Nobody wants to be the smelly kid. Once you enter adolescence, gym class and sunny days produce a bad smell in your armpits . In an effort to avoid odor, many people use some type of deodorant or antiperspirant to fix their body odor . In fact, a recent study says that around 78% of people do not genetically need a deodorant, but use one anyway.

Underarm sweat itself does not smell

Sweat itself does not smell. We might think that it is the opposite because, most of the time we smell when we sweat a lot. But in reality, armpit odor comes from bacteria . These bacteria break down the lipids and amino acids found in sweat (which doesn’t smell bad) and turn it into substances that have a different smell, which we call body odor.
The approaches that govern the solution of our body odor problem have been growing in recent decades along with our increasingly robust hygiene routines.

Two popular odor-fighting methods reign supreme: killing bacteria through a standard deodorant (containing ingredients like triclosan), or blocking sweat glands and killing bacteria (using an antiperspirant that contains ingredients such as aluminum).

However, the medical community has begun to reveal some potentially terrifying side effects that come with such widespread use of deodorants and antiperspirants . While the research is early, it has had a dramatic impact on public opinion and has begun to make a “hippie” lifestyle much smarter.

The other research work coming from the academic community is a deeper understanding of the microbiome, the bacterial community that exists in our body. Some even call it the new organ system because of the huge impact it is proving to have on our health. This includes anything from serious, to the less serious but socially damaging underarm odor, for example.

An ecosystem in the armpit

Like our intestines, our armpits also naturally have a large amount of bacteria . It is one of the most densely populated areas on the surface of our body, but there is not a great deal of diversity in the microbial community.
More than three-quarters of bacteria fall into one of the two groups of bacteria. One is associated with smell, the other, not so much. Like our gut, it can be destabilized by certain foods or antibiotics that kill beneficial bacteria, allowing potentially troublesome microbes to take over. The same can happen in the armpit.
Like any ecosystem, the goal is balance in order to be healthy. Withdrawal from these ecosystem-damaging products could be problematic at first, but over time stabilize, naturally diminishing odorous bacteria until they disappear over time.

It’s not just about body odor

The research behind the microbiome has shown us that our entire body is connected to the microbial world. We are learning that the gut microbiome not only influences digestion, but potentially things like mood and attention. The armpit area is a great example of the interconnectedness of our body and its ecosystem.

Tips to eliminate the bad smell in the armpits

So why don’t we work with our microbiome instead, and not against it? Here are some ways to get started:

Switch to mild soaps

Soaps that contain strong surfactants (such as those with SLS and SDS, and even castile soap), remove the protective sebum that is full of good fats that the body uses to protect your skin. Mild soaps will also make a better environment for your good microbes to thrive.

Aluminum free

Aluminum is typically the active ingredient that inhibits sweating. It has recently been linked to a variety of long-term health problems and several “natural” brands market its formula as “aluminum free.”

Beware of glass deodorants

These are the ones that most often claim to be “aluminum free”, but check the label. Many of them still contain an ingredient called “alum,” which is typically potassium aluminum sulfate. Although it is still a better alternative to most antiperspirants, it still does not make it completely aluminum-free.

Beware of strong antibacterials (parabens, triclosan, etc.)

Strong antibacterials are the ones that will give the most destabilizing effect on the underarm microbiome, making it difficult for good bacteria to thrive.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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