Why do we sweat?
Sweating is your body’s way of dealing with excessive heat. Exercise, over-stimulated nerves (caused by anxiety or fright), fever, spicy food and external heat and humidity can all cause sweating. The sweat produced by your armpit’s sweat glands is rich in proteins, ammonia and fatty acids, and the warm, moist conditions are ideal for sweat-hungry bacteria.
While the sweat itself doesn’t smell very strong, bacteria that break the sweat down into organic compounds produce an unpleasant smell. Hair in armpits increases the surface area for bacteria, contributing to that body odour most people prefer to avoid.
Are antiperspirants bad for you?
Some people argue that the body sweats for a reason, and so antiperspirants that stop you sweating are bad. However, the adult human skin has several million sweat glands over almost your entire body, with only one per cent located in the armpits – so antiperspirants won’t cause you to overheat. They also don’t prevent perspiration completely. A standard antiperspirant may only reduce sweating by as little as 20%, while even the best ones reduce sweating by less than half.
Many people are also concerned about the aluminium in antiperspirants. Aluminium is an extremely common element, found in air, water, food, medicines, utensils and many other everyday objects and substances. It’s been linked with Alzheimer’s disease due to its accumulation in the brain tissue of Alzheimer’s patients, although it doesn’t appear to cause the disease. To put the aluminium content in antiperspirants in perspective, it’s estimated we eat about 5mg-20mg of aluminium per day, more than 99% of which is passed without being absorbed into the bloodstream. The aluminium content absorbed from antiperspirants has been measured at about four micrograms – roughly 2.5% of the amount that’s actually absorbed each day from the gut.
As for the claim that antiperspirants are the “leading cause of breast cancer” – a decade-old scare campaign still spread over the net – this myth was debunked years ago by world health authorities, who point out there is no evidence that using antiperspirant is even a risk factor for developing breast cancer, let alone a leading cause of it. Nevertheless, if you’re still concerned about using aluminium products on your skin, the alternative is a deodorant.
Triclosan is an effective antibacterial agent used in some deodorant products. However, many GPs and scientists are calling for it to be banned from cosmetic products due to concerns about its impact on bacterial resistance and natural ecosystems as well as potential endocrine-disrupting effects. Tea tree oil and silver are effective alternative antibacterial products that we recommend.
Deodorant crystals are a popular alternative among the anti-aluminium set. They contain alum, an astringent that may help reduce perspiration by shrinking or constricting pores, and may also have antibacterial properties.
What if you sweat a lot?
Hyperhidrosis is the medical name for excessive sweating, and is believed to affect about two percent of the population. People with the condition suffer in numerous embarrassing ways, including having to change clothes several times a day, feeling self-conscious when they shake hands, being unable to hold a pen properly and having damp, smelly feet. They’re also prone to dermatitis, skin rashes where sweat collects in skin folds and fungal infections such as tinea. Hyperhidrosis can be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition, and you should consult your doctor if you’re concerned about excessive sweating.
The first line of treatment is antiperspirant with a high level of aluminium chlorohydrate. Dermatologists recommend Driclor, which is available in pharmacies. You usually have to apply these to clean skin before bed when you’re less likely to sweat, to maximise absorption.
Botox injections have been successfully used to disable nerves responsible for activating sweat glands in armpits, hands and feet. However, they’re expensive (about $1000-$1500 for armpits), may produce unwanted effects in other muscles (especially when used in the hands), and the sweat-reducing effects are only temporary (about six to nine months).
Surgery to reduce the number of sweat glands in your armpits, such as liposuction or curettage, removes skin containing sweat glands; this is usually considered a last resort, as is sympathectomy (destroying the nerves responsible).
CHOICE user trial
Last year, Dove launched a new product, Dove Minimising Antiperspirant Deodorant, which promises to “reduce the prickly feeling between shaves”. A spokesperson for Unilever (which owns the Dove brand) told CHOICE it achieves the effect by coating the hair to make it feel softer and finer.
To find out whether the product lives up to its claims, we gave it to 15 women to try for five weeks. They used the Dove product under one arm, and their usual product under the other for comparison.
Of the eight women who reported feeling a prickly sensation between shaves, only three noticed a difference in the prickly feeling and said they’d buy the product in the future, while another two trialists said they’d buy it because they liked the fragrance (our trialists were given the Nature Fresh variant) and found it an effective antiperspirant.