Ever wonder what causes body odor and why some people have stinky armpits and others don’t? Most people assume it is sweat. Perspiration per se is not smelly, but it is essential to the production of armpit aroma.
Scientists at the University of York in the UK recently presented the fascinating results of their research into underarm odor at the annual meetings of the Society of General Microbiology (March 30, 2015). They discovered that it all depends upon the bugs residing in your axillae (the scientific name for armpits).
The Biochemistry of BO
The intrepid investigators found over 150 different species of bacteria had set up housekeeping in the armpits of their subjects. After isolating all these germs, the researchers discovered that some feast on our sweat and then churn out compounds called thioalcohols. These are the bad actors behind body odor. Because they are volatile they don’t stay put. As thioalcohols evaporate, they escape into the surrounding atmosphere.
Some liken the smell to sulfur (a rotten egg odor), while others describe it as bad meat or nasty onions. The smell is so powerful it can be detected at 1 part per trillion. In other words, it doesn’t take much to make people in the vicinity turn up their noses in disgust.
The particular bacteria responsible for making thioalcohols belong in the staph family. Specifically, Staphylococcus hominis seems to be the worst offender. S. hominis and two staph cousins produce special enzymes that go to work on molecules in sweat and then churn out thioalcohols.
The Unilever Connection
It may come as no surprise that the Unilever personal care product company helped fund this research. These are the folks who bring you Dove, Lifebuoy soap and bodywash, Pond’s skin cream, Clear shampoo and Vaseline. They may be trying to develop a high-tech deodorant that prevents the formation of thioalcohols.
The Problem with Existing Antiperspirants and Deodorants
The FDA classifies antiperspirants as drugs. That’s because the products affect the biology of the skin. The agency requires companies to include substantial amounts of aluminum (aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum chloride, aluminum-zirconium compounds, etc.) if they want to label a product as an antiperspirant. Aluminum forms a plug over the sweat glands, causes swelling and temporarily reduces perspiration.
The less sweat there is, the fewer nutrients there are for S. hominis to feast on. That means fewer thioalcohols will be produced and less body odor will be detectable.
Deodorants are considered cosmetics. They do not stop sweating and generally work by masking body odor with a fragrance. This harkens back to the middle ages when royalty rarely bathed. Instead, they poured on the perfume in an effort to cover over unpleasant smells.
We are not overly impressed with this approach. It seems a bit like putting a hanging deodorant tree on the rear view mirror to try and overcome the unpleasant odor in a smoker’s car. As far as we’re concerned, it never really masks the smell of smoke. Someone with bad BO probably cannot overcome it with a perfumed deodorant.
It’s hardly any wonder that People’s Pharmacy fans find neither approach (aluminum-containing antiperspirants or deodorants) particularly appealing. For one thing, aluminum exposure has been linked with brain inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. Concerns have also been raised about aluminum and cancer.
That’s why visitors to this website and readers of our syndicated newspaper column have come up with all sorts of intriguing alternate solutions to body odor. Here are just a few examples:
M.H. offers this:
“Mix equal parts of baking soda with cornstarch then add enough water to form a paste. Every morning wet your fingers and rub it across the hardened mixture; then apply it to your under arms. You will be odor free the whole day. It won’t stain your clothing.”
“I use 70-90% rubbing alcohol – poke a SMALL hole in the top seal and squeeze a 1/4-1/2 teaspoon in a palm and rub in in the underarm area – kills the bacteria that grow in the sweat. It evaporates and leaves nothing. Cheap also and best of all – no awful perfume scent.”
“Ever since I underwent chemotherapy and lost all of the hair in my arm pits I stopped using deodorant and now I simply use witch hazel. It works great for me.”
People have used lime juice, lemon juice, white vinegar, old-fashioned amber-colored Listerine and house brand milk of magnesia on their underarms. We suspect that all these approaches impact the growth of bacteria, especially those that cause the formation of those nasty thioalcohols. Here is a link to more in-depth stories about home remedies for body odor.
The trouble with all these home remedies is that they are not very easy to apply. Splashing or spritzing your underarms with rubbing alcohol, lemon juice, vinegar or milk of magnesia can be messy. And over-the-counter milk of magnesia contains sodium hypochlorite (bleach) as a preservative. We are not crazy about putting bleach, even in small quantities, on our underarms.
The People’s Pharmacy Aluminum-Free MoM (Milk of Magnesia) Roll-On
Several years after we heard that milk of magnesia was especially helpful against body odor we decided to try and come up with an easy applicator. We worked hard to eliminate the aluminum and the bleach and find a roll-on system that would make MoM easy to apply.
Here is a video to explain more about this product.
Eventually our brilliant natural products chemist created a terrific formulation. He helped us develop an Aluminum-Free Women’s MoM Roll-On deodorant with a gentle floral fragrance. Some people love the smell so much they have encouraged us to turn it into a perfume and a line of body care products. So far we have resisted.
Not everyone likes the fragrance, however. For those who prefer an unscented deodorant (proving that it is not a cover-up), we developed The People’s Pharmacy Aluminum-Free MoM. It was out of stock for several weeks, but we now have a great new supply. Please do NOT take our word on the popularity of these two products. When you go to the store, take a few minutes to read the reviews for Women’s MoM and unscented Aluminum-Free MoM. By the way, there are at least 5 pages of reviews and our overall rating is 4.6 stars out of a possible 5 for our unscented MoM deodorant.
We don’t know how, or even if, our Aluminum-Free MoM Roll-On Deodorant kills Staphylococcus hominis or makes the environment inhospitable for these bacteria to thrive. All we know is that we have a lot of very happy customers. Why not give MoM a try? If you are not happy, we will refund your money. Here’s a link to our body care products should you wish to find out for yourself.