Is deodorant actually a health hazard?

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Most of us are so used to swiping or spraying on deodorant after a shower that we hardly think about what we’re doing.

However, there’s a growing trend to skip that step entirely. Call it the pandemic effect, but in 2020, a lot of people stopped wearing deodorant every day, and some have stuck with that decision.

Last year, a poll found 39 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds hadn’t worn deodorant in the previous month, which is in stark contrast to the 16 per cent of 45 to 54-year-olds. Old habits die hard?

The question is, do we actually need to wear deodorant?
“Deodorant, anti-perspirant, body spray, ‘au naturel’ – everyone has their preference for dealing with our body’s ability to sweat and our level of body odour,” says Cheryl Lythgoe, matron at Benenden Health. “If you normally wear an antiperspirant, then these work by decreasing the amount of moisture that reaches the skin surface through plugging or blocking the sweat glands, thereby lowering the odour-causing bacteria commonly known as ‘BO’.”

“Let’s not forget that sweating is vital for regulating body temperature and that the consequences of that system failing can [in extreme circumstances] be fatal,” explains Dr Lucy Glancey, founder of Dr Glancey Clinics. “There’s actually only a very small [proportion of the] population that has a gene that prevents them from producing underarm body odour, but the majority of us do and that’s entirely normal.”

“Wearing deodorant works by lowering the levels of odour causing bacteria that live in the underarms and blocking the wetness of the sweat reaching the surface of the skin; think of it like a plug,” she adds.

Armpit microbiome
According to Dr Chris Callewaert, a microbiologist who goes by the name ‘Dr Armpit’, the armpit microbiome plays an important role in how you smell.

“Deodorants and antiperspirants have a big impact on the underarm microbiome,” he says.

“Everybody using these products are messing up the microbiome on a daily basis. Some people find a deodorant that works well for them, killing the right bacteria and adding the right perfume, but this is temporary.

“What you’re really doing is imposing stress on the bacterial community; what is left is a more stress-resistant microbiome, and often a more malodorous microbiome.

“So when you switch deodorants or stop using them, you notice the foul smell, which comes from a microbiome that has adapted well to your previous daily underarm regime.”

The Belgian researcher, who is based at the University of California, San Diego’s Knight Lab, believes that just as ‘good’ bacteria are crucial for a healthy digestive system, the right balance of microbes in the armpit can help you avoid smelling bad. In 2015, he was the lead author of a research paper suggesting that bacterial imbalances in the armpit may be caused by antiperspirants and deodorants, the very products many people rely on to stop the smell.

Luckily there are some things you can do to help maintain healthy armpit bacteria:

  1. Wear cotton clothes to help promote the growth of good bacteria.
  2. Have a lower BMI, the study found a significant correlation between higher BMI and more malodorous bacteria.
  3. Eat less fast food and meat, the study found a significant correlation between an unhealthy diet and more malodorous bacteria.
  4. Try no deodorant for a while to see if your natural armpit microbiome can recover.

You might have heard the theory that there will be a brief period of bad odour after you stop using deodorant, but after this ‘reset’ your body will adjust. Ms Lythgoe says there’s little robust research into whether this is true, but some schools of thought buy into it and think “the body will eventually settle into a natural rhythm and the initial symptoms may lessen”. You can’t help but wonder though, is it a case of your body settling down, or your nose adjusting to the new smell?

Whatever your deodorant preferences, Dr Glancey says there is “evidence to suggest that if you’ve been wearing the same deodorant over a prolonged period of time, your body may become immune and, therefore, it could be time to go au naturel or make a switch of brand”.

What actually happens after you stop using deodorant differs from person to person. Ms Lythgoe says: “Our bodies are as different as our faces and we each have a different genetic make-up and reactionary response. When you combine this with individual activity levels, I’m sure you can understand the variety of responses.”

If you still want to wear deodorant but want something more natural, Dr Glancey recommends opting “for natural sustainable deodorants, which contain extracts of green tea”. Even though natural deodorants are growing in popularity, she warns not to “expect mass protection”, but if you’re someone who really doesn’t sweat much, they can be a good way to give your body a break from some of the chemicals used in regular deodorants.

Ultimately, Ms Lythgoe says: “Whatever your preference, remember it’s your decision, your body and your innate odour.”

