Don’t sweat it: how to find an effective deodorant

<span>Photograph: Василий Авраменко/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Василий Авраменко/Getty Images

Despite an ever-growing selection, finding a “holy grail” deodorant is tough. Over the years, I’ve slathered my pits with pure salt crystal (bad), lemon juice (even worse), DIY rubbing alcohol and essential oil spritzes (the dryness!), and many conventional products including typical drugstore options and fancy French drugstore products, never once feeling compelled to repurchase.

I had to admit I needed help, so I asked experts: why is finding a good deodorant so hard?

Deodorants and antiperspirants - what is the difference?

According to chemist Rachel Johnson, the difference between a deodorant and an antiperspirant is that the latter contains aluminum compounds that block sweat glands. These aluminum compounds are nearly universal in antiperspirants as they are the gold standard for stopping sweat production.

Deodorants, on the other hand, do not influence the amount of sweat your body produces. Instead, they usually adjust the pH level of your skin to be either more acidic or more alkaline, either of which makes the skin inhospitable to odor-causing bacteria. Common deodorant ingredients include mineral salts like magnesium hydroxide, acids like mandelic or glycolic acids, baking soda (which sounds benign but is actually a common irritant), antimicrobial agents such as sage oil and ingredients that absorb moisture, like arrowroot starch or zinc ricinoleate. They usually also offer some fragrance.

If, like me, you develop BO but are not prone to heavy sweating, you may gravitate toward deodorant over antiperspirant – not only because it seems better suited to your needs, but because of a sense that antiperspirant is not good for you (more on this later). Yet, according to dermatologist Dr Annie Liu, even an invisible amount of sweat can encourage bacteria to flourish, which excrete thioalcohol, the sulfurous chemical responsible for BO. As a result, antiperspirants are her first suggestion for patients concerned about body odor.

What are natural deodorants?

Related: Why are we so snobby about other people’s weddings?

A natural deodorant is designed to minimize body odor without using synthetic chemicals or aluminum compounds found in traditional antiperspirants. “Natural” can also refer to a product’s use of plant-based ingredients, such as coconut oil and essential oils. An eco-benefit of natural deodorants is that it can be easier to find them in plastic-free formats, such as the paper-based, push-up sticks by the brands Attitude and Humble.

Unfortunately, whether you’re using a natural deodorant, a regular one or an antiperspirant, all of these products have the potential to backfire by making you smell worse. That’s because there are five types of bacteria that cause odor, and some deodorants may only end up effectively killing some less-smelly strains, allowing the more-smelly strains to thrive. Finding which product is going to work for you can take trial and error, which is why so many of us find ourselves on epic deodorant journeys – including Johnson. “It’s just so subjective because the ingredients react to your skin microbiome, pH level and changes in your skin chemistry, and there are a lot of different ingredients companies use to try to kill bacteria in different ways,” she says.

Is antiperspirant bad for you?

The idea that aluminum is an unhealthy topical ingredient linked to breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease comes from a number of studies published from the 1960s to 1980s. But in more contemporary research reviews, experts say there is no scientific evidence to support such a hypothesis.

“There’s really no quality evidence to suggest that aluminum contributes to breast cancer,” says Liu. Nor is it intrinsically unhealthy to block underarm sweating, which dermatologists can also do by injecting a patient’s armpits with neuromodulators like Botox.

While Johnson acknowledges that research on aluminum is ongoing, she personally uses aluminum antiperspirants.

Does deodorant cause pit stains?

Most existing research says that a chemical reaction between aluminum and sweat creates the brownish-yellow pit stains that ruin your white shirts. Yet, according to Praveen Vijayan Pillai, co-founder of Super Deodorant, there is another culprit that can still stain your clothes, even if you’re using an aluminum-free formula. Emulsifiers such as alcohol, added to marry water-based acid formulations with emollients like coconut oil, can over-emulsify when mixed with sweat, transferring to your clothes and creating tough-to-remove stains. Seek formulas free of alcohol and aluminum to reduce chances of discoloring your clothing.

Can deodorants and antiperspirants cause irritation?

Both antiperspirant and deodorants – including “natural” ones – can cause a chemical burn if they take the pH level of your skin either too low or too high.

Pillai, formerly an engineer, began developing his brand after conventional products not only proved ineffective against odor, but also left him with intense chemical burns and hyperpigmentation under his arms.

His research led him to conclude that because human bodies are so chemically inconsistent, different products work differently for everyone. Plus, a person could comfortably use a product for months and suddenly, one day, find it irritating. Reddit threads are dedicated to people sharing their stories of using a certain deodorant for years, only to suddenly develop painful chemical burns.

If that happens to you, Liu advises to stop using the offending product, “wash the area with warm water, pat dry, place a clean dressing over it” and see a doctor. “Refrain from using any other products, like aloe vera, hydrogen peroxide or Polysporin, as these can actually worsen the skin injury,” she notes.

Pillai created a product he says works for every body composition without risk of causing burns. It uses a topical formulation of silver, an antimicrobial which has long been used in medical contexts and can kill all five odor-causing bacteria strains.

Super Deodorant sent me a free sample to try. While it’s a bit unusual – a gray paste that requires refrigeration – the product works better than anything else I’ve used. Once I rub a finger-swipe of it into my underarms, it lasts for the whole day before I shower again and reapply. It doesn’t leave stains on clothes and has no fragrance, which is my preference.

Are skincare ingredients like salicylic and lactic acid effective as deodorant?

Around the late 2010s, popular facial skincare acids such as glycolic, salicylic, lactic and mandelic acids started popping up in more deodorant formulas, including products by brands like Lume, Nécessaire, Drunk Elephant and Kosas.

Even more recently, the idea of using anti-acne products like PanOxyl benzoyl peroxide face wash on your pits has become a popular TikTok life hack.

According to Johnson, the chemist, the idea here is solid: “When you look at the biochemistry behind acne and how to treat it, it’s the same type of biochemistry for odor – it’s killing bacteria.”

Moreover, these acids exfoliate. “They scrub away at the older skin cells and renew the area,” says Liu.

However, if you leave these products on your skin for too long without washing them off or use them too frequently, you could run the risk of damaging your skin barrier. “When skin cells are constantly renewing, it can actually cause more irritation,” Liu says. And once your skin barrier is damaged, anything else you put on your skin has a higher chance of exacerbating the irritation.

Still, exfoliating your pits at least a couple times a month can help deodorant adhere to your skin better by clearing away dead cells. In moderation, they could be a worthwhile addition to your hygiene routine.