No one wants to be the smelly kid. Once adolescence hits, gym class and sunny days become stressful. In an effort to avoid smelliness, over 90% of adolescents and adults in the US use some type of deodorant or antiperspirant to manage their body odor. It’s so pervasive that using a deodorant is just what you do. In fact, a recent study said that about 78% of people don’t genetically need a deodorant, but use one anyway.
The governing approaches to solving our body odor problem have been growing in adoption over the last several decades, along with our increasingly robust hygiene routines. Two popular BO-fighting methods reign supreme in the market: kill bacteria via a standard deodorant (containing ingredients like triclosan), or block our sweat glands AND kill bacteria (via an antiperspirant containing ingredients like aluminum).
However, the medical community has started to uncover some potentially frightening side effects that come with such extensive use of deodorants and antiperspirants. While research is early, it’s had a dramatic impact on the public and has started to make a “hippie” lifestyle look a lot smarter.
The other piece of research coming from the academic community is a more profound understanding of the microbiome, the bacterial community that exists in and on our body. Some are even calling it the newest organ system because of the vast impact it is proving to have on our health. This includes serious things like life threatening c diff, to the less serious but socially damaging body odor.
In fact, this research might completely change how we approach something like body odor, and make our current approaches look barbaric in comparison (think: lead in lipstick for the ladies of the 17th century).
Your armpit, the ecosystemJust like our gut, our armpit also naturally has a lot of bacteria. It is one of the most heavily populated areas on the surface of our body, BUT there is not a ton of diversity in the microbial community. There is 5x as much diversity on your hand and 2x as much in your belly button (Dr. Armpit).
Over ¾ of the bacteria fall into one of two bacterial groups. One is associated with odor, the other – not so much. Just like our gut, which can become destabilized from certain foods or antibiotics that kill of the beneficial bacteria, and allows potentially problematic microbes to take over. The same can happen in the armpit.
Like any ecosystem, the goal is balance in order to be healthy. Abstaining from these ecosystem-damaging products might be problematic at first, but stabilize with time, naturally dwindling the smellier bacteria into nonexistence with time.
It’s not just about body odorThe research behind the microbiome has shown us that our whole body is connected to the microbial world. We are learning that the gut microbiome influences not only digestion, but potentially things like mood and attention. The underarm area is a great example of the interconnectedness of our body and it’s ecosystem.
So instead, why don’t we work with our microbiome, rather than against it? Here’s a few ways to get started:
- Switch to milder soaps: Soaps containing strong surfactants (like those with SLS and SDS, and even castille soap), remove the protective sebum that is full of the good fats that your body uses to protect your skin. These will also make it a better environment for your good microbes to thrive.
- Go Aluminum-free: Aluminum is typically the active ingredient that inhibits sweating. Recently it has been linked to a variety of long term health issues and several “natural” brands are marketing their formulas as “aluminum free”.
- Beware of Crystal Deodorants: These are the ones that most often claim to be “aluminum free” but check the label. Many of them still contain an ingredient called “alum”, which is typically potassium aluminum sulfate. While it is still a better alternative than most antiperspirants, it still doesn’t make it completely aluminum-free.
- Beware of strong antibacterials (parabens, triclosan, etc): Strong antibacterials are what will have the most destabilizing effect on your armpit microbiome, which makes it difficult for good bacteria to thrive.
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