You’ve probably been squirting deodorant in your pits since your teens, but for such a basic body care product, there’s a lot of hocus pocus, bewilderment and skin sensitivity involved in its application. From practical pitfalls (sorry) to choosing one that serves your skin and purpose, here’s are the deo ‘do’s and don’ts’ according to doctors and dermatologists, and also people who’ve had a few deodorant dramas over the years. Who knew that such a fundamental addition to our bathroom arsenal could be quite so provocative.
Do know the difference between a deodorant and an antiperspirant
We’ll start with the salient stuff, in that even though they live next to each other on the shelf, they’re most definitely not the same kettle of fish. Aesthetic doctor and founder of Woodford Medical Dr Mervyn Patterson explains why:
“Deodorants and antiperspirants are quite different products. Deodorants work by reducing bacterial levels on the skin - the odour that comes from sweating in some areas is a result of a mix of sweat, sebaceous material and bacteria. Antiperspirants on the other hand contain aluminium salts that mix with the sweat, turning into a gel film that helps reduce the movement of sweat out of the pore.”
Usage is very much a matter of personal choice, so weigh up your pit priorities:
“If it is odour that you are concerned about then deodorants are more appropriate. If on the other hand it’s sweat stains or obvious damp patches that really bother you, then you’ll need an antiperspirant.”
You can of course buy sweet smelling antiperspirants too (Soft & Gentle are my long term go-to for vanilla underarms), but you want to consider holding the scent depending on your skin type…
Do deodorise with caution if you have sensitive skin
Dr Patterson underlines that “irritation is a really common problem where deodorants and antiperspirants are concerned- there are high incidences of reactivity”, which our Sense and Sensitivity columnist Judy will corroborate. She believes that her reactive skin problems were in the main triggered by an extreme adverse aftereffect of an antiperspirant- she was left with pain, intense itching and skin that looked like weeping bark. As you might imagine it greatly affected her confidence, particularly in the summer months, and left behind patches of dark pigmentation on her light skin which took years to fade. All in all, not what you sign up for when you apply your sweat stopper.
Exactly why this all kicked off remains unclear, and it’s fair to say that Judy didn’t use antiperspirant or deodorant for a good few years after this incident, but the rise of many more gentle mass market antiperspirants and deodorants that are fragrance-free has helped matters greatly- she now uses Dove fragrance-free antiperspirant , £2.99, or Faith in Nature unscented deodorant , £3.85, depending on how sweaty her day is looking, with no flakiness, soreness or weeping bark to speak of.
One theory put forward by her doctor as to why Judy experienced such an extreme antiperspirant reaction relates to our next point...
Don’t share roll-ons
Don’t go there, and never invite house guests/ flatmates/ partners to share your deodorant either. Another member of our team ended up with underarm sores after her mum helped herself to her deodorant, possibly because, as Dr Patterson alludes to, “you run the risk of picking up someone else’s bacterial skin flora”. Given the sticky nature of a roll-on, it’s a magnet for bacteria, so don’t keep flogging the same old roll-on for months either. Keep it fresh, and most importantly, to yourself. Staying on the theme of reactivity…
Don’t apply your deodorant directly after shaving
That goes for waxing, laser hair removal and other methods of hair removal too. You could spark of a succession of reactions according to Dr Patterson:
“With shaving or hair removal procedures such as waxing or lasering, it is best to avoid immediate application of deodorant or antiperspirant products as this can allow the ingredients to penetrate deeper into the skin, causing significant irritation. This in turn can trigger an ongoing repeat sensitivity whenever that product is applied.”
Not the one when your sole aim was to prevent wet pits. In fact, moisture and antiperspirants aren’t to be combined either…
Do get the hairdryer out
Ever witnessed someone blow drying their ENTIRE body at the gym? I have, and was v bemused, but it turns out they may have been onto something if Embarrassing Bodies’ Dr Dawn Harper has any say in the matter:
“You should allow your antiperspirant to dry fully- you can use a hairdryer on the cool setting if necessary. Drying your antiperspirant will lead to dryer underarms all day.”
The same goes if you’ve just gotten out of the shower- allow skin to cool and dry thoroughly before you go in with your antiperspirant. Interestingly, how you shower can affect how you sweat too, as Dr Dawn illustrates:
“Fresh sweat doesn’t smell. The odour is produced when bacteria on the skin break down the sweat. Anyone conscious of body odour should use a pH balanced soap when washing as perfumed products can alter the pH of the skin, making it a more appealing environment for the bacteria to grow, which in turn could exacerbate the problem.”
Timing is equally important for ‘sweat less’ efficacy...
Do apply your antiperspirant in the evening
80 percent of us apply our antiperspirant or deodorant in the morning according to a survey of 2000 Brits by UltraDEX, but Dr Patterson explains that there’s dry logic to going nocturnal:
“In the case of antiperspirants, applying the night before will help to ‘get ahead’ of the problem for the following morning.”
