As the weather warms up, the sweat begins to pour. This two-part series looks at body odour, deodorants and road tests a few natural alternatives. Just want to see how natural deodorants rate? Jump straight to the review.
What causes body odour?
We’re quick to blame sweat for causing body odour (BO) but the protein and fat laden fluid that our sweat glands release to cool us down, actually doesn’t have much of a smell.
While there are sweat glands in many parts of the body when it comes to BO, the focus tends to be on the underarms. The skin and naturally occurring hair under our arms, is host to many harmless bacteria, that feed on the protein and fat in sweat, converting it to acids. These acids combined with oxygen in the air, can quickly turn inoffensive sweat into not so pleasant BO.
Does all sweat smell bad?
Not all odour is offensive. Sweat also contain hormones (pheromones) with barely detectable aroma, that send signals to others around us. This has spawned a lot of research into sweat and how our unique odour can trigger differing reactions in others depending on our immune system, sexuality, medication and the menstrual cycle.
The science behind pheromones explains why sometimes fresh or even old sweat smells delicious to some, but repulsive to others.
Despite pheromones, unfortunately some body odours are offensive. So what commonly causes BO?
Hygiene is an obvious place to start. Not just a good wash of the armpits every day, but think twice about throwing on yesterday’s sweaty t-shirt. Sometimes the lingering odour is from unlaundered clothes, not the pits.
Diet can impact the pungency of our odour. Spicy food is often seen as a culprit, however diets high in animal products or sugar can cause a less pleasant odour. Protein, fat and sugar feed the bacteria, causing it to multiply and create more acid.
Medications, including antidepressants and hormonal contraceptives, can cause noticeable body odour. As does drinking a lot of alcohol.
Research suggests that for some, eating meat can change how we smell. In one quirky study, women consistently rated the body odour from non-meat eaters as more attractive and masculine, but less intense, than that of their meat-eating counterpart.
Medical conditions that alter how we smell
Some serious health conditions change our odour and this can be a useful diagnostic tool for an experienced practitioner. Different aromas may suggest diseases such as diabetes, hormonal or thyroid dysfunction.
In rare cases, a characteristic fishy smell may be caused by a rare genetic disorder (trimethylaminuria).
Someone presenting with strong body odour without those conditions, who has a healthy diet; taking no medication, recreational drugs, smoking or alcohol – may lead a naturopath to look closer at their other elimination organs. The kidneys, lungs, lymph and digestive system, can impact the skin’s ability to function and possibly the proportion of protein and fat in sweat.
The problem with fragrances
Historically, in the days before plumbing – when bathing or showering was considered a luxury, people got in the habit of masking unsavoury odours fragrances.
Now we’re bombarded with some natural but mostly lab-derived compounds scenting most every day products that we use on our body. They’re also in the tissues we blow our nose on, cleaning and laundry products, and air fresheners increasingly found in homes, cars and workplaces.
A recent study found that at least one in three Australians are sensitive to fragrances. The adverse health effects from fragranced products, range from breathing problems, migraine headaches, skin irritation to asthma.
To perspire or deodorise?
“Deodorants”, the things we apply to our underarms to stop them smelling, are really two different types of products.
Antiperspirants use chemical agents that plug up the sweat glands. Aluminium salts are most commonly used and interact with the rising pH on the skin precipitating the aluminium out to block the skin’s pores.
Deodorants use scent to mask the odour but don’t prevent sweating.
Many antiperspirants and deodorants also contain antibacterial agents, to try to kill off the bacteria that creates odour. Natural products often use antibacterial essential oils, which also have a pleasant deodorising aroma. Of the chemical antibacterial agents, one of the most controversial is triclosan. If nothing else make sure your antiperspirant, soap, hand wipes and toothpaste do not contain it. While triclosan was recently banned from use in body products in the US, to date Australia has not followed the FDA’s lead.
Are antiperspirants dangerous?
Have you seen the memes – “antiperspirants cause breast cancer and Alzheimer’s”? The answer is we really don’t know but the evidence to date has been disputed on both accounts. Parabens, in some antiperspirants, has also come into question especially in regards to oestrogen-dependent cancers.
From a naturopathic perspective we consider sweat, particularly from the armpits, which house important lymph glands, to be part of our natural bodily function. Sweating helps us regulate heat and helps cool us down. While we don’t have definitive evidence that plugging up the sweat glands is dangerous to our health, it must impact our elimination system to some small extent.
In my mini review of natural deodorants, you won’t find any “crystal” or “rock” type of deodorants. These are the ones that use “alum” in some form. Potassium alum, like most metals, occurs naturally in a rock form and are commonly used in medicine for centuries. But any form of alum works exactly the same as aluminium chlorohydrate and aluminium-zirconium tetrachlorohydrate in conventional deodorants, to ‘plug’ the sweat pores.
If your “natural” deodorant stops you from sweating, it will contain alum or something similar.
Natural tips for helping you smell sweet
If you have trouble keeping odour under control – and your GP has given you the all clear for diabetes, hormone, liver, kidney and thyroid problems – try some of the following tips:
- Avoid wearing synthetic tops, they tend to promote sweating and trap the odour in the fabric.
- Drink at least two litres of plain water each day.
- Take a break from tea, coffee, smoking, alcohol, meat and sugar.
- Eat more vegetables and fragrant herbs like parsley, mint and fennel.
- Add a couple of drops of lemon, lavender or tea tree essential oil (natural antibacterials) to a bottle of natural liquid soap, for your daily armpit wash.
- If you have hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) or struggle with menopause, consider booking a naturopathic consultation to explore more options.
Read part two for my mini review of natural deodorants. Which ones pass the test?
Kate Grenville, The Case Against Fragrance