Toxins in our Deodorants? It’s the Pits!

Most of us use deodorant without thinking twice about what we are putting under our arms. As long as it masks the smell of body odour, we’ll gladly lather whatever type of product on to this hyper sensitive region of our body.

This runs at complete odds to what some evolutionary biologists have been proffering about the survival of our species in conjunction with bodily hygiene at a critical time of our existence. It is now firmly accepted that one of the reasons we managed to survive the wild those many years ago at the dawn of the age of Homo sapiens- was because we smelled so rancid, our scent literally told would-be predators that we were unpalatable. We smelled so bad in fact, that none of the other creatures ever came near us (except maybe those that had a cold or a blocked nose)!

Being dirty and smelly saved our species from extinction. But yet nowadays we reel in disgust if someone raises their armpit and their body smell proceeds to waft through the ether into our nasal passageways.

Now we spray and smear artificial chemicals to mask this once life-saving smell. A truly bizarre cultural development.

Our armpits are home to several dozen lymph nodes – and lymph nodes are important! We want them operating optimally. Lymph nodes are present in groups throughout our body. They are important filter stations (nodes) for our elaborate immunological network, where bacteria, viruses, fungi or abnormal cells travelling in the lymphatics are trapped, killed and presented to white blood cells who then become primed to identify these in the peripheral blood (the lymphatics are the part of our immune system that circulates in tandem with our blood) – preventing dangerous infections from spreading.

This process is impeded when we apply most commercial deodorants.

The word deodorant stems from “de” (take away) and “odor” (smell) which isn't as obvious as it may appear in hindsight, taking the spelling into account (two guesses which country  invented the term “deodorant” – the spelling of ‘odour’ kind of gives it away).

Why Do We Smell When We Sweat?

Body odour is actually caused by various bacterial species replicating and then decaying in our sweat glands – utilising chemicals in our sweat to make foul smelling molecules like butyric acid (smells like rotting eggs) and propionic acid (old cheese).

Sweating is an essential bodily process, useful as it cools the body when it becomes too hot. Most of our sweat evaporates without causing odour because sweat on its own is odourless. However, the area under our armpits harbours the sweat for prolonged periods, due to the way armpits are anatomically enclosed by our body posture and this results in a moist environment that bacteria love and thrive in (unless we work as a sign holder; that is, with our arms constantly in the air).

Contrary to popular opinion, sweating does not release toxins from our system. All sweat contains the same primary ingredients: sodium, chloride, potassium and mostly water. Trace elements of certain toxins have been observed in some sweat samples, yet these are negligible.

A Brief History of the Underarm Deodorant and Human Body Odour Prevention

The ancient Egyptians are credited with having invented scented bathing as far back as 5000 years ago. The ancient Greeks then copied them; the philosopher poet Homer (not Simpson, the guy who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey) was credited back in 850 BCE as saying that: “the proper Hellenic host offered his guests a bath and aromatic oils.” Hear, hear Homer.

The Romans continued this tradition of bathing and generally being aware of bodily smells. This habit of bathing and attempting to mask bodily odours though, fell with Rome in 500 CE or thereabouts.

Humans went back to smelling foul during the Middle Ages, mainly due to the church labeling nudity as being “sinful” – hereby rendering the concept of “having a bath” in the same realm as making a pact with the devil.

The World’s first Deodorant

It was until the 9th century, when under-arm deodorants hit the scene. The Muslim teacher and poet Ziryab invented and introduced them in Baghdad – but these were only used by the ‘initiated’. Incidentally Ziryab also valued morning and evening baths and emphasised the maintenance of personal hygiene – he was also credited with inventing toothpaste – though some historians dispute this (bless those historians).

The sweat gland was discovered in the late 18th century and then some years later bacteria were discovered to be the culprit of the smell. Then in 1888, the first commercial deodorant, Mum, was developed and patented by an American inventor,  whose name has been lost to history (which is bizarre – seeing we know verbatim what Homer said 3000 years ago and Ziryab’s feats 1000 years ago).

Crafty advertisement people then convinced America that underarm smell was akin to blasphemy and that they would never get married or find a job if they didn’t put Mum under their arms (this worked effectively during the depression when most were out of work) –  it only took a couple of years until the whole show really took off. I mean, really took off! The deodorant market is now worth $18 billion dollars!!

The aim of these deodorants was to kill off the odour-causing bacteria and this is where we encounter our first problem. The substances employed to kill off bacteria, are presumably also not so good for us.

So what’s in a Commercial Deodorant, typically?

You sure you want to know this? Ok, here we go – we’ll start out with the milder substances:

Propylene glycol was originally developed as an anti-freeze. It is a proven neurotoxin that has been implicated in a variety of other health conditions including kidney and liver damage and contact dermatitis. People who work with propylene glycol are traditionally urged to avoid any skin contact as it “may cause nausea, headache, vomiting, gastrointestinal irritation, depression as well eye and skin irritation,

In order to adjust pH levels, deodorant manufacturers add triethanolamine and diethanolamine to the mix. Diethanolamine has been shown to cause and exacerbate kidney and liver damage.  Triethanolamine  causes severe allergic reactions. The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) has already restricted use of either compound as they have recently been shown to promote abnormal cell growth.