Do you wear deodorant every day? Have you noticed a change in your smell when switching to a new deodorant?

– With PA

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Total Comments: 12
  1. 0

    it would have been very important to explain how to select a deodorant. Alu salts? Alcohol based? and the impact on the health of the different ingredients.

  2. 0

    That is a good point MW

  3. 0

    Years ago deodorants contained aluminium and were considered dangerous. Personally, I prefer to wear one……and my friends like me to…….

  4. 0

    So does this mean we have to stop washing our armpits with soap? The brands I use all have strong ‘clean’ smells. Hate to think what would happen if we all stop using deodorants. One upside is that there will be no problems getting people to socially distance…..

    • 0

      Geordie, my understanding is that soap is alkaline, which is why it is good for hand washing for Covid-19, but the actual amount of alkaline soap left on your skin is very small, so the formation of an acid environment and the aneorobic bacteria that thrive and cause the odour, soon overcomes the effect of the soap.

      I use Borax, dissolved in water, as borax is a good strong alkaline substance and doesn’t penetrate the skin, and it lasts much longer than soap.

      It doesn’t last all day though so you either have to re-do it when you feel that itchyness, or smell strong smell.

      The way to use ordinary, very cheap Borax sold as a cleanser, is to dissolve it in water until there is very little left to dissolve, – that is a 100% solution, and can be kept in a cup on a shelf near your basin in the bathroom.

      Should you wish the Borax to last longer, you can dissolve more borax in warmer water, although you will notice in your cup that the Borax “undissolves,” – precipitates out, as the water cools, so that is not quite so convenient, – although the underarm, being warm, prevents that happening.

      I find it good for smelly feet, socks, and shoes also, and as the alkaline environment is anathema to Fungi, it also prevents and exterminates Tinea and other unwelcome would be fellow travellers of that ilk.

      Always good to have that Borax solution available also as it is good for stings, as most of them are acid, – plant and insect, but the solution should not be accessible by children as they will get quite severe diarrhea from drinking it, – no where near as bad as if they were to drink petrol, of course, but it has no smell, so could be mistaken for water.

  5. 0

    Nothing worse than BO especially in an Australian Summer!

  6. 0

    I think I used deodorant about 50 years ago a couple of times and couldn’t see the point. But then I usually always wore cottons, ate well, exercised regularly and never noticed any of the supposed smells we were supposed to issue, and yes, garlic was a regular part of my diet, so perhaps I just had a fairly clean and ‘natural’ system. Must have saved a fortune.

  7. 0

    Well you may not be able to smell your odour but I can assure you that others can and it’s not nice. I’ve been in countries where people don’t wear deoderant and they stink.(To put it bluntly)The only people that don’t need a deoderant are infants and young children before hitting puberty and then look out. Have you ever been in a classroom with young teens? I do think that it’s a good idea to change brands as your body does adjust.And especially in our hot weather, it’s a neccessity, even if you didn’t have an odour the wetness from the sweat ruins clothing and doesn’t look well groomed.

  8. 0

    I stopped wearing deodorant years ago and my body adjusted. I’ve never sweated a lot anyway, but after years of using deo noticed a bad smell. I keep a natural brand (Moo Goo) and an ordinary one for occasional use (going to the gym in summer or an all-day outing in hot weather).

    And use odourless natural body wash. We really don’t need all of the strong fragrances that are added to products like these.

  9. 0

    MooGoo is a good one, and it’s Australian-owned, available at most pharmacies. Odourless and effective. But most days, especially winter, I find I don’t need to use it. A quick shower every day does the trick.

  10. 0

    I never saw the need to splash unknown chemicals on my body, does anybody really know what chemicals, including the ‘fragrance’, are contained in deodorant and what effect these will have on your body? I prefer simple hygiene and soap and water (but I do not know what is in soap either and the water may be problematic). Nevertheless you have to give the ‘body odour’ industry credit, they convinced people they smelled bad then sold the the cure, now that’s the way to make big money.
    I also wonder whether western societies predilection for deodorants and ‘artificial fragrances’ has contributed to the epidemic of breast cancer on western countries which is not reflected in poorer countries. Most reports I read on the subject assiduously avoid pursuing this line of reasoning.



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