Americans love to vacation abroad during the summer. They also love to complain about food, travel hassles and body odor on crowded trains or buses. They have a perception that people elsewhere are less devoted to antiperspirants and daily showers.
Maybe Americans are too fond of antiperspirants. These products are loaded with aluminum. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration considers antiperspirants to be drugs rather than cosmetics. They are intended to change the physiology of the cells in the armpit. The aluminum compounds the agency requires in such products cause swelling and plugging of the sweat glands.
Now, there may not be a problem with aluminum in the armpits. Scientists have been debating how much aluminum is absorbed through the skin and whether it poses any health hazards. Some dermatologists classify concerns that aluminum may be absorbed and increase the risk of breast cancer or of dementia as “urban legends.”
One case report, however, shows that aluminum can sometimes be absorbed from antiperspirants in toxic amounts. A 39-year-old woman started applying antiperspirant every morning to shaved armpits. Although she did not develop a rash or skin irritation, she did become extremely fatigued and developed bone pain when she was 43. The doctors who investigated her case found that she had excessive levels of aluminum in her body that declined slowly over several months after she stopped using the antiperspirant (American Journal of Medicine, Dec., 2004).
People who would like to avoid both odor and aluminum may want to consider using one of the many remedies our readers have suggested. One woman wrote: “I was skeptical about using vinegar on my underarms, but I have lost faith in commercial deodorants. They leave me feeling sticky and messy. White vinegar got rid of the stink without making me sticky. It’s amazing!”
Other readers report that spraying vodka on the armpits controls body odor. According to one: “I’ve tried rubbing alcohol under my arms. It kills bacteria and works well but I was not sure using it daily would be good for my skin. I now am trying vodka! It also kills bacteria. The smell is milder than the rubbing alcohol and is gone by the time it has dried, which is very quickly.”
Still another reader suggested an alcohol-based hand sanitizer: “I can’t stand the smell of most deodorants, so I tried a hand sanitizer. It works very well. I had no odor at all, even by the end of the day.”
Several years ago, we received an unusual recommendation for preventing underarm odor: “I want to share a remedy I learned about when traveling in Brazil. Just apply milk of magnesia to your armpits. It is the best underarm deodorant!”
Although milk of magnesia (magnesium hydroxide) is usually thought of as a laxative, it works quite well as a deodorant when applied to the armpits.
Other reader suggestions include applying old-fashioned amber Listerine, lemon juice or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). It may take a bit of experimentation to discover which remedy works best for your particular body chemistry.