New solutions for body odor
Americans are obsessed with sweat. We spend billions on antiperspirants in the quest to suppress body odor.
Nobody wants to smell nasty, but perspiration isn't the problem. Sweat doesn't stink. Body odor is caused by bacteria that live on the skin, breaking down the fats and proteins from sweat into aromatic acids.
Centuries ago, when it was hard to wash regularly, people tried to mask unpleasant smells with perfume. Although many underarm products contain fragrance, the primary strategy is to reduce sweating.
Antiperspirants rely mostly on aluminum salts that plug sweat glands and reduce the amount of perspiration reaching the surface of the skin. Less sweat means less bacterial activity and reduced underarm odor.
Less sweat also means that specialized glands in the underarm (apocrine glands) will not function normally. Kris McGrath, MD, is a Professor in Medicine-Allergy-Immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. McGrath is concerned that if apocrine glands are plugged by antiperspirants, there may be unexpected consequences. Writing in the Journal Medical Hyotheses he suggests:
"An unintentional, inadvertent, and long term hormone exposure may occur from transdermal absorption of sex hormones and pheromones (androgens) from axillary apocrine sweat gland obstruction by aluminum-based antiperspirants. The global rise in antiperspirant use parallels rises in breast and prostate cancer incidence and mortality rates."
Dr. McGrath proposes that when apocrine sweat glands in the axilla [armpit] are obstructed, both male and female hormone levels may be altered. Few people realize that sweat glands in the underarm area even make hormones and pheromones (sex attractant chemicals). For the FDA, Dr. McGrath's hypothesis must seem preposterous. After all, the FDA requires antiperspirants to reduce sweating in the underarm area by definition. How could the basic premise of such products be called into question?
Many Americans are unaware that there have been quite a few questions raised in the medical literature of late about the safety of antiperspirant ingredients. Researchers have noted that aluminum salts have estrogenic activity and that they promote the growth of breast cells (Journal of Applied Toxicology, March, 2012). The authors of this study from the Division of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Geneva, Switzerland, conclude that "Our observations do not formally identify aluminum as a breast carcinogen, but challenge the safety ascribed to its widespread use in underarm cosmetics." This doesn't mean that antiperspirants cause breast cancer, but some investigators worry about a potential link (Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, Nov., 2011). We are likely years away from definitive studies proving either the safety or the danger of aluminum-based antiperspirants.
Where does this leave the cautious consumer? Deodorants (without sweat-stopping aluminum) are one option. In addition, people have come up with many home remedies to help control body odor in part by keeping bacteria levels under control.
Rubbing alcohol is one reader's approach: "I use isopropyl alcohol. I keep it in a little squirt-top bottle, and after showering I squirt about a teaspoonful in each hand and apply it under my arms. I let it air dry a couple minutes before I dress, lest clothing absorb the alcohol before its bactericidal mission is accomplished.
"This has worked well for me over about 30 years. I had to find something because all the deodorants gave me a rash."
A woman offers this similar solution: "I have found that dipping a cotton ball in witch hazel [which contains 14 percent alcohol] and applying it to the underarms keeps me odor free."
Another reader says, "I use white vinegar in a spray bottle. I've had good results for over 15 years."
Regardless of what home remedy you may choose to control body odor (vinegar, alcohol, witch hazel, lemon juice or milk of magnesia), we hope one of these inexpensive approaches offers relief from body odor as summer heat starts to increase.