Sometimes “the cure” leads to a worsening of the very problem you’re trying to solve. Such may be the case when it comes to antiperspirants. As reported by Real Clear Science,1 antiperspirants affect the bacterial balance in your armpits, leading to an even more foul-smelling sweat problem.
The reason your sweat smells is because the bacteria living in your armpits break down lipids and amino acids found in your sweat into substances that have a distinct odor.
Antiperspirants address this problem using antimicrobial agents to kill bacteria, and other ingredients such as aluminum that block your sweat glands. According to the featured article:
“To uncover how deodorants and antiperspirants affect armpit bacteria... a team of researchers recruited eight subjects for a task a great many people (and especially their friends) might deem unbearable:
Six males and two females pledged not to use deodorant or antiperspirant for an entire month. Specifically, four subjects stopped using their deodorants and another four stopped using their antiperspirant deodorant....
Another control subject who did not regularly use either was asked to use deodorant for a month. The duration was chosen because it takes approximately 28 days for a new layer of skin cells to form.”
What Happens When You Use Antiperspirant?
Every subject in this study ended up altering the bacterial composition of their armpits. While it was a challenge to determine the exact changes, since every person’s microbiome is distinct and individual, the researchers did find one clear trend.
Those who used antiperspirants saw a definitive increase in Actinobacteria. These bacteria are hugely responsible for that foul-smelling armpit odor. Other bacteria found living in people’s armpits include Firmicutes and Staphylococcus, but the odors they produce are milder, and they’re not produced quite as readily.
The situation here is much like it is in your gut. When you eat foods or take drugs that kill off beneficial bacteria, more potentially harmful microbes are allowed to take over the turf.
Here, the less odor-causing bacteria are killed off by the aluminum compounds (the active ingredient in most antiperspirants), allowing bacteria that produce more pungent odors to thrive instead.
In some participants, abstaining from antiperspirant caused the population of Actinobacteria to dwindle into virtual nonexistence. The take-home message: using an antiperspirant can make the stink from your armpits more pronounced, while quitting antiperspirants may eventually mellow the smell.
Unfortunately, altering the microbiome in your armpit isn’t the worst thing that can happen when you regularly use antiperspirants.
Aluminum-Containing Antiperspirants May Promote Cancer
The aluminum chloride in antiperspirants, which blocks your pores from releasing sweat, may also contribute to an increased cancer risk. Aluminum chloride actually acts similarly to the way oncogenes work to cause molecular transformations in cancer cells.
Aluminum salts can also mimic estrogen, and previous research has shown that aluminum is absorbed and deposited into breast tissue.2 The researchers actually suggested that raised levels of aluminum could be used as a biomarker for identification of women at increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Aluminum is also widely recognized as a neurotoxin, and Alzheimer’s patients typically have elevated levels of aluminum in their brains. While there are other sources of aluminum, antiperspirants are a major one, as most people use it on a daily basis.
Aluminum salts can account for 25 percent of the volume of some antiperspirants, and in one study3 reviewing the most common sources of aluminum exposure for humans found that antiperspirant use can significantly increase the amount of aluminum absorbed by your body.
According to the review, about 0.12 percent of the aluminum applied under your arms is absorbed with each application. When you multiply that by one or more times a day for a lifetime, it can up to a massive amount of aluminum—a poison that may be more toxic than mercury!
Parabens in Antiperspirants Have Also Been Implicated in Breast Cancer
Parabens are another common ingredient in antiperspirants, and research4 examining parabens suggests chronic antiperspirant use may lead to a heightened risk of cancer as well, specifically breast cancer.
The research in question looked at where breast tumors were appearing, and determined that higher concentrations of parabens were found in the upper quadrants of the breast and axillary area, where antiperspirants are usually applied. One or more paraben esters were found in 99 percent of the 160 tissue samples collected from 40 mastectomies.
Parabens are chemicals that serve as preservatives in antiperspirants and many other cosmetics, including suntan lotions. Previous studies have shown that all parabens have estrogenic activity in human breast cancer cells.
This research really raises a red flag, and while the authors note that the source of the parabens cannot be established—in fact seven of the 40 patients reportedly never used deodorants or antiperspirants in their lifetime—it tells us that parabens are problematic, regardless of the source.
It just so happens that antiperspirants and deodorants contain parabens and are used on a daily basis by most women, and the parabens they contain can bioaccumulate in breast tissue.
Even Natural Deodorants Can Contain Aluminum and Parabens
There are many brands of chemical-free, aluminum-free deodorants on the market, and many of these are safe alternatives. But you do need to carefully read the list of ingredients. "Crystal" deodorant stones often claim to be aluminum-free, but some still contain a compound known as alum; the most common form being potassium alum, also known as potassium aluminum sulfate.
