No one wants to smell musty, sweaty or have a sour body odor. That's why the majority of us swipe on deodorant or antiperspirant every day.
But while both can keep unwanted smells at bay, there's a difference between these underarm products, and understanding how they work will help you choose the right one for your needs.
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Here, a dermatologist explains the differences and we dig into the benefits and risks of each product.
Deodorant vs. Antiperspirant
We get it, it's easy to confuse the two. Both deodorant and antiperspirant often come in a stick, which you swipe onto your armpits, usually after a shower. And both combat body odor, which occurs when your sweat comes into contact with the bacteria on your skin, per the Cleveland Clinic. (Sweat itself has no smell, and the amount you sweat doesn't necessarily affect your body odor.)
But according to Anna Kirkorian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and chief of dermatology at Children's National, the biggest difference between them is protection against sweat.
"Deodorants are either fragrances that cover up body odor or anti-septic/anti-bacterial products that reduce the armpit bacteria that metabolizes odorless sweat, leading to body odor," she explains.
In other words, deodorant masks smell, but it doesn't have any effect on sweat, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
On the other hand: "Antiperspirants are typically aluminum salts that clog the sweat glands temporarily to lead to reduction in sweating," Dr. Kirkorian says. By stopping sweat, then, they also prevent body odor.
So deodorant covers up smell, while antiperspirant protects against sweat and smell.
You can tell if a product is a deodorant or antiperspirant by looking at the label, although keep in mind that there are some two-in-one products that are both a deodorant and antiperspirant.
Benefits of Deodorant
There are plenty of benefits to wearing deodorant. First and foremost, the best deodorants keep you smelling fresh throughout the day. But it depends on what results you're looking for when choosing between deodorant and antiperspirant.
When it comes to deodorant, the pros include:
1. Reduces Body Odor
According to the Mayo Clinic, deodorants are usually alcohol-based and work by making the skin acidic. This makes it less attractive to bacteria, preventing odor.
Then of course there's all the fancy deodorant scents on the market — fruity, floral, shower-fresh or fragrance-free if you just want to smell like yourself.
2. Some Are Made With Natural Ingredients
If you're concerned about the ingredients you're swiping onto your skin (more on that in a moment), there are natural deodorant options that can still be effective at fighting body odor.
Natural deodorant is made with naturally occurring substances instead of ingredients made in a lab, per the Mayo Clinic. Ingredients could include essential oils, baking soda and other natural substances.
But if your deodorant has stopped working, it might be time to move to an antiperspirant.
When considering how much deodorant to use, usually no more than three swipes are needed to get the job done.
Risks of Deodorant
May Cause a Reaction
If your skin is negatively reacting to your deodorant, you may have sensitive skin or an allergy.
"Patients can develop an irritant or allergic contact dermatitis (eczema-like rash) as a reaction to many of these products, which can be the main barrier to effective use," Dr. Kirkorian says.
According to the Mayo Clinic, contact dermatitis is a non-contagious itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance. It will appear within a few days and should clear up on its own between two to four weeks.
If you notice a rash after using a deodorant, stop using it immediately and try to identify the cause of the reaction.
What About Triclosan?
A common ingredient used in over-the-counter personal care products like body washes, toothpastes and deodorant is triclosan. Triclosan is a chemical that has antibacterial properties that prevent or stop bacterial growth, per the Cleveland Clinic.
There have been safety concerns about triclosan, though, and in 2016, the FDA banned companies from selling antibacterial soaps containing the ingredient.
In animal studies, triclosan has been shown to be an endocrine-disrupting chemical, which means it can cause issues with proper hormone function, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Some research has linked long-term exposure to health problems such as allergies, food sensitivities and bacterial resistance, and limited research has also linked the chemical to a higher risk of certain cancers (although the latter finding isn't consistent across the studies that have been done).
However, there is no concrete evidence that triclosan is dangerous to humans specifically. Rather, the FDA banned the chemical in antibacterial soaps because there is no evidence that antibacterial soaps work any better than regular soaps, so there's no reason to expose people to a potentially harmful chemical without an added benefit.
The FDA is continuing to review the safety of triclosan in products like deodorant. In the meantime, if you want to avoid the chemical, you can check the Drug Facts label to see if a product contains the ingredient.
Benefits of Antiperspirant
1. Reduces Sweating
If you want to slow down how much you sweat, antiperspirant may be the best choice for you, Dr. Kirkorian says.
