Confession: I am a sweaty person.
I don’t have hyperhidrosis, which is a medical condition that makes you incredibly, interferes-with-your-life sweaty. I just sweat more than the average girl would ever want to admit to.
This means that I have tried (almost) every antiperspirant in existence, and if you had told Teenage Nicole that I would be 29 and no longer relying on antiperspirants, I would have hysterically laughed and thrown an extra stick of Clinical Strength Secret into my purse just in case.
Like most pivotal changes that happen in my life, the epiphany that antiperspirants might actually be making my sweat problem worse came when I was at that hopeless, rock-bottom point of “I seriously can’t live the rest of my life like this.” (This is also how I discovered better skin care, better haircare, and sports bras that didn’t give me a squished uniboob. Ah, desperation.)
The epiphany that antiperspirants might be making my sweat problem worse came when I was at that rock-bottom point of “I seriously can’t live the rest of my life like this.”
So naturally, I turned to Google, as we all do in times of crisis. And I saw multiple articles that talked about how antiperspirants can actually make your sweating and body odor problems worse.
I will admit that a lot of these sites were natural deodorant sellers and “crunchy” mom blogs, which I don’t put a lot of stock in. But the idea stuck with me, so I decided to see if there was any truth or science behind their claims that cutting out antiperspirant would solve my B.O. woes.
First Things First: How Antiperspirants Work
Our armpits have two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine glands are small and produce a kind of watery sweat that doesn’t smell. Apocrine glands are larger and concentrated in the places that you usually associate with the funky sweat smell (aka your armpits and around your crotch).
Apocrine glands produce a thicker, more oily sweat that mixes with your sebum. Fun fact: This kind of sweat starts out odorless too. The odor actually comes from the bacteria that naturally live in your armpits. They break down the protein-rich apocrine sweat, and the result is what causes the smell.
Antiperspirants work by using an aluminum-based ingredient to plug those apocrine sweat glands. Less sweat secretion = less body odor and less underarm wetness.
For some people, this works exactly as explained, and they never have to deal with sweat stains or getting an unpleasant whiff of themselves in the middle of the afternoon.
But this isn’t always the case.
Why Antiperspirants Don’t Always Do the Trick
First, a lot of people don’t use antiperspirants correctly. You’re supposed to apply a thin layer (as in, ONE good swipe) before bed. This is typically when you sweat the least and when your body temperature is lowest, which allows the product to actually get into your sweat glands to plug them up.
A lot of people don’t use antiperspirants correctly. You’re supposed to apply ONE thin layer before bed.
If you swipe on your antiperspirant after a morning shower or after you’ve already been sweating, it can’t form that sweat-blocking film that controls the wetness and B.O. you’ve got going on, which puts you in an endless cycle of reapplication.
Second, years of relentless application of antiperspirant can lead to product buildup and a not-helpful level of armpit pore clogging. This can lead to infected hair follicles, skin irritation, and an increase in sweat production (which is the opposite of what you want!).
There’s also one other thing that can happen when you use antiperspirant for a long time: The microbiome (aka the types of bacteria that naturally live on your skin) of your armpit can change!
For some people, antiperspirants can kill off the bacteria that don’t cause much odor and cause the smelly bacteria to increase in number. So, even if you’re objectively sweating less, your sweat might smell worse.
One quick note: Antiperspirants are not “bad” or dangerous! There’s no evidence that they cause cancer or dump toxins into your body. Even their ability to potentially change the makeup of your armpit microbiome isn’t “bad” (it’s just not helpful for smelling fresh).
The Antiperspirant Alternative
I know it’s summer for most of us, and this might not seem like the best time to stop using antiperspirant. But since most of us are also still spending our time socially distanced, why not now?
Switching to a natural deodorant that isn’t intended to block your sweat glands can give your body time to “unplug” your pit pores and help you reset your armpit microbiome to something less smelly. Combining this with the low pH of an AHA or BHA also helps to keep the smellier bacteria at bay. I personally use Stridex pads post-shower and follow with a natural deo.
Switching to a natural deodorant can give your body time to “unplug” your pit pores and help you reset your armpit microbiome to something less smelly.
So, if you’re interested in going cold turkey with antiperspirant, let me give you a few tips.
1. Don’t fall for the “armpit detox.”
These are everywhere, and the concept is silly. There’s no magical mask or cleanse that will “draw out toxins” and make you smell better. “Detox” anything is a scam, period.
2. Do an armpit double cleanse.
Antiperspirants are formulated to be sticky, water-resistant, and long-lasting. This means that they don’t always wash off with a once-over in the shower. I double-cleansed my pits for the first several post-antiperspirant days, and I started to notice a big difference in the way my skin looked and felt.
When I say “double cleanse,” I’m talking about the K-beauty method of using an emulsifying oil cleanser on dry skin first and then following it up with a foamy or cream-style cleanser. Massaging an oil cleanser (or even an oil-to-foam cleanser) onto dry skin helps to break up all of the moisture-resistant ingredients that make antiperspirants effective but hard to wash off.
Following the oil cleanser with a low-pH foaming cleanser ensures that you’re rinsing away any residue so that your pits are totally fresh and clean. Plus, the low pH of the foaming cleanser helps to make your pits a more acidic environment, which keeps body odor at bay.
3. Try going hair-free.
If you don’t typically shave or epilate, I recommend testing it out! Hair follicles can trap a lot of stuff that bacteria like to feed on, and this can make the odor problem worse.
4. Don’t fall for the “if it’s burning, it’s working!” line.
A lot of natural deodorants will say that redness, rashes, or burning sensations are common and normal for new users.
If something you try makes your pits red, itchy, or broken out, this is not “detox” or “normal.” It’s a bad reaction, and you shouldn’t try to push through or wait it out.
If something makes your pits red, itchy, or broken out, this is not “detox” or “normal.” It’s a bad reaction.
There are tons of different natural deodorants on the market, and I’m going to cover the various active ingredients they use in my next post. If one doesn’t work, try another! I had to go through a few before I found the right one.
5. Be patient.
You’re going to sweat a lot at first. And you’re probably going to struggle with smelling worse than usual for a little while. (I used a lot of baby wipes, rubbing alcohol, and Gold Bond powder during this transition.)
I can’t say how long it will take for your sweat production to normalize, but stick with it! I promise it will get better.
Antiperspirant 101, Done
That’s a wrap for part one of my series on switching up your deodorant game. Next up, I’ll be breaking down the different actives that natural deos use to help with odor and wetness, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, do you have any questions or stories of your own? Commiserate with me in the comments!