Is deodorant actually a health hazard?

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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