Wearing antiperspirant can prevent underarm sweat, whether you want to prevent pit stains on a hot day or you're someone who has an excessive sweating condition known as hyperhidrosis, per the American Association of Dermatology Association (AAD).
"For those who have excessive sweating, antiperspirants are very important to reduce sweating rate," Dr. Kirkorian says.
2. Reduces Body Odor
Similar to deodorant, antiperspirant also reduces odor, but it does so in a different way: by blocking off sweat pores. This prevents sweat from mixing with the bacteria on your skin (which is what causes body odor).
Keep in mind, the results are only temporary, and if you deal with excessive sweating, you may need a prescription instead of an over-the-counter product.
"In many patients with hyperhidrosis, antiperspirants alone are not sufficient," Dr. Kirkorian notes.
As for when to apply antiperspirant? It works best if you swipe it on at night, onto clean, dry skin. Then, for even more sweat- and stink-fighting power, use an antibacterial body wash in your morning shower, followed by a few swipes of deodorant, Dr. Kirkorian says.
Risks of Antiperspirant
1. Could Cause an Allergic Reaction
Some people have allergic reactions to the ingredients in certain antiperspirants, according to Penn Medicine. These ingredients could include chemicals such as propylene glycol or parabens, or even more natural ingredients like essential oils or vitamin E.
2. May Not Be Safe for People With Severe Kidney Disease
The aluminum in antiperspirants is typically filtered out of your body by your kidneys, per Penn Medicine. If you have severe chronic kidney disease or severely reduced kidney function (30 percent or less), aluminum may be allowed to build up in your body, which could put you at risk for bone diseases or dementia.
That's why antiperspirants typically carry a warning label that you should ask your doctor before use if you have kidney disease.
What About Breast Cancer Risk?
Antiperspirants have faced safety scrutiny because of the active ingredient aluminum, leading many people to wonder whether antiperspirant is bad for their health.
A common belief is that antiperspirant can increase the risk of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there have been no studies done in humans that link antiperspirant use and breast cancer risk.
When to See a Doctor
Sweating is a natural body response, but if excessive sweating is affecting your quality of life, then you should see a doctor, Dr. Kirkorian says.
Signs that sweat is becoming a serious interference include embarrassment, visibly sweating through clothing and the inability to hold onto pens or hold someone's hand because of sweaty palms, she says.
It's also possible that the excessive sweating could be coming from an underlying health condition, which is even more reason to see a doctor.
"If sweating occurs at night in particular or is associated with weight loss, lymph node swelling or feeling unwell, patients should seek attention with their primary care physicians to rule out underlying causes of sweating," Dr. Kirkorian says.
1. Does Antiperspirant Cause Dark Underarms?
Dark underarms can appear if there's irritation from the product, Dr. Kirkorian says.
"This can be particularly the case in people of color where irritation or eczema can lead to hyperpigmentation (darkness) of the skin, which is typically temporary."
If you notice dark underarms, you may want to stop using your antiperspirant and try a different product to see if it makes a difference. You could also schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to help you get to the bottom of the issue.
2. Does Shaving Armpits Reduce Sweat?
Sadly, no. Shaving your armpits does not reduce sweating, but shaving can reduce the presence of bacteria, which can help prevent body odor related to sweating, Dr. Kirkorian says.
3. How Can I Stop My Armpits From Sweating Permanently?
Permanent reduction of sweating is possible, but it's not going to happen with deodorant or antiperspirant.
"Adult patients can be treated with a radiofrequency device or with a surgical procedure," Dr. Kirkorian says.
Surgery would only be considered for people who have excessive sweating and haven't found relief from topical or oral medications, she adds.
Botox injections are also commonly used to treat hyperhidrosis, per M Health Fairview, but the effects only last a few months at a time.
- Cleveland Clinic: "Body Odor"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sweating and Body Odor"
- Mayo Clinic: "What are 'Natural' Personal Care Products?"
- American Association of Dermatology Association: "Hyperhidrosis: Tips For Managing"
- Mayo Clinic: "Contact Dermatitis"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Triclosan"
- FDA: "5 Things to Know About Triclosan"
- American Cancer Society: "Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Risk"
- Penn Medicine: "Is Deodorant Harmful for Your Health?"
- M Health Fairview: "Botox for excessive sweating: How does it work?"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.