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Your body probably doesn’t ‘detox’ when you change deodorants.

April 17, 2019

As a scientist I read a lot of things that make me squirm. As a fellow human with all of my non-scientific biases, preferences and illogicalness I can see where these pearls of wisdom come from, their basis or origin. However, I still can’t quite get past the non-science of it all and often that leaves me feeling a bit bleugh.  Here is another example of that.

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So, deodorant formulating has become something of a thing over the last few years as people try to solve today’s problems (over-use of plastic, chemical-phobia, anti-corporate bullshit) using home-made recipes to stop the stench.  This is all well and good, especially given that the deodorants market was pretty boring for a long time there but it starts to wrinkle up my face in ‘oh no, but why?’ when I see things like this written as if it were fact:

“your body goes through a natural ‘detox’ when you change from aluminium deodorant to a natural one”.

This, my friends, is most likely a stinking crock of shit.

I think the best way for me to walk through this is how I walk through any problem in my own brain and that is to break it down, piece by piece.  Here are the pieces:

Aluminium,  Natural Deodorant, Detox, Sweat Stench.

Now I’m famous for taking 12 words to say what most others say in 2 but today I’m going to just cut to the chase and get on with it (hooray).  There is much research to do to fill in the gaps and I’ll point that out but in the meantime here’s what these things mean (background) followed by my hypothesis (best guess at what is going on) and a rationale for how to attempt to answer that.

So first to the definitions:

Aluminium and its link to detoxing.

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Aluminium salts are used to plug the sweat glands temporarily so they don’t leak.  As such, aluminium ‘deodorants’ are actually called ‘antiperspirants’ as they stop (or are anti) perspiration.   Deodorants don’t stop perspiration, they typically focus on either covering up the bad odour with a good one (spray perfume types for example) or killing or preventing the growth of the bacteria that cause the smell.

Aluminium salt-based antiperspirants of the type that we recognise in the western world have been available on the market since the early 1900’s.   Everdry was apparently the first patented antiperspirants in 1903. However, I found this box which states the company had been active since 1910 so maybe the product first became available around then).  However, white westerners with a penchant for marketing didn’t invent this (sorry, not sorry).  This paper outlines science that was known by people all along the spice trail and there are similar stories in the Americas too.  Aluminium Salts were part of our collective human personal care cabinet before we even had one.

So:

Nature gives us aluminium salts which we can put ON our bodies to deodorize them.

Science took those aluminium salts and found a way to make them sit into our sweat glands to temporarily plug them.

The take-home for me here is the aluminium salts have been interacting with our human bodies since forever, are part of many indigenous medical traditions and are, therefore, a logical ingredient for this purpose.

Cancer or Alzheimer’s risk of Aluminium deodorants.

I feel obliged to bring this up as people do still think that aluminium causes either or both of the above but there is currently no evidence for this.

It is logical to worry about the long-term effects of plugging up sweat glands as the skin is, at least in part,  an organ of excretion and our sweat glands are the pipes that carry what we have to excrete.  This is probably where the detox theory comes in, that our armpits are doing the mother load of the detoxing of our body.  One only has to step back from that idea for a second to realise how inefficient and ridiculous that sounds but anyway, that’s where we are at.

So, when it comes to armpit detox potential, it pays to remember:

  • The skin is not the main organ of excretion, the kidneys and liver do that.
  • Even if the skin were the main organ of excretion, we don’t use antiperspirants on our whole skin AND the armpits are a tiny percentage of our whole skin.
  • While the sweat that comes out of our armpits is different from that from our forehead, it isn’t unique to our armpits so using antiperspirants under our arms doesn’t stop all the porcine/ apoeccrine flow.
  • Aluminium plugs are not permanent.

 

So, onto sweat stench and natural deodorants.

OK, so the theory goes  (and this is all over the internet, copied from one blog and magazine post to another so it must be right, right?) that you have to be prepared to stink for a bit when you change from your regular deodorant to a natural one because your body is ‘detoxing’ from the chemicals it was exposed to before.

Apparently this detox process takes several weeks and some blogs have even graphed the stink profile which is especially helpful and makes it all seem very scientifically valid.

