using an AHA or BHA product as an alternative to deodorant is that it helps to slightly alter pH, leading to less odor, plus softer underarms. You can read more about the specific benefits of different AHA and BHA ingredients here.
Pros and cons:
I like that glycolic and salicylic acid both seem to not be drying like benzoyl peroxide has the tendency to be. I also like that AHA and BHA can offer more benefits like mentioned above. Overall, since using an acid (mainly the salicylic), I’ve noticed less irritation and razor burn after shaving, as well as a smoothing and brightening effect. The cons for me would be the same with any exfoliating ingredients and/or products; you have to go slow and be careful not to over-exfoliate. Another downside is you have to be more cautious with sun exposure when using these products (anywhere on your body), as they can increase photosensitivity. Just make sure you’re wearing sunscreen and keeping your armpits protected from direct sunlight. The way I use an acid is by splashing some on my armpit area after I get out of the shower (on dry skin), you can also use a cotton pad, if you prefer.
What I am doing now:
I have been experimenting with deodorant alternatives for about a year now, but only recently dove deeper into the research behind it, so I am still learning and testing things out. The first thing I tried and still continue to do, somewhat infrequently now, is use a benzoyl peroxide wash in my armpit area. By using just the benzoyl peroxide along with my regular deodorant there was a noticeable difference. For example, before using the benzoyl peroxide, I might have come home at the end of a long, anxious day full of sweating and notice a slight odor. Whereas, after using the benzoyl peroxide, that odor was pretty much completely gone. Great result for just one small change! The other thing I have started doing more recently is using some chemical exfoliators. I personally have tried salicylic acid so far, as well as a glycolic acid product. I have seen fairly positive results; overall less irritation under my arms and I haven’t gotten razor burn as badly as I normally do when I shave. I still have my Pretty Frank natural deodorant on hand, but I am looking forward to continuing my exploration of these deodorant alternatives and hope to keep seeing (not smelling.. haha) more of the great results I’ve noticed so far.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA
Differin Daily Deep Cleanser with Benzoyl Peroxide
PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash 10% Benzoyl Peroxide
I was actually surprised to find out that there weren’t oodles of research on armpits and body odor like I thought there would be. I feel that topics like sweating and body odor are still somewhat of a taboo subject (maybe not quite taboo, but certainly seen as a less than desirable thing to talk about) and I think that is a real shame. Having said that, I do hope that this post offers you some thinking on the subject and can help you in some way!
*DISCLAIMER: The information in this post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment