Kind of crazy to imagine, but it’s true—the root cause of odor isn’t actually sweat. Your body produces sweat as part of its natural process to keep cool when it’s hot, and to flush out toxins from the lymph nodes located just under your armpits. But the sweat itself is naturally odorless.
What causes body odor is what’s living on your skin—bacteria. Those bacteria love to feast on the proteins and acids contained in your sweat. As they break down those compounds, things get stinky in a process the experts call “bromhidrosis”.
How Antiperspirants Work...In the Grossest Way Possible
When B.O. strikes, you’ve got two choices to fight back. You can either stop the sweat or neutralize the bacteria.
Stopping yourself from sweating seems like a no-brainer. Not only does it prevent the bacteria on your skin from having anything to eat, it also keeps things dry under your arms.
Commercial antiperspirants take this approach. In fact, all antiperspirants use the exact same strategy of stopping the sweat from even coming out of the sweat glands!
Check the back label of any commercial antiperspirant, and you’ll find an unpronounceable active ingredient like “aluminium chlorohydrate” or “aluminium zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly.” These chemicals interact with sweat to form a physical plug in the duct of the sweat gland. The aluminum salts also act to constrict the sweat ducts.
There’s one big problem with this: our bodies need to sweat in order to maintain proper health. Also, remember that one of the reasons you sweat in the first place is to flush out toxins. So when your body detects multiple blockages in your sweat ducts, what will it do? Sweat. Even. More.
Excessive Sweat, Yellow Shirt Stains and Health Risks: The Negative Costs of Aluminum-based Antiperspirants
It’s a vicious cycle. You want to smell better, so you buy an antiperspirant. That kicks your body into high gear, sending the message that it has to work harder to sweat than before, so maybe you apply the antiperspirant twice a day. It might even get so bad that you start to use the “clinical strength” antiperspirant!
Even if the antiperspirant stops you from sweating under your arms, you might find that you’re excessively sweating in other places, like your arms or your back. That’s an actual condition known as compensatory hyperhidrosis (where your body compensates for sweat blockage in certain areas by sweating more elsewhere), but most people just assume that they’re naturally heavy sweaters.
But that’s not the only problematic thing about aluminum-based antiperspirants. There are a ton of other issues, from cosmetic to health risks.
For example, did you ever wonder why your tops always end up turning white or yellow around the armpits? It’s not your sweat doing that—it’s actually urea crystals from the combination of your sweat and the aluminum compounds in the antiperspirant you’re using.
That’s right—urea. That shirt stain is yellow because it contains the same waste substance found in urine (ew!). And if you’re using clinical strength, there’s an even higher concentration of urea crystals to stain those shirts faster.
But the biggest issue with using antiperspirant is the potential health risk. Recall that antiperspirants work by plugging up the ducts of your sweat glands with aluminum compounds. Some of that aluminum gets absorbed into your body. But since your body can’t process aluminum, it stores it up in tissue deposits.
Several studies have found a statistically higher incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant (right next to where aluminum-based antiperspirant is applied), as well as higher measurement of aluminum in breast tissue than in the blood stream. There is an even stronger correlation between aluminum deposits in brain tissue and Alzheimer’s disease.
So...do the ingredients in aluminum-based antiperspirants definitively cause breast cancer? This is where we need to piece together the various studies and bits of knowledge and decide for ourselves what to do with the information. We can say without a doubt that studies up to this point have found a correlation. On one hand, that doesn’t necessarily point to antiperspirant causing certain types of breast cancer. And yet on the other…there’s no conclusive evidence ruling it out either.
Maybe this is the better question: is it worth the potential long term (and significant) health risks just to avoid a little sweat?
Using a Natural Deodorant That Works
There’s another way to control odor that doesn’t involve messing around with aluminum. Rather than stopping the sweat, you can neutralize the bacteria that causes body odor.
That’s how most natural deodorants work. Natural ingredients like baking soda, magnesium, activated charcoal, or zinc oxide create an environment where the odor-causing bacteria cannot thrive. Natural powders, waxes, and butters help to wick away wetness while still allowing your body to sweat in a healthy way.
About that sweat. Here’s the deal: your body needs to sweat, and the only thing that can really stop that from happening is an aluminum salt—with all the issues we just talked about above. But you don’t have to resign yourself to a life of sweat-stained tops. Not only do the ingredients in most natural deodorant help to dry wetness as you sweat, you may also find that you don’t feel as sweaty after you make the switch.
If you’re making the transition from antiperspirant to a healthy deodorant, it’s true that you may feel a little sweatier while your body is flushing out those nasty aluminum salts from your sweat glands. Once you make it past the transition period, however, your body will find a new equilibrium as it produces sweat at the appropriate level it needs to maintain in order to cool you down when it’s hot.
Some people might tell you that you’ll always smell a bit stinky when you use natural deodorants—but that’s not necessarily true. If you have the right formula for your microbiome, it’s going to prevent bacteria from causing any stink. Wondering how to find the right formula for you? We have an article on that called Choose the Right Deodorant for You.
If you’ve never made the leap to natural deodorants before (or if you’re trying to convince someone you love to go for it), you don’t have to be too worried about the transition. Every day, more and more people are ditching antiperspirant for a healthier alternative. In fact, people you already know may be using a natural deodorant right now...and you wouldn’t even know it unless you asked them!