If you think that fall’s sweater weather is to blame for a sudden bout of itchy, red armpits, don’t sell that wool turtleneck just yet. Your deodorant might be the culprit. Dermatologists have long known that the chemicals in your favorite deodorants and antiperspirants can make that tender skin feel like it’s on fire. “That’s because the openings of the hair follicles make this vulnerable part of your body more porous, and the skin rubs together,” explains Adam Friedman, MD, associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Dermatologists say patients usually come in with two complaints: irritation from antiperspirants and allergic reactions from fragrance in deodorants. “Irritation hurts and can occur within an hour. It’s dark red or pink and looks like a sunburn,” says Friedman. “But with allergic dermatitis, it takes a couple of hours for your immune system to respond. You get swelling and intense itching, and you can see fluid weeping,” he explains.
The Great Deodorant Dilemma
Health experts aren’t just focused on the immediate agony that can land you in the doctor’s office. The chemicals in deodorants and antiperspirants have gained attention recently over their longer-term health risks. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that phthalates (the compounds that help scents stick to your skin) and parabens (the preservatives that stop the growth of bacteria) might interfere with hormones and can cause infertility.
The EWG, along with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, are urging doctors to warn their female patients who are or want to become pregnant to avoid over-exposure to these chemicals. And last but not least, researchers have been studying whether there’s a link between the antiperspirant ingredient, aluminum, and breast cancer, although the American Cancer Society has pointed out that the findings are inconclusive. Such concerns even prompted Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to introduce legislation in Congress last May that requires cosmetics companies to disclose their ingredient lists to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Should You Go Natural?
“There is absolutely no evidence that antiperspirants are dangerous to the general public.”
Before you break out the baking soda paste or splurge on that fancy all-natural lavender deodorant, many dermatologists say that most drugstore deodorants and antiperspirants are generally safe.
“Internet rumors of issues with aluminum zirconium and similar antiperspirant ingredients are just that — rumors. The ingredient is not absorbed past the sweat glands,” explains Heidi A Waldorf, MD, a dermatologist based in Nanuet, New York and associate clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine of Mount Sinai. “There is absolutely no evidence that antiperspirants are dangerous to the general public,” Waldorf says.
How to Choose the Right Deodorant for You
Here are a few expert tips to help protect your pits and still control your body odor.
1. Put on moisturizer first.
Since the goal of antiperspirants is to ward off wetness, many products can dry out the area and cause eczema. “Unfortunately, many patients apply it beyond the underarm hollow, and many formulations then cause red itchy, scaly patches in the surrounding skin,” says Waldorf. She recommends applying a moisturizer to the outside skin first and then using just enough of the antiperspirant over the area where the hair grows. Or opt for a product that includes moisturizers, such as Dove’s solid antiperspirant for sensitive skin.
2. Choose the right aluminum.
Dermatologists saw a drop in patients suffering from irritation when many antiperspirant brands switched from the ingredient aluminum chloride to aluminum zirconium, which is less bothersome. But some brands, such as Certain Dri or clinical strength formulations, still use the more irritating aluminum chloride, which binds with the sweat to clog pores.
“Read the ingredient label,” advises Friedman. “The safest ones to use are purely antiperspirants made of just aluminum zirconium without additives, fragrance or alcohol. I like Degree.” If you’re already in pain, he suggests getting a prescription topical steroid. The second best option is soothing the skin with an ointment with minimal ingredients like Vaseline.
3. Forget the fragrance.
Who needs to smell like a pina colada or baby nursery, anyway? For people with sensitive skin, Waldorf recommends avoiding perfumed deodorant altogether. In fact, one Danish study found that deodorants were the leading cause of allergic contact dermatitis to fragrance ingredients. If you’re already in the throes of a reaction, your best chance of relief is a topical steroid. (And stop using the offending product, obviously.) If you can’t get to a dermatologist right away, try using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone formula with a colloidal oatmeal soak, adds Friedman. (Aveeno makes one.) Make sure to seek medical care if there’s a blister or bleeding.
You can avoid putting any products on your pits by getting Botox injections under your arms. The FDA approved the muscle-freezing agent in 2004 to control excessive sweating, and your insurance might cover it. A dermatologist will make 10 to 15 small injections in your underarm with a thin needle, and within a few weeks or so, you should see a difference. “Botox injections are commonly used to reduce sweating to avoid embarrassing sweat stains before special events like weddings or award presentations,” says Waldorf. “Most do it once or twice a year.”
The Bottom Line
If you’re developing reactions to the brand you’ve been using for decades, it might be time for a change. It’s common to suddenly develop sensitivities, as we get older, Friedman says. In that case, you might need to see an allergist to find out what’s bothering you. In the meantime, he recommends trying another trusted brand. “Go with the ones that have been around forever,” says Friedman. “They have the resources to test their products and make sure they’re safe over time.”