Sometimes, in attempting to “cure” a problem, the methods you use can result in a worsening of the problem you’re trying to solve. Many studies have shown that this may be the case in regards to antiperspirants – deodorants that use antimicrobial agents to kill odour-causing bacteria, and other agents such as aluminium that block your sweat glands. According to a recent article in Real Clear Science:
“While most of us might only concern ourselves with the dry, aromatic benefits of antiperspirants and deodorants, researchers and the Laboratory of Microbial Ecology and Technology at the University of Ghent in Belgium are more interested in the effects on bacteria. Billions of bacterial dwell in the “rain forests” under our arms, and the substances we don are mucking with their habitats!”
How Antiperspirants Affect Your Armpits
The study performed at the University of Ghent revealed something significant: every subject in the study ended up altering the bacterial composition of their armpits by using antiperspirants.
While determining the exact changes was a challenge – after all, every person’s microbiome is different – researchers did find a clear trend: the subjects who used antiperspirants saw a marked increase in something called Actinobacteria.
Actinobacteria are largely responsible for what we all recognize as that signature foul-smelling armpit odour. Other bacteria that inhabit the armpit, such as Firmicutes and Staphylococcus, don’t produce odours as quickly or noticeable.
Much like with bacteria that inhabit your stomach, when beneficial bacteria are killed off, more potentially harmful bacteria are allowed to take their place. In this case, less odour-causing bacteria are killed off by aluminium compounds, which are the active ingredient in most antiperspirants. This allows other bacteria, which produce more noticeable odours, to thrive in that same environment.
The ultimate message the study produced was surprising: while using antiperspirants caused an increase in odour-causing Actinobacteria, quitting the use of antiperspirants did the opposite. While using antiperspirants can make your personal body odour more pronounced in the long run, not using antiperspirants can eventually mellow the smell.
Aluminium-Containing Antiperspirants, Parabens, And The Cancer Connection
In most antiperspirants, aluminium chloride is used to block your pores from releasing sweat, which may also contribute to an increased risk of cancer. In addition to causing molecular transformations in cancer cells, aluminium salts can also mimic estrogen, and previous studies have shown that aluminium can be absorbed into breast tissue.
Antiperspirants are one of the main sources of aluminium in our daily lives, as most people use it on a daily basis. One study draws a direct link between the use of antiperspirants and the amount of aluminium absorbed by your body:
“Industrial and medicinal exposure, and… antiperspirant use, can significantly increase absorbed
According to this review, about .12 percent of the aluminium applied under your arms is absorbed with each application. Multiply that by one or more times a day for a lifetime, and the ultimate amount of aluminium absorbed is massive!
Aluminium isn’t the only potentially cancer-causing ingredient in antiperspirants – parabens, another common ingredient, have been linked to a heightened risk of cancer as well, specifically breast cancer. Recent research has determined that concentrations of parabens were found in the upper quadrant of the breast and axillary area, where antiperspirants are generally applied – areas where breast cancer tumours are often found. One or more paraben esters were found in nearly 100% of the tissue samples collected from 40 mastectomies.
Parabens are preservative chemicals used in antiperspirants and other cosmetics. Previous studies have shown that all – not just some – parabens have estrogenic activity in human breast cancer cells. While the study cited here draws no links between antiperspirants and breast cancer, it does draw a clear link between parabens and breast cancer – and most antiperspirants and deodorants which are used daily by women contain parabens.
Bacteria-Containing Lotions: A New Possibility?
Living bacterial skin tonics are the latest trend in eliminating body odour, as recently covered by New York Times writer Julia Scott, who agreed to mist her face, scalp and body with the bacteria twice a day for a month. The working theory is that adding bacteria, rather than eradicating it, might produce better results in terms of dealing with body odour – a theory that seems rational, knowing what we know about the gut microbiome and how the bacterial balance in your armpits affects your body odour.
While Scott ultimately returned to using more traditional hygiene products, cosmetics companies have been taking note of these cutting-edge techniques in personal hygiene. Several bacterial treatments have been patented, and there are countless potential uses in the medical field. For example, scientists have been pondering the possibilities of treating skin disorders like eczema with appropriate skin bacteria.
Bottom Line: Should You Be Using Antiperspirants?
Many medical professionals ultimately recommend that their patients eschew antiperspirants in favour of washing regularly with soap and sticking to a clean diet, with minimal sugar and plenty of fermented vegetables in order to clear up body odour.
For stubborn grease and grime caused by physical labour, a pinch of baking soda mixed into water can be an effective all-day deodorant. UV light can also “sterilize” the area, eliminating body odour not only from your body but from clothes as well.
Science has clearly shown that your body’s microbiome plays a major role in your health – warding of skin diseases, etc – as well as in dramatically altering things like body odour. Ultimately, it’s best to work with your biome rather than against it with products like antiperspirants. Doing so can help you avoid harmful chemical toxins that have many documented health risks, and promote not only a better overall body odour, but overall health as well.