Dr Dawn seconds Dr Patterson’s advice:
“Allowing time for your antiperspirant to dry is key to long-lasting results, so applying antiperspirant as part of your evening regime allows it to be fully absorbed and work to its best potential.”
Don’t believe the “antiperspirants cause cancer” myth
The supposed link between antiperspirants and breast cancer are oft peddled, but a Cancer Research UK spokesperson is keen to dispel the hearsay:
“You may have heard rumours that deodorants and antiperspirants could cause breast cancer. But these concerns were started by an email hoax. There is no convincing evidence that antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer.
“The original email claimed that antiperspirants stop your body from sweating out poisons. It suggested that these toxins build up in the lymph glands under the arm and cause breast cancer.
“But the details of this are wrong. Breast cancers start in the breast and only later spread to lymph glands. Your body also has several ways of getting rid of toxins, and while sweating is one of them, it is a different system to the lymph glands.”
Aluminium in antiperspirants is the ingredient most often associated with cancer in this case, but Dr Patterson states that “there is no evidence that aluminium in these products cause any health issues”, while Cancer Research UK stresses that the original 2007 study connecting aluminium in antiperspirants with breast cancer involved a very small number of participants (17 women), didn’t compare aluminium levels of women’s breasts to other parts of their bodies and didn’t investigate levels in women without breast cancer. Large studies and reviews of all available evidence in 2014 found no link between the two. The charity highlights that you may be advised to avoid antiperspirants containing aluminium prior to breast screening, but this isn’t because they’re dangerous, it’s due to the fact that aluminium salts can interfere with test readings and therefore make breast cancer harder to identify.
Parabens are another antiperspirant and deodorant ingredient rumoured to cause cancer, however Cancer Research UK insists that this association is weak:
“Parabens are chemicals found in some deodorants. They are similar to oestrogen, the human hormone that can increase the risk of breast cancer and some other cancers at high levels, but parabens are much weaker than oestrogen itself and any effects are likely to be overwhelmed by natural oestrogen produced in our body, or similar chemicals found in our diet.
“There are hundreds of other environmental chemicals that are found in human breast tissue, so it’s hard to be sure that parabens can cause cancer alone, and besides, most modern deodorants are paraben-free.”
If you feel more comfortable using an aluminum-free or natural deodorant, go right ahead, but the bottom line is that, if you’re an antiperspirant fan, you needn’t worry about the cancer connection.
Do keep your spray in a dark, cool place
Where you could face health risks is if you store a can of aerosol antiperspirant or deodorant in direct sunlight or heat, given that they’re highly flammable and pressurised, thus prone to explode. Don’t even.
Don’t fork out more just because you’re a woman
As if the tampon tax , pay gap and everyday sexism weren’t enough, a product analysis published by The Times in 2016 found that women are charged around 37 per cent more for goods across the board. From pens designed for ‘lady hands’ (with sinister hiked up price points to match) to pink razors promising to “relax” you (and take more from your purse than it would a man’s), deodorants and antiperspirants marketed at women are often predictably more pricey than the male equivalent, despite the fact that they’re doing the same duty, but smell of cupcakes rather than musk. Do right by your skin and the sisterhood by going fragrance-free, or do some shrewd price comparison before you buy into that orchid scented pit spritz.
Do look into treatment options if antiperspirants aren’t working
First off, a reminder that sweating is a normal, nay essential, human function, as Dr Dawn is here to professionally relay:
“Sweating is our built in cooling system and is crucial to survival. We sweat to lose heat and in fact the sweat glands in our armpits are capable of producing several litres of sweat in 24 hours if necessary. This is important because our bodies need to maintain a normal temperature. How much we sweat varies hugely from individual to individual and even from day to day in each of us as it depends on how active we are and the outside temperature and humidity.”
So if one day you’re slick and the next day you’re more dry Sahara, that’s cool, but if you’re experiencing excessive sweating on a regular basis, you could be experiencing hyperhidrosis , which can occur all over the body or just in isolated areas such as feet, hands and armpits. Lifestyle changes can help, but if hyperhidrosis ongoing and affecting your wellbeing, Dr Patterson advocates booking an appointment to see your doctor or a specialist, who may recommend a treatment that’s more often associated with ironing out wrinkles:
“Probably the best, safest and most reliable application of Botox is its use in sweating. It can literally transform lives particularly in those unfortunate people where hyperhidrosis runs in the family.”
Otherwise, a blast of the hairdryer and a spritz or slick of antiperspirant should help to keep sweat at bay and from ruining your day, and if the average deo isn’t doing it, strong aluminium chloride based Perspirex is proven to limit excessive sweating and odour for three to five days, and it’s also formulated to be tolerated by sensitive skin. It’s worth a shot if wet pits are causing you misery.