Who would have ever imagined that the antiperspirants we apply to our underarms could change the ecology of the bacteria that live in our armpits? It turns out that antiperspirants can shift the balance of our microbiome to a species that produces some nasty aromas. How can you deal with rebound body odor when you stop your antiperspirant?
This reader shares a fascinating story:
Q. I work in cancer research. About ten years ago, most of the women in my office decided to stop wearing antiperspirant because of the uncertainty of adverse health effects.
We all had amazingly similar experiences. Most of us immediately had an increase of smelly perspiration that gradually tapered over a year. We used frequent underarm toweling and added baking soda-based underarm powder for meetings.
Fortunately, once we got past the rebound body odor period, there were virtually no problems. We experienced normal sweat production and no unusual odor.
I suspect that antiperspirant rebound is like so many other problems caused by living in the age of chemistry: it fixes a short-term problem but causes a long-term one.
A. Your story surprised us. We’re familiar with rebound congestion after stopping nasal spray decongestants or rebound hyperacidity and bad heartburn after discontinuing acid-suppressing drugs. We never imagined such an effect after eliminating antiperspirants.
What Scientists Discovered In Our Underarms:
We found, however, that some researchers have actually studied this question. They discovered that antiperspirant use changes the balance of bacteria in armpits (PeerJ, Feb. 2, 2016). According to one scientist, antiperspirants encourage the growth of Actinobacteria that create unpleasant odors (Archives of Dermatological Research, Oct. 2014).
An article in the Washington Post titled “Antiperspirants May Actually Make You Smell Worse” by Terrence McCoy reported that:
“Today more than 90 percent of Americans use some sort of armpit cosmetic, creating a worldwide deodorant bonanza worth $18 billion.”
“But what if part of that industry is predicated on a notion that smells fishy?”
“New research published in the Archives of Dermatological Research suggests that antiperspirants actually increase the levels of the odorous bacteria populating the armpit, which ‘could lead toward an altered, more unpleasant, underarm odor,’ lead author Chris Callewaert of Belgium’s Ghent University told The Washington Post in an e-mail. ‘Deodorants were generally not really a problem.’ Antiperspirants ‘should not enhance the odor-causing bacteria, but rather ‘steer’ towards a non odor-causing micro biome.”
The Rebound Body Odor Problem:
Stopping an antiperspirant appears to promote bacterial growth. This might account for the rebound body odor the cancer researcher and her colleagues experienced.
Most people would never think that their antiperspirant might actually be making body odor worse by changing the population of bacteria living in the armpit towards what Chris Callewaert described as “the smelly stuff.” What that means is that every time you stop using an antiperspirant the smell is enough to get you right back on the bandwagon. What a perfect guarantee for continued use.
Can You Wean Yourself Off Antiperspirant Use Without Rebound Body Odor?
Recently, we heard from another reader who decided to stop using antiperspirant. Her experience may encourage others to be persistent.
Q. I stopped using antiperspirant about 18 months ago. At first, I had rebound body odor.
Plain deodorant didn’t work well enough right away. Instead, I neutralized the odor every few days by dabbing tea tree oil on my underarms with a cotton ball and powdering with baking soda daily to keep my arm from feeling sticky. I also alternated with vinegar on a cotton ball, if the tea tree oil was sometimes too strong (especially right after I’d shaved). After a few weeks, I was able to simply wash my underarm, apply deodorant (without antiperspirant) and go about my day odor-free.
During the past year, I’ve attempted to use an antiperspirant a few times for long days at the beach or other all-day events where I’m very physically active. However, I didn’t get good results. My underarms would sweat even more than normal when I reintroduced the antiperspirant, and they stank. Plain deodorant works much better. If I’m doing sweaty activities, I just reapply it after rewashing my underarm with soap and water.
From my experience, my sweat has a more natural scent that isn’t as odorous as when using the antiperspirant. I’m never going back. In fact, I’m trying to get my husband off the antiperspirant. Although he wears it 24/7, his armpits still smell from the buildup of bacteria.
The Microbiota of the Armpit:
A. As we mentioned above, our skin is inhabited by bacterial communities that vary from one person to another (PeerJ, Feb.2, 2016). Use of antiperspirants, deodorants or other products in our underarms has an impact on the armpit microbiome.
We heard decades ago that applying milk of magnesia to the armpit could reduce underarm odor. Although we can find no clinical studies of this strategy, readers have reported success. In addition, some people find wiping the armpits with rubbing alcohol (or vodka) is an effective approach. Others use white vinegar, lemon juice or old-fashioned amber Listerine.
To learn more about alternatives to antiperspirants, you may wish to read our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies.
The Difference Between Antiperspirants and Deodorants:
Antiperspirants by law must contain aluminum salts. The FDA demands that cosmetic companies include a significant amount of aluminum before a company can advertise its product as an antiperspirant. That’s because aluminum changes the physiology of the cells in the armpit. It is considered a drug rather than a cosmetic. By plugging and swelling sweat glands, perspiration is reduced. The FDA never thought to ask about changes in the bacterial ecology of the armpit as a result of aluminum.
Deodorants are often products containing fragrance to try to cover up body odor. That’s why we were so astonished to learn from one of our readers that milk of magnesia (MoM) made a great deodorant without any fragrance. Milk of magnesia is magnesium hydroxide. It is a great antacid and it is also a laxative. But we have also found it to be a terrific deodorant. We don’t know how it works; we just know that it does an amazing job without the irritation that aluminum sometimes causes.
Stories from Readers About Rebound Body Odor:
Anna in Houston says MoM is great:
“I’ve been using MoM for over two years now. I switched to get off aluminum-containing antiperspirants. I live in Houston, TX, where it is very hot six months out of the year and we sweat a lot. This works great! No odor.”
Michael in Georgia confirms:
“I am an adult male who sweats heavily. I also get itchy breakouts in my underarms. Saw this stuff and doubted its effectiveness. Finally decided to give it a try, not expecting much.
“Ordered one bottle, and after trying it, I am convinced of its effectiveness. No more B.O. and the red irritations are gone. I’m sold. Not trying to sell this nor do I ever write reviews. Just saying it works for me. I just want others to gain from my experience.”