This summer has been HOT! With heatwaves sweeping through many regions, chances are you’ve been feeling the heat these past few weeks — and the sweat. Most of us Americans have been trained to view sweat as a bad thing and turn to products to stop it, but many of these products can be harmful to our health. In this guide, we explore some basic questions about sweat, like why do people sweat? And why does sweat smell bad? Plus, we look at the risks of conventional antiperspirants and deodorants and what to look for in non-toxic deodorant.
Why Do People Sweat?
Sweat can seem pretty gross and embarrassing and like something you wish would just go away, but sweat actually plays a really important role in your body’s functioning. That means that when you use products that stop sweat (i.e., antiperspirants, which literally means “against perspiration,” aka sweating) you interfere with that role.
Here’s the deal: just by existing in the world, toxins accumulate in your body. And in this day and age, the number of toxins you’re exposed to is the highest it’s ever been. Fortunately, our body naturally works to detoxify our systems and expel these toxins through pee, poop, and — you guessed it — sweat.
Your lymph nodes, some of which are located in your underarms, are one of the body’s major detoxification centers. What’s more, certain things in your body need to be removed by your lymph nodes. They won’t exit any other way. That means that when you’re using an antiperspirant to prevent your sweat from escaping through your underarm sweat glands, those toxins stay inside your body.
Beyond removing toxins, sweat also regulates body temperature. Stress, exercise, heightened emotion, infections, or being in a hot environment can all raise your core body temperature, which can cause your body to stop functioning normally (hello, fevers!). Sweat helps us cool off, so we can return to a healthy temperature.
Why Does Sweat Smell Bad?
Okay, so sweat is important. But why does it have to stink?? Well, just like your gut microbiome, your skin microbiome contains a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria, and this is especially true in your armpits and pubic area.
So the…er….fragrance you smell is just your sweat interacting with the bacteria on your skin’s surface. (And because all of us have unique microbiomes — affected by things like genetics, diet, environmental exposures, and antibiotic use — some people’s sweat smells stronger than others.)
While sweat may be essential, none of us want to worry about our B.O. during busy days. Most people turn to antiperspirants and deodorants to solve the smell problem…but let’s look at what that means for your body.
The Health Risks of Antiperspirant and Deodorant
Antiperspirants, as we said, block toxins from leaving your body, which is a major problem. But wait, there’s more! Antiperspirants are usually aluminum-based, and aluminum can be absorbed through the skin. This is concerning given that aluminum is a known body toxin and has been linked to increased breast cancer risk in studies. So when you use an aluminum-based antiperspirant, the body’s main response to it is chronic inflammation, which is the body’s way of fighting off or rejecting incoming toxins.
Chronic inflammation from constant exposure to toxins like aluminum can harm the body in the short term and long term by eventually causing plaque buildup in blood vessels, heart attack, stroke, or tissue damage due to lack of blood flow. In other words, all antiperspirants are big no-nos for your health. Luckily, stopping exposure to aluminum should be enough to reverse most of the damage within a month.
Deodorants, on the other hand, let your sweat out while masking the odor. So they should be fine, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Some deodorants have other toxic ingredients that can cause chronic inflammation, like:
- Aluminum (yes, it’s in some deodorants as well)
- Parabens: These are endocrine disruptors, having been shown in studies to disrupt human hormones.
- Triclosan: This antimicrobial agent can lead to reproductive issues, and the FDA has banned its use in soap (yet somehow it’s allowed to exist in other personal care products?).
- Phthalates: These industrial chemicals can damage the liver, kidney, and reproductive system.
- Chemical fragrances: A loophole in the regulation means that brands don’t need to disclose what chemicals they’re using to create a smell, so tons of harmful ingredients can be hiding under the label “fragrance.”
Additionally, deodorants can do damage to your gut health: a 2016 study found that regular use of deodorant significantly altered the users’ armpit microbiome, effectively making them dependent on using deodorant every day to maintain a balance of good and bad bacteria.
Non-Toxic, Non-Deodorant Ways to Stifle the Stank
Oy, that’s a lot to keep track of. Luckily, there are plenty of natural, non-toxic deodorant options. That means you can battle B.O. while still allowing your body to remove toxins through sweat and without putting other inflammation-contributing ingredients into your lymph nodes like synthetic or chemical fragrances. We’re not going to get into epigenetics here, so we’ll focus on the other two contributing factors: hygiene and diet.
First up, hygiene. Here are some simple, tried-and-true ways to reduce odor:
- Wipe down your armpits (in the shower or just at the sink!)
- Apply a few drops of vinegar, tea tree oil, or witch hazel to clean underarms. They’re natural antibacterial agents and sterilizers that can reduce stink-causing bacteria.