Potassium alum is a natural mineral salt made up of molecules that are too large to be absorbed by your skin. It works by forming a protective layer on your skin that inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria. While this may be a better alternative to most antiperspirants and deodorants on the market, it’s not completely aluminum-free... When shopping for an alternative, also remember to avoid any product containing parabens.
Bacteria-Containing Lotions and Potions—a New Frontier Opens Up
In a recent New York Times article,5 Julia Scott writes about her participation in a test group trying out a living bacterial skin tonic. The concoction is created by AOBiome.
“The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water,” she writes. “AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide.”For the test, she agreed to mist her face, scalp, and body with the live bacteria twice a day for a month. The theory that adding rather than eradicating bacteria from your body might produce better results seems rather logical, considering what we now know about the gut microbiome, and how the bacterial balance in your armpits affects your sweat odor. And, while Scott reports mixed results, the creators of AOBiome are all long-time users of the product.
“Jamas, a quiet, serial entrepreneur with a doctorate in biotechnology, incorporated N. eutropha into his hygiene routine years ago; today he uses soap just twice a week,” Scott writes. “The chairman of the company’s board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year.
The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. He occasionally takes a sponge bath to wash away grime but trusts his skin’s bacterial colony to do the rest. I met these men. I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being ‘unclean’ in either the visual or olfactory sense.”
It Doesn’t Take Much to Eradicate Beneficial Bacteria
Among the benefits, Scott reports improvements in her complexion: softer, smoother skin, fewer breakouts, and smaller pores. Indeed, the cosmetics industry has already taken note. According to Audrey Gueniche, a project director in L’Oréal’s research and innovation division, the skin microbiome “has revolutionized the way we study the skin and the results we look for,” Scott writes. The company has already patented several bacterial treatments. There are also countless potential uses in the medical field. For example, there’s a strong correlation between eczema flare-ups and an increased number of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on the skin, which has scientists pondering the possibilities for treating the skin disorder with the appropriate skin bacteria.
“As my experiment drew to a close, I found myself reluctant to return to my old routine of daily shampooing and face treatments,” Scott writes. “I asked AOBiome which of my products was the biggest threat to the ‘good’ bacteria on my skin. The answer was equivocal: Sodium lauryl sulfate, the first ingredient in many shampoos, may be the deadliest to N. eutropha, but nearly all common liquid cleansers remove at least some of the bacteria. Antibacterial soaps are most likely the worst culprits, but even soaps made with only vegetable oils or animal fats strip the skin of AOB.
...In the end, I tipped most of my products into the trash and purchased a basic soap and a fragrance-free shampoo with a short list of easily pronounceable ingredients. Then I enjoyed a very long shower, hoping my robust biofilm would hang on tight. One week after the end of the experiment, though, a final skin swab found almost no evidence of N. eutropha anywhere on my skin. It had taken me a month to coax a new colony of bacteria onto my body. It took me three showers to extirpate it.”
Do You Really Need an Antiperspirant? My Recommendations
My personal recommendation when it comes to antiperspirants is to avoid them. It’s been well over 40 years since I quit using antiperspirant or deodorant--even natural ones. I noticed they would cause a yellow stain in the armpit of my shirts. At first I thought the stain was due to my sweat but I quickly realized it was the chemicals in the antiperspirants. Even as a college student, I realized if the chemicals can destroy my clothes, it probably wasn’t good for my body, so I elected to avoid it. I find that regularly washing my armpits with soap and making sure my diet is clean with minimal sugar and plenty of fermented vegetables are all that is needed to keep my armpit odor from being offensive.
About the only time I use soap on any body part other than my armpit or groin is when I am doing heavy woodchip work and am covered with woodchip dust. Most of that dust I simply spray off with a hose. If you still need further help, try a pinch of baking soda mixed into water as an effective all-day deodorant. A couple of years ago, I also noticed that if I sunbathe my armpits regularly, the UV light actually “sterilizes” the area. Even when I don’t use soap and water, there’s still no detectable odor at all. The drawback is that the effect is not long-lasting. The bacteria repopulate in a few days unless you expose your armpits to sunlight on a regular basis.
Soap tends to remove the protective sebum that is full of beneficial fats that your body uses to protect your skin. So sad and wasteful that so many regularly use soap to wash their entire skin surface and remove this protective covering and then pay money to apply lotions to restore what they just removed. The irony is that most of the lotions are far inferior to sebum and many, if not most, are loaded with toxic ingredients that ultimately will worsen your health.
Science is clearly showing that your body’s microbiome plays a major role not just in your health, promoting or warding off skin diseases for example; it can also dramatically alter things like body odor. So, it’s really in your best interest to work with your microbiome, rather than against it. Doing so could help you avoid all sorts of chemical toxins that most people slather on themselves without thinking twice about what it’s doing to their microbiome, or their health.