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Deodorant, Antiperspirant, or Nah?

Closeup of a female commuter standing by man's wet armpit in a crowded train
sirtavelot/Shutterstock

Is deodorant necessary? Is antiperspirant bad for you? Should everyone go all-natural instead? Let’s clear up the world of antiperspirant and deodorant for good.

For years, people wore deodorant and antiperspirant without giving it a second thought. But lately, certain ingredients in these products have gotten a lot of negative press, raising questions like these. Let’s break down the essentials that can help you decide which one is right for you (or if neither is the best choice). 

What You Need to Know About Deodorant

So, what is deodorant, anyway? Deodorant exists specifically to stop underarm odor, not to reduce or block sweat.

Sweat doesn’t naturally smell bad. Underarm odor happens when your sweat mingles with the bacteria that live on your skin. Your underarms tend to smell because they have both more sweat and more bacteria than other body parts (your feet can smell bad for the same reason).

Hair in your armpits traps more bacteria and sweat, making the problem worse. Certain kinds of sweat are also more likely to cause odor than others, including the sweat from your underarm glands.

And, let’s face it. Some people worse than others, whether because they sweat more or because of the specific combination of bacteria that likes their skin.

Deodorant kills the bacteria that cause odor when they mix with ingredients in your sweat. When you use it, your armpits will still feel wet, but they won’t smell bad. Some deodorants also use fragrances to mask your sweat smell even more.

What You Need to Know About Antiperspirant

woman in bath towel applying antiperspirant after shower
George Rudy/Shutterstock

Antiperspirant aims to block sweat, not just stop odors.

Your underarms have a high concentration of sweat glands, so they produce more sweat than other body parts. Sweat is a valuable tool that your body uses to regulate its temperature. However, sometimes you may want a little less sweat in the armpit area.

Antiperspirants prevent you from sweating using aluminum salts. Aluminum creates a barrier over your sweat glands so the moisture can’t get through. While your body will still make the sweat, it can’t get past the antiperspirant to the surface of your skin.

Antiperspirant takes time to work, so you may not notice the effects right away after you put it on. You’ll actually get the best results if you apply it the night before you need it.

New Safety Concerns

Deodorant and antiperspirant once seemed like a magic cure to the age-old problem of body odor. But in the last few years, people have voiced some surprising safety concerns about these products.

Some academics and researchers think certain ingredients in standard deodorants and antiperspirants may cause cancer or reproductive and developmental problems. Deodorant companies are determined to dispell their claims.

Is there anything to these fears? While some studies have shown that there could be a link between deodorant ingredients and serious health problems, the studies aren’t conclusive, and more research is needed to be sure.

Since the evidence isn’t conclusive, it’s up to every individual to decide whether they’re willing to take the possible risk or not.

Some people also worry that blocking sweat with antiperspirant might be harmful. Your body does use sweat to flush out toxins. However, if you block the glands in your armpits, the other sweat glands around your body can take care of this job just fine, so this is one concern you can set aside.

Alternatives to Deodorant and Antiperspirant

Dark glass bottles, cinnamon, orange, pine twigs, anise on table
Anna Ok/Shutterstock

If you don’t find the research compelling enough, you can reach for a standard deodorant to block odor, or an antiperspirant if you don’t want sweaty pits.

However, if you want to avoid the possible dangers, there are some alternatives you can choose instead. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each one.

Natural Products

Today you’ll find many companies that make natural deodorants, which promise to avoid the maybe-harmful ingredients in standard products.

If you’re concerned about specific ingredients, you should still read the labels on those natural products to be sure they aren’t included. Natural deodorants usually don’t use aluminum, so there are no natural antiperspirants. They also rarely block odor as effectively as regular deodorants, and they tend to cost more. Some products work better than others for certain people, so you may want to try a few products before you commit.

You might experience worse odor and more sweat when you initially switch to natural deodorant. This could be caused by a buildup of bacteria trapped behind the aluminum, but it should improve with time.

Overall, natural products won’t hold up to sweaty situations as well as regular deodorants. But if you think regular deodorant is harming your health, these drawbacks will seem well worth it.

DIY Products

If you’re not happy with the natural products you find (or can’t afford them), you might also try a DIY deodorant.

Recipes abound on the internet, but they typically include deodorizers like baking soda, moisture-absorbing ingredients like cornstarch or arrowroot, moisturizers like coconut oil or shea butter, and essential oils for fragrance.

For something super simple, mix a few drops of your favorite scented oil (peppermint, wintergreen, jasmine, whatever) in a bottle of isopropyl alcohol and splash it on whenever you need to. The alcohol kills the bacteria and evaporates quickly and cleanly. Using alcohol on your skin regularly can dry it out a bit, but in a moist area like your armpit, it’s usually not a problem.

Again, different recipes will work best for different people. However, you can be sure that your DIY deodorant won’t offer deodorizing capabilities as powerful as what you can buy on store shelves—and it won’t block your sweat glands to keep you dry.

No Products

Some people decide to go deodorant-free altogether. Is that the best choice?

Although you may not like the feeling of damp, sweaty pits, we mainly wear deodorant for the sake of other people. We adapt to scents effectively when we’re constantly exposed to them, which is why we don’t notice our body odor until it’s really bad. If you stop wearing deodorant, your nose will adapt to your new, stronger scent.

However, the people around you might not, and you need to think about how forgoing deodorant will affect your interactions with others. From making you seem unprofessional at work to turning off a potential date, there’s no benefit to ditching your deodorant.

And honestly, there’s no reason to. If you’re worried about the health risks of some ingredients, try one of the many natural or DIY options available. They may not be as effective as a regular deodorant, but trust us—it’s better than nothing.

Still, it’s entirely up to you. Some people sweat less; some sweat more. Some smell stronger; some do not. Know your body and if you feel like using deodorant is right for you, go for it!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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