Next, diet. Turns out, your body odor can be worse after consuming certain foods. The biggest culprits are:
- Red meat: The amino acids in red meat leave a residue in your intestines during digestion, and when that residue mixes with the bacteria on your skin, it creates an odor.
- Strong spices: Don’t get us wrong, spices are great! But if you have a B.O. problem, consider cutting down, and see if it helps.
- High sulfur or allium foods like broccoli, cabbage, onion, and garlic.
- Processed foods: They raise your cholesterol and lack the important molecule chlorophyll, which helps aromatize bad smells in the body.
- Alcohol: When it’s metabolized, it turns into acetic acid, which is then taken out of your body through your pores. And it smells.
Try noting how these and other foods affect your body odor, and adjust your diet accordingly.
Even if you take all of the steps listed above, the truth is that sometimes you still need some deodorant — we’re looking at you, spin class. But finding a non-toxic deodorant that actually works and is actually non-toxic (rather than just greenwashed with clever marketing) can be challenging. In fact, non-toxic deodorants are so famous for not working that their ineffectiveness has been a running cultural joke for years.
However, in more recent years, the growing wellness movement has meant that there have been major advancements in non-toxic deodorants. As more people demand non-toxic options, brands are responding with products that effectively stop odor without doing any harm to your body. In fact, Rachel Winard, who is featured on WellBe for her inspirational lupus recovery story, is the founder of Soapwalla, one of the brands putting out amazing non-toxic deodorant options.
So how can you be sure to pick a non-toxic deodorant that keeps you both healthy and smelling fresh as a spring daisy? One easy option is to check out the WellBe Non-Toxic Products database, which has an array of heavily researched and vetted non-toxic deodorants to choose from (alongside 1,200+ other products in 20 different categories).
Otherwise, you can be on the lookout for specific ingredients — both ones to avoid and ones you want. We already outlined which ingredients can be harmful to your health, but as a refresher, you should avoid aluminum, parabens, triclosan, phthalates, and chemical fragrances.
In terms of what ingredients you want, there’s a huge array of potential options. Some of the most proven and effective ingredients used in non-toxic deodorant currently are:
- Essential oils: These are a natural, non-toxic way to get a pleasant scent.
- Cornstarch: This absorbs moisture under your arms.
- Baking soda: One of the most common ingredients in non-toxic deodorants, baking soda prevents wet underarms by absorbing moisture.
- Coconut oil: Soothes and moisturizes your skin.
- Shea butter: Soothes and moisturizes your skin.
- Volcanic clay: This creative alternative to baking soda and cornstarch absorbs moisture under your arms.
- Charcoal: Another moisture absorber.
- Tea tree oil: Detoxifies and fights bad-smelling bacteria.
- Probiotics: Good bacteria that helps to fight the bad bacteria causing unpleasant odors.
When you’re looking for non-toxic deodorant options, scan the ingredient lists carefully. Make sure you only see ingredients that you recognize and don’t see any of the scary chemicals listed above.
The WellBe Takeaway: What to Remember About Sweat & Non-Toxic Deodorant
We understand that it’s hard to make the healthiest choices all the time and that it’s much easier (and sometimes cheaper) to just stick with the conventional deodorant you’ve always used. But your long-term health really matters, and both antiperspirant and conventional deodorant can take a serious toll on your body. So here’s what to remember to protect your health while also smelling great:
- Sweat is an essential human bodily function. Our lymph nodes help us process and get rid of the toxins we encounter throughout the day, and sweat is one of the most important pathways for eliminating those toxins.
- Antiperspirant is bad for you for two reasons: First, it prevents you from sweating, which means the toxins stay in your body. Second, most antiperspirants are aluminum-based, and aluminum is a known body toxin.
- Conventional deodorants also carry health risks, containing ingredients that have been linked to organ damage and hormone disruption.
- To reduce odor naturally, focus on tweaking your diet and hygiene.
- If you want to get a non-toxic deodorant, the WellBe Non-Toxic Products database has highly vetted and researched options (that actually work!). Otherwise, carefully read ingredient lists to make sure the deodorant doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals.
Do you have a favorite non-toxic deodorant? Tell us in the comments below!
- Mandriota, S. et al. Aluminium chloride promotes tumorigenesis and metastasis in normal murine mammary gland epithelial cells. Molecular Cancer Biology. 19 August 2016.
- Nowak, K. et al. Parabens and their effects on the endocrine system. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2018 Oct 15.
- Weatherly, L. et al. Triclosan exposure, transformation, and human health effects. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2017;20(8):447-469.