If you’re like most American women, your typical morning routine includes a shower, brushing and flossing, and wrapping it all up in a bow with the application of a swipe or spray of deodorant. That’s before we even start with hair and makeup. In fact, a whopping 95 percent of Americans regularly use deodorant, which has made the deodorant business an $18 billion industry.
While few of us could ever imagine walking out the door without putting on deodorant, there is some compelling evidence that shows that not only is deodorant unnecessary for many, the use of deodorants and antiperspirants can even be dangerous to your health. I know, giving up deodorant or antiperspirant sounds unimaginable, but consider what scientists are discovering about their use.
The advent of the deodorant industry is relatively recent
First, let’s take a little look back on the history of deodorants and antiperspirants.
Deodorants and antiperspirants, while often dumped into the same category, are not the same thing. Deodorants are used to kill odor-producing bacteria, while antiperspirants block sweat glands to keep you from sweating. Many products today contain both.
Before the start of the 20th century, no one used deodorant or really even cared about body odor. The first deodorant ever produced was called Mum and was trademarked in 1888, and the first antiperspirant, called Everdry, was launched in 1903. At first, few actually used the new products. It wasn’t until the early to mid-1900s the use of deodorants became commonplace, and that’s thanks to a clever copywriter who was able to convince women they stunk to high-heaven and needed a remedy for that.
Advertisers took advantage of women’s insecurity
Advertisers, who became more and more adept at convincing the public they needed deodorant and antiperspirant to be attractive, first targeted women. It’s very clear how that manipulation worked when you take a look at a 1937 Mum ., which spoke to a fictitious woman — as well as to the entire population of women — who wasn’t using deodorant.
“You’re a pretty girl, Mary, and you’re smart about most things but you’re just a bit stupid about yourself… In this smart modern age, it’s against the code for a girl (or a man either) to carry the repellent odor of underarm perspiration on clothing and person. It’s a fault which never fails to carry its own punishment—unpopularity.”
The strategy of showing women that smelly pits ruined their chances to be attractive or to have a social life apparently worked. Sales of one deodorant reached $1 million . 1927, which was a huge sum in that era.
Men came under the same fire, only much later
It wasn’t until 1935 the first deodorant was developed specifically for men. Surprisingly, at the beginning of the 20th century, male body odor was considered attractive because it was a part of being masculine. “But then companies realized that 50 percent of the market was not using their products,” Cari Casteel, a history doctoral student at Auburn University, told The Smithsonian.
Since then, advertisers have used shaming to convince the entire population of men and women that part of being attractive includes the use of deodorants. It has now become a standard way of thinking for us all.
You might not even need deodorant
Some of us really do need deodorant if we’re to feel and be clean . today’s standards. No one ever wants to smell bad, even when we’re alone. I don’t know about you, but after the gym or a run, I can’t even stand to be with myself until I get a shower and slap on some deodorant. Only then do I feel like myself. Turns out, not everyone needs it, though.
You smell because the bacteria living in your armpits breaks down lipids and amino acids found in your sweat and turns them into substances that have a very distinct odor. We all know what that smell is, right? However, one study found not everyone produced the bacteria that leads to underarm odor. The study further found the majority of those who do not tend to have smelly armpits still use deodorant and/or antiperspirant.
Some people are more prone to odor
Several years ago ago, scientists discovered that a gene called ABCC11 determined whether people produced wet or dry earwax. Interestingly, people who produce the “dry” version of earwax also lack a chemical in their armpits that leads to underarm odor. “This key gene is basically the single determinant of whether you do produce underarm odor or not,” Ian Day, a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Bristol and co-author of the study, told LiveScience.
The researchers discovered 2 percent of Europeans lack the genes for smelly armpits, while most East Asians and almost all Koreans lack this gene. “They’re spending their money, exposing their skin to what may in a few instances not be good for their skin. It sort of suggests to me that there are a lot of conformists around,” Day said.
Now, I wouldn’t suggest you go testing your earwax on your own to determine if you have that smelly gene, but it is an interesting connection.
They may contain dangerous chemicals
Unfortunately, deodorants and antiperspirants may contain a whole slew of questionable ingredients, including toxic chemicals that can lead to some pretty serious health issues when absorbed through the skin. In fact, chemicals placed on your skin can be even more dangerous than if you ingested them orally.
“When you eat something, it’s broken down . your liver and digestive system,” Heather Patisaul, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University, told Time magazine. “But when you put something on your skin, there are times when it can enter your bloodstream without being metabolized.”
Questionable compounds used in some deodorants can be absorbed and stored in fat cells in the underarm area, Philip Harvey, Ph.D., editor in chief of the Journal of Applied Toxicology, told Time. In addition, there are hormone receptors in your underarm tissue, which can react to some of the ingredients in deodorants, Harvey added.
With some of the research out there, it’s clear that we really should give the same attention to what we put on our skin as we do with what we eat because much of what goes on us will end up going in us.
Regular use can potentially lead to chest cancer
A group of questionable ingredients found in some deodorants are parabens, which are used as preservatives. While these preservatives are what help prevent the growth of odor-causing bacteria, they can also mimic estrogen in the body, and extra estrogen can potentially lead to the development of chest cancers. Aluminum compounds, which are used in many antiperspirants to block the sweat ducts from producing odor-causing perspiration, have also been found to mimic estrogen.
It should be noted that not all scientists agree with these findings, but there is certainly enough evidence to make you think twice. At least one study has found women who developed chest cancer at an earlier age shaved their armpits and used deodorants more frequently and at an earlier age.