Now I have formulated a few natural deodorants and the ones that I’ve persisted in trying out for myself have led to me smelling a bit whiffy for a few weeks too which I also thought was odd although I was less inclined to jump to the conclusion described above. Now before I get into that I should mention the word ‘natural’ as that’s really key to this detox theory.  Many newly formed deodorant brands are using the fact that they are natural as a selling point and there is nothing wrong with that.  The problem (to my mind) comes from the bias towards natural as always better and safer.   The use of the word ‘natural’ is used in a similar way to how I was taught to be aware of strangers who ask you to come and look at their puppies  – it’s a lure.  When we see the word ‘natural’ associated with a cosmetic product we automatically start associating words like ‘safe, skin-friendly,  earth-friendly, gentle, kind, mild’ etc.  To be honest, for most of us that’s where the brain shuts down and just goes ‘OK, where do I buy you!’.  It works for the brand but does nothing to progress our real understanding of anything. I get sad about that.

Anyway…

Sweat stench comes, not from the salty fluid or wetness that we excrete, that’s odour free.  The smell comes from microbes that feed on the fatty stuff we excrete.  Where our Apocrine and Apoeccrine glands differ from our Eccrine glands is in their ability to sweat out fatty stuff that can be digested in a stinky way by microbes. That’s why our pits and groin areas stink more than our sweaty faces do.

Knowing that, it makes sense to me that what may well be happening when we change deodorants is that we are disrupting the balance of our natural pit flora.  So, rather than ‘detoxing’ what we are actually doing is re-arranging our microbiome.   I’d go so far as to say the natural part of the equation is somewhat irrelevant although that does play into many people’s chemical phobia and inherent biases.

Many natural deodorants contain ingredients that have anti-microbial properties so is it not logical that they could alter our micro biome?

In addition, many (but not all) natural deodorants also contain new fats that could provide other microbes with food, thus setting up the potential for an entirely different micro biome thanks to the now abundant fat supply.

Further, some (but not all) natural deodorants form an occlusive barrier on the skin which reduces sweating in a different but similar way to aluminium salts. This limits oxygen supply which again would favour different microbes.

Further still we now have deodorants that come with pre and pro-biotic ingredients added.  Most of these microbes or micro-feeders are still somewhat un-natural for our human armpit area (no matter how much we love coconut, we don’t have coconut microbes under our pits naturally) so while they may be ‘good’ bacteria, they may not be able to do much good under these conditions and may just be another thing for our natural pit microbes to adjust to and either accept or reject.

Lastly we now have deodorants available in a range of pH values from acidic through to strongly alkali which again would encourage different microbial flora.

So, all of this points me to my ‘changing microbes’ hypothesis rather than a detox hypothesis.

To me, this makes complete sense.

It also makes sense why it can take a while for things to settle down when you change deodorant. Micro colonies do not pack up and move overnight and new colonies don’t grow that quick either. I’m sure the few weeks of pit-chaos is what helps to cause the stench.

To Conclude.

So firstly I apologise, I took more words than I wanted to.

Secondly I want to remind you that the very chemical many natural brands are trying to avoid is, indeed natural (aluminium salts), see, there’s a piece of stupid right there but I get it, I do…

Thirdly  I’d say that while my best guess or hypothesis makes sense to me, it will need testing.  On that,  it is somewhat possible to count and characterise microbes from under the armpit but I’m not sure where I’d go for that test, how much it would cost or whether the method is delicate enough to show up small changes (I can’t assume these changes are major, it may be the our base micro biome is very stable but it’s the small changes that cause the biggest stink…)

Thinking and then doing (or even just thinking) is far more rewarding than parroting orphaned statements as facts.  I hope you can see where my idea has come from and that it has excited you to do more – that’s what science and being a scientist is.  Further, I hope that one day I’ll be able to do some more experimenting and testing to prove or disprove my hypothesis – scientists find it just as interesting being wrong as being right.  That often isn’t the case with lifestyle brand bloggers.

Does that make sense to you?

Maybe our growing understanding of the microbiome will allow us to find still more ways of solving the pong problem. One can only hope!

 

 

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Parker permalink
    April 18, 2019 6:23 am

    Thanks for this and all your blog posts! This guy gave a Ted talk on smelly armpits http://www.drarmpit.com/ Also some more detail on armpit biome and how it is impacted by deodorants.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 18, 2019 7:08 am

      Thanks so much Kevin, makes lots of sense. Can’t wait to hear more from this armpit doctor!

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