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Do We Actually Need Deodorant?

Medical Daily logo Medical Daily 2016-01-22 Sabrina Bachai

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I’ve never been a fan of conventional deodorant. I was raised in a house where my parents didn’t wear any of the popular drugstore brands. My mother never had “the talk” with me when it came to odors as our bodies change during puberty, so I wasn’t aware that people used these white and clear sticks to prevent their armpits from looking like a wet, sloppy mess.

As I got older, I started to notice that deodorant was a very natural part of many people’s daily routine. For some of my friends, using deodorant and antiperspirants was as necessary as using mascara or lipstick. But to me, it seemed to be more of a tradition rather than a hygienic practice. Being the health-conscious person I am, I was fearful of the potential nasty side effects deodorant could have.

So, as I eased into the idea of deodorant use, I started by using aluminum- and paraben-free sticks — many antiperspirants contain these chemicals.

Some studies show that many people who use deodorant don’t smell or even need them, but they still use them. If sweating and perspiring are a necessary part of maintaining proper homeostasis — the bodily function responsible for regulating our temperature — why is using deodorant so embedded in our culture?

According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, the use of these products is more a function of social norms rather than necessity. He also said deodorants and antiperspirants don’t actually target the underlying cause of sweat and odor — they just mask it.

The smell is caused by bacteria related to our genetics and environmental factors. Normal sweat doesn't stink but can sometimes take on an odor from foods we eat or problems with metabolism, according to Dr. Cindy Jones, a biochemist at the Sagescript Institute.

“Sweat can be acted upon by skin bacteria to produce odoriferous compounds so cleanliness is important to remove sweat as well as the bacteria that cause the odor,” she told  Medical Daily.

But let’s face it, no one wants to be around someone who smells foul, and deodorant does help to mask those noxious odors.

“Deodorants reduce skin odor, either by adding a fragrance that masks body odor or by killing bacteria on the skin that cause the odor,” Zeichner told Medical Daily. They work by lessening the smell, while antiperspirants like aluminum form a plug in the pores preventing moisture from reaching the surface.

A few years ago, an email circulated claiming these products could pose potential health risks. The stance was that paraben- and aluminum-based compounds can seep into the skin from shaving cuts and can cause breast cancer. However, research from the National Cancer Institute disputed these claims, saying that the evidence is unfounded and with no clear links.

So if you were on the fence about using deodorant prior to reading this article, chances are a little soap and water will do the trick. The best thing to do to prevent smells is to have proper hygiene, which includes changing your clothes and showering daily along with shaving your underarms.

“Cleanliness is important to remove sweat as well as the bacteria that cause the odor, especially from areas more prone to odor,” Jones said.

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