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  • Writer's pictureThe Pink Elephant Lady

The Science of Stink: Rashes from Deodorant

My customers often tell me one (or both) of the following: 1) They've tried EVERY natural deodorant on the market, and none of them work, or 2) They developed a painful rash from a brand they've used in the past.

Why don't most natural deodorants work?

The first one is fairly easy to explain: most (not all) 'natural' deodorants are basically the same: read the labels of the deodorants you see at Whole Foods or the craft fair/farmers market and you'll see coconut oil, arrowroot starch, cornstarch, maybe baking soda, shea butter and/or cocoa butter and some sort of fragrance; maybe an essential oil or two. Google "homemade deodorant", and the results are all some variation of these ingredients, promising "this REALLY works!" Most of these ingredients are pretty easy to get - they might even be in your pantry already. And they DO work - for some people.

Diet affects body odor, no doubt about it. If your diet is poor, you may have more issues with body odor. Seems there is a special kind of funk that develops from diets high in refined sugar and simple starches. My theory is that the people writing the blog entries about making homemade deodorant probably lean towards the crunchy side and are eating pretty healthy diets, so their recipe works - for them.

Bacteria causes body odor (more on that later in the blog) - and for most people, coconut oil simply doesn't cut the mustard when it comes to killing the bacteria that cause, ahem, 'pit rot', if you will.

Is there such thing as a rash from 'pit detoxing'?

As far as rashes go, the 'pit detox' theory, i.e., the idea that your pits are just detoxing from all those toxic ingredients you've been using - is basically a bunch of hooey. Your dermatologist will probably agree that there's no such thing as a 'detox rash'. Further, self-diagnosing a pit rash as a detox rash can lead to ignoring more serious conditions, such as a fungal problem or bacterial infection. As with a rash anywhere on the body, a pit rash can be a symptom of an underlying condition - people with HIV or diabetes can be prone to armpit rashes. If the skin is broken, infection can develop. However, if you've recently changed deodorants, you develop a rash, you stop using the deodorant, and the rash goes away, you've probably found the culprit!

What is it in the deodorant that causes the rash?

Common causes of deodorant-induced pit rashes from natural deodorants are formulations with too much baking soda in them, and formulations that use either too much essential oil or use an essential oil that really shouldn't be used on the skin. Baking soda is alkaline while human sweat is mildly acid, so generally the two neutralize each other unless there's too much baking soda in the deodorant you're using. If the skin's pH becomes too alkaline or too acidic, it can cause skin disorders such as dermatitis and can also increase body odor. (By the way, there's really no such thing as a baking soda 'allergy'; rashes caused by baking soda are irritant contact dermatitis, not allergic contact dermatitis).

If you've always used an antiperspirant and have switched to a natural deodorant, bottom line is your pits are going to be sweatier. Moisture and friction can certainly cause a rash ; this type of rash is called intertrigo. Talc-free body powder can help to absorb moisture in the armpits. Here's an article which describes all kinds of pit rashes in detail (with pictures - brace yourself!)

Conventional deodorants can contain aluminum, alcohol, and synthetic fragrance; any of these can be a culprit in rashes. Further, the FDA does not require companies to reveal what ingredients are in 'fragrance'; it's a catch-all term. Fragrance ingredients are considered 'proprietary information' - there no telling what's in fragrance. Some studies show auminum may be linked to Alzheimer's disease, and that many of the ingredients found in synthetic fragrance may be linked to cancer (more on that later!)

A class action lawsuit is pending against Proctor and Gamble regarding its Old Spice deodorant line; consumers claim the product(s) caused chemical burns and rashes. Yikes!

So, Where Does Pit Funk Come From, Anyway?

A little background: human skin has two types of sweat glands: the apocrine glands and the eccrine glands. The apocrine glands are located in areas of the body that have hair follicles such as the scalp, armpits and pubic region (this helps explain why the sweat on your face doesn't smell as funky as your pit sweat!). These apocrine glands secrete a fatty substance into the gland's tubule. Under emotional stress, the tubule will contract and secrete sweat onto the skin's surface. Hot temperatures cause the autonomic nervous system to activate the eccrine glands. They secret salty fluid onto the skin where it cools the body as it evaporates.

When sweat reaches the surface of the skin, bacteria will immediately begin to break it down. This is one of the primary causes of body odor. Sweat and other secretions don’t actually smell bad! Sweat, sebaceous, and apocrine glands secrete volatile organic compounds, and odors arise when these "VOCs" interact with bacteria on the skin, in hair follicles, and in the mouth.

According to the Mayo Clinic, other things can also affect body odor such as your diet, your mood, your menstrual cycle, medication and your state of health.

My body odor smells like ammonia. Is that normal?

In a nutshell, NO. It's your body's way of telling you something's amiss. Read more about ammonia-scented sweat here:

Is there a link between breast cancer and conventional cosmetics and deodorants? Why does breast cancer occur most frequently in the upper outer quadrant? "The reasons why breast cancer occurs more frequently in the UO quadrant are not clear. One study reported that the high proportion of UO quadrant breast carcinomas was a reflection of the greater amount of breast tissue in this quadrant. Another study found a disproportional annual increase in breast cancer in the UO quadrant, and that the proportion of UO quadrant breast cancer was the highest in the youngest age group, and it was postulated that the high rate of UO cancer might be related to the increasing use of cosmetics applied to the adjacent underarm and upper breast area."

The American Cancer Society pretty much says all of this is bunk - both the aluminum/deodorant/cancer link and the link between application of cosmetic ingredients and breast cancer. And parabens? Those are cool, too. According to the ACS, "there are no clear health risks from parabens in food, drugs, cosmetics, and skin care products". And who started these "rumors about antiperspirants and breast cancer"? According to the ACS, " We do know that this rumor has been posted on some websites that sell deodorants that are not antiperspirants, so some people might benefit financially from spread of this misinformation". Um....okay. It couldn't possibly be the case that some of us non-toxic product manufacturers remain unconvinced that toxins in personal care products don't play a role in disease? And it couldn't possibly be the case that we consider it our mission to educate the consumer? Hmmm.....

Our deodorant works better because it's made better

Our deodorant contains ingredients that are scientifically proven to kill the bacteria that cause body odor. We do not use baking soda in our formulation. Like all our products, our deodorants are free of synthetic fragrance and hormone-disrupting chemicals. ALL ingredients in our formulation are rated #1 in the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database. Ready to make the switch? See you on the aluminum free side!

Sources for more information:

Consult a qualified health practitioner for medical advice. No information in this article and no product we sell is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any illness or disease, and should not be interpreted as such.

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