Triclosan is the agent used by most deodorant manufacturers to kill the bacteria on the skin. It is a skin irritant and may cause contact dermatitis. Recent studies suggest this chemical may disrupt thyroid function and other critical hormone systems. The American Medical Association recommends that triclosan and other “antibacterial” products not be used in the home, as they may encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics that can allow resistant strains to flourish.

The active ingredient in most antiperspirant deodorants are aluminium-based compounds such as aluminium chloride or aluminium chlorhydrate. These compounds physically block our sweat glands to keep sweat from getting through to the surface of the skin. Disrupting the natural cooling effect of  sweating- meaning our body can’t cool down effectively. Clinical research has shown that these compounds are absorbed by the skin and enter our blood stream. Aluminium-based compounds can affect oestrogen receptors, particularly of breast cells – located in close proximity to the arm pits resulting in increased oestrogen levels. Over-production of oestrogen is linked to abnormal cell growth – which can have devastating knock on effects in the body.

Parabens are added to many beauty and cosmetic products because they are potent anti-bacterial agents. Clinical studies have suggested they can affect fertility if absorbed in large enough concentrations because, just as with aluminium, they affect oestrogen levels in our body.

Not good!

How to Smell Good without Deodorant

The body odour of healthy, fit people is not malodorous. So get healthy and fit. Also, if you are really worried about the smell of your body odour, eat healthy food!

Simple as that.

Focus on a diet that is full of fruits and dark leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds; cut back – preferably, eliminate completely – all foods that have been processed. Stop eating meat for a while. Meat tends to not be fully assimilated and proceeds to rot in the intestines as it is being slowly pushed along the nearly 8 metres of both intestines – have you ever smelled rotting meat? Exactly.

Exercise plenty.

As mentioned, some foods are so pungent that they can lead to excessive body odour if the liver isn’t eliminating their by-products optimally. A two-week hiatus from alcohol and a liver detox could solve this! You’ll know which foods these are, as they smell pretty bad when they are on the supermarket shelf.

It could be that excessive microbial growth is the cause of the bad odours. All microbial populations living in our body are connected – if the bacteria on our skin are out of whack it may be that we don’t have enough beneficial bacterial growth in our gut – if this is the case, it may make sense to supplement with probiotics.

Natural Alternatives

We don’t need to kill bacteria with artificial compounds that aren’t found in nature. If we want to mask our natural smell then we can become crafty and make our own. Take a little coconut oil and mix in some tea tree, lemon or sage – the last three of which all have proven anti-bacterial properties. Adding coconut oil to tea tree oil adds a nice scent as well as taking the sting off the tea tree oil (which may burn a little if applied under the armpit on its own – same goes for lemon).

If you don’t feel creative enough to make your own, there are some excellent 100% natural deodorant options available.

Commercial Deodorants: A Serious Health Risk?

Though this article has been framed with a little humour, the topic is far from it.

We cannot forget: Our skin is permeable. The skin under arm pits is highly permeable and more sensitive than the rest of the skin covering our body.

Whatever we put on our skin’s surface will eventually accumulate within our body and our blood will circle this throughout our system, it will ultimately affect our well-being. Most of the compounds these deodorants employ have never existed on planet Earth. Until we invented them.

This means that our species has never been exposed to these compounds on such a wholesale level.

We are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of clinical research into commercial deodorants and their long term effects on the subtle biochemical processes occurring in our body. So until we know for sure, it may just make sense to err on the side of caution and not use them?

To Smell or not to Smell: Let’s Take a Look at your Ear Wax Shall We?

About 3 years ago, scientists discovered a gene (the ABCC11 gene) that determined whether people produced wet or dry earwax. Well, it turns out that those people who produce the flaky, dry version of earwax also seemingly lack the chemical in sweat that the bacteria feed on to cause underarm odour! Unfortunately those that produce the dark orange, wet ear wax, have this chemical.

Interestingly many people in eastern Asia are missing this gene, and in Korea it seems the entire population lack it!

No one knows exactly why this gene’s prevalence varies so much between people, but its absence in eastern Asia kind of suggests that being smelly was selected against at some point in our evolution.

So check your ears people! You may not need deodorant at all.

And to the rest of us, go natural or go smelly.. lest that tiger on the prairie devour us whole!

by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology

Darbre PH. Underarm antiperspirants/deodorants and breast cancer. Breast Cancer Research 2009; 11 “Aluminium in human breast tissue” Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, Volume 101, Issue 9, September 2007, Pages 1344–1346
Smith KW et al. Predictors and variability of urinary paraben concentrations in men and women, including before and during pregnancy. Environmental Health Perspectives 2012 Nov; 120(11): 1538-43
Heisterberg MV et al. Deodorants are the leading cause of allergic contact dermatitis to fragrance ingredients. Contact Dermatitis 2011 May; 64(5): 258-64
Ye X et al. Parabens as urinary biomarkers of exposure in humans.
Darbre PD. Aluminum, antiperspirants and breast cancer. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 2005 Sep; 99(9): 1912-19

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