Human beings stink by nature. We sweat to cool down our bodies and when the bacteria on our skin mixes with that sweat and breaks it down, we turn into walking, talking fetor factories. Even fancy people whose shit doesn't stink still have to deal with the armpit B.O. Luckily, modern technology has made major strides in the fight against body odor with high-powered deodorants and antiperspirants that beat back reek and sweat with the dedication of Hodor on blocking an army of White Walkers. While we can all be grateful that we're surrounded by fewer peers who smell like expired hot dogs and old yogurt, there's still a lot of fear around the use of the most popular deodorants because they contain aluminum, which blocks the sweat glands so bacteria can't mix with it. In spite of research to the contrary, many champions of all-natural living believe that aluminum-based deodorants and antiperspirants are linked to breast cancer and memory problems. That's given a major boost to the natural deodorant industry in recent years. Natural deodorants focus more on addressing the bacteria that mixes with that sweat to rather than the sweat itself, and thus generally don't contain aluminum.
Some point to an anonymous email chain from the late 1990s that claimed aluminum based antiperspirant was to blame for breast cancer as the source of the anti-antiperspirant craze. The National Cancer Institute has stated that there's no evidence of a link between antiperspirants and cancer and the Alzheimer's Association has attempted to debunk the perceived link between aluminum deodorants and memory loss as well, but the stench of fear still looms, as does the stench of people using natural deodorants. Do they actually ever work? Sometimes. For some people. Kind of. Or not. "They made my pit odor worse," says Amanda Bristow, who's tried five different natural deodorants to combat her body's homegrown funk. "I smelled moldy, onion-y, dirty dishtowel-y. We're talking corpse-rot level bad." Sweet-smelling beauty product consumer Sheila DiChoso says natural deodorant is a total win for her. "I started using it because I was scared about the aluminum," she says. "It worked for me as a deodorant but not an antiperspirant. It really helped getting rid of the odor, then I used natural deodorant exclusively for a couple of years and then I started to sweat more, so I started alternating with regular antiperspirant but then the natural deodorant seemed to make the antiperspirant stop working. So I stopped using the natural one, but I did like [it]. If I didn't sweat that much I would totally stick with it." I asked Arielle Nagler, dermatologist and professor in NYU Langone Medical Center's Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology, why natural deodorants work well for some people while making others smell like butt. "I think that has a lot to do with people's sensitivity to their own smell, the fragrance associated with the deodorant, and whether or not the deodorant has antibacterial elements, because the smell really has to do with the bacteria breaking down the sweat and not the sweat itself," she says.
That answers why some natural deodorants can be ineffective, but how is it that they can make a well-intentioned self-groomer actually smell worse than before? One theory is that it's a detox issue. One study showed that those who habitually use antiperspirants have a significantly higher amount of Staphylococcaceae bacteria in the underarms (those who go without any antiperspirant or deodorant at all have more Corynebacterium), while another study points to Staph as the stinkiest of our stinky bacteria. So if you've been using an antiperspirant for a long time, you may actually be producing worse-smelling bacteria and it could take a while for your system to self-regulate.
Bristow's experience may be a reflection of this theory. She says she's now sworn off all forms of deodorant and antiperspirant unless it's a very special occasion—and she actually smells better all around. "By not wearing anything on my pits whatsoever, I think I've trained them not to smell as bad as frequently," she says. "And if I sweat, who the fuck cares? I think we're supposed to sweat."
Nagler says that we don't currently have access to an effective way to predict how individuals will respond to specific deodorant ingredients (wannabe biotech entrepreneurs, hop on this one, would you?) and that muddies the waters on why some people respond to natural deodorants more than others.
"The efficacy depends on what ingredients are in the deodorant and what kind of bacteria lives on that actual person. I've seen various [natural deodorant] results with body odor, but with no patients have I it work with wetness. Perspiration doesn't respond well to deodorant. You really need the antiperspirant. People will still have major sweating with these natural deodorants, so if the issue is being wet, I find them not to be effective at all. If it's more about the smell, it's so variable."
Most natural deodorants contain some combination of honey or sugar, coconut oil, baking soda, sunflower oil, beeswax, hops, and essential oils to combat bacteria and replace it with a more pleasant scent. Also, Agent Nateur—another natural deodorant recently endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop site—also lists "love" as an ingredient. So, um, there's that.
Nagler still recommends mainstream aluminum-based deodorants as the most effective option.
"I think a lot of evidence out there that suggests that there's no problem [with using deodorant and antiperspirant]," she says. "Over long periods of time there have not been consistent clues that there's any problem. And besides Botox, it's one of the more effective things that we have for perspiration."
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