In modern society, antiperspirants are widely hailed as a godsend, dispelling the inconvenient odors wafting from armpits everywhere. But a new study casts doubts on their vaunted position. As it turns out, antiperspirants may actually make you smell worse in the long run.
For 90% of all Americans, slathering on deodorants and antiperspirants is a daily occurrence, a precautionary measure against foul odors and unsightly sweat stains. The odors arise when bacteria living in our armpits break down lipids and amino acids excreted in sweat into more smelly substances. Deodorants employ antimicrobial agents that kill off bacteria, as well as chemicals that replace noxious odors with pleasant aromas. Deodorants that double as antiperspirants, like Degree, Old Spice, and Dove, take the process one step further by physically plugging sweat glands with aluminum-based compounds.
While most of us might only concern ourselves with the dry, aromatic benefits of antiperspirants and deodorants, researchers at the Laboratory of Microbial Ecology and Technology at the University of Ghent in Belgium are more interested in the effects on bacteria. Billions of bacteria dwell in the "rain forests" under our arms, and the substances we don are mucking with their habitats!
To uncover how deodorants and antiperspirants affect armpit bacteria, Chris Callewaert, a Ph.D student specializing in microbial ecology, and a team of researchers recruited eight subjects for a task a great many people (and especially their friends) might deem unbearable: Six males and two females pledged not to use deodorant or antiperspirant for an entire month. Specifically, four subjects stopped using their deodorants and another four stopped using their antiperspirant deodorant. (Most antiperspirants are also deodorants. See image below for an example.) Another control subject who did not regularly use either was asked to use deodorant for a month. The duration was chosen because it takes approximately 28 days for a new layer of skin cells to form.
The researchers analyzed the diversity and abundance of subjects' armpit bacteria at various timepoints before they stopped using antiperspirant, during the period of abstaining from antiperspirant, and for a few weeks after resuming the use of antiperspirant. Switching hygiene habits plainly altered the armpit bacterial communities of every subject. Since no two armpits and their resident bacteria are identical, it was difficult to pinpoint precise changes brought about by deodorants or antiperspirants, but one clear trend did materialize: antiperspirants resulted in a clear increase of Actinobacteria.
You might not recognize the name of Actinobacteria, but chances are, you've smelled them. Dominated by Corynebacterium, they are the major instigators of noxious armpit odor. Other microbes that inhabit the armpit, like Firmicutes and Staphylococcus, don't produce odors as quickly, nor are those odors nearly as pungent.
Callewaert believes the aluminum compounds in antiperspirants may be to blame, killing off "good," less smelly bacteria and allowing "bad" bacteria to dominate. His study found that deodorants which lack these sweat-blocking antiperspirant compounds are actually linked to a slight decrease of stinky Actinobacteria. (Below: An example of the bacterial community of one subject. When using an antiperspirant, Firmicutes [diamonds] and Actinobacteria [dashes] dominate. Without antiperspirant, Firmicutes are more abundant and Actinobacteria are hardly present.)
Though antiperspirants and deodorants are widely used, they are only a temporary fix.
"The measures we utilize today do not take away the initial source: the odor causing bacteria," Callewaert told RealClearScience. "Deodorants only mask unpleasant odors. We can do better than that. The follow up of this research is finding better solutions."
And Callewaert is already working on one: "armpit bacterial transplantation."
"We take away the bad bacteria from the armpit of somebody with a body odor, and replace it with the good bacteria of a relative who doesn't have a body odor," he explained.
"So far we have helped over 15 people. For most subjects it brings immediate improvements. Most of them on a permanent time scale, although there are also people who suffer again from a body odor after some months."
For now, this approach seems rather extreme, but maybe it should be used as a last-line resort for the sort of person you can smell from the other side of the room.
The big limitation of the current study is its sample size. Just nine subjects took part.
"The sample size is rather small," Callewaert admits. "However, we see consistent outcomes."
Callewaert also says that this is the first study to specifically examine the effect of deodorant on the diversity and abundance of armpit bacteria.
"We barely know what lives in our armpits, on our clothes, in our laundry machines, and what causes all these unpleasant odors."
While the current study strongly suggests that antiperspirants can make their users smell worse via the growth of Actinobacteria, it does not directly assess body odor. As a follow up, Callewaert should recruit subjects to use antiperspirants and utilize methods like gas chromatography to directly measure the amount of the stinky volatile organic compounds emanating from their armpits. Professional smellers could also be put to work... at their own peril.
Source: Chris Callewaert, Prawira Hutapea, Tom Van de Wiele, Nico Boon. "Deodorants and antiperspirants affect the axillary bacterial community." Arch Dermatol Res. 2014 Jul 31.
(Images: Shutterstock, Callewaert et. al.)