A new study shows that antiperspirants can kill off good bacteria in your armpit – but the truth is, we don’t need to can them quite yet
Should we worry about the latest news that deodrant kills off natural bacteria under our arms? Or should our greater concern be that everyone else will ditch their deodorants before us? As if rush hour on public transport wasn’t punishment enough. Caution is key here.
The fuss about deodorants is based on a new study that recruited just 18 people for “armpit community sampling”. The researchers analysed the normal bacteria growing on the armpit skin of three groups of men and women. The group that regularly used antiperspirants (deodorants that contain aluminium products to reduce sweat) had fewer bacteria in their armpits. People who usually used them but stopped for a few days developed more bacteria. These are non-pathogenic bacteria that live on the skin and don’t cause disease.
The question is whether having fewer or different bacteria living in your armpits is harmful to your overall health. There is growing scientific awareness about the human microbiota: the mass of bacteria and fungi that live on our skin, as well as in our saliva and guts, and play a vital role in maintaining good health. Overuse of antibiotics can disturb the microbiota, undermine its role as a natural defence barrier and contribute to gut conditions such as Crohn’s disease.
So taking care of our microbiota in general is a good idea. But there isn’t enough evidence – from this tiny study or otherwise – to avoid deodorants yet, despite them being linked to illnesses in the past.
Can we say for certain that antiperspirants are safe? The scientific consensus at present says there is no evidence of a link to cancer. There has been debate about the role of aluminium in Alzheimer’s disease. As yet, there is no convincing link, and no evidence that we absorb significant levels of aluminium from using antiperspirant on unbroken skin.
Grete Brauten-Smith, a clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, is reassuring. “There is no conclusive evidence that deodorants and antiperspirants cause breast cancer, so women can continue to use these products without worry.”
Deodorants and antiperspirants are probably as safe as the other chemicals we use on our bodies: soap, shower gel, perfumes and moisturisers. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to demonise one set of chemicals over another. It makes sense not to use any products on broken skin, and to stop using them if you develop allergic reactions.
But do we really need these chemicals to keep us fresh? Depending on how much you sweat, yes. Undoubtedly, some people are smellier than others. You may smell of cigarettes, pungent spices, garlic or various stale secretions. Body odour is the result of bacteria breaking down sweat. If you perspire a lot and don’t wear deodorant, wash or change your clothes much, you’ll know about it. So will those around you. If that’s OK with you, fine – just don’t use this research to justify it.
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