Making an effort to smell nicer is something most of us undertake with tremendous enthusiasm around the time we hit puberty.
We quickly learn that our armpits – being just as dark, hidden, and moist as the black heart of an adolescent – have a tendency to get stinky pretty quickly, especially with raging teen hormones mucking up our body chemistry.
So, we seek to cover up that smell or prevent it from developing in the first place:
Enter ‘Teen’s First Deodorant or Antiperspirant.’
But the decision over what to use under your arms is a lot more consequential than simply choosing a product that smells appealing to you.
In fact, there’s actually a big difference between antiperspirant and deodorant – so much so that some people think it can have serious consequences to your health in the long-term.
We’ll explain more about that in a minute, but first let’s define what we’re talking about when we’re wondering what’s the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant.
Deodorant vs. antiperspirant: Why we use them
Sweating of course is a perfectly natural and necessary bodily function that serves to cool us off when we overheat. As sweat evaporates from our skin, it cools the body down.
And while it’s healthy and normal to sweat when you exercise or when you’re out in the hot sun, around 3 percent of people have a condition called hyperhidrosis, which means they sweat much more than is typical.
For these folks, leading the planning meeting at work with that PowerPoint presentation in an overheated, packed conference room means keeping their arms clamped firmly at their sides.
Otherwise they might risk the embarrassment of displaying a pair of vast lakes soaking through their shirt or blouse.
As if the smell wasn’t bad enough, nobody wants to be pegged as ‘the sweaty guy’ of the office.
Antiperspirant, deodorant, moisture, and smell
Interestingly, sweat itself isn’t what smells bad. Rather, it’s actually the bacteria on your skin that works to break down your sweat that releases an odor.
Your glands and you
The reason you sweat more in certain parts of your body is that there are two types of sweat-producing glands that are much more populous in your armpits, groin, and other hairy areas than they are on the rest of your body.
The main sweat glands are called the apocrine glands, and they’re joined by the eccine glands. Both of them release a colorless fluid when the body overheats, a fluid that’s also odorless until the bacteria living on your skin responds to it and swoops in to break it down.
So, moisture and smell are the two big negatives people associate with excessive sweating.
And when it comes to choosing what to use to deal with those issues, understanding the functional difference between deodorant and antiperspirant, and each product’s different approach to dealing with the issue of underarm sweat is the key.
Deodorant and antiperspirant: What’s the difference?
When you’re shopping in the personal hygiene aisle for an underarm product, it’s important to read the labels carefully. That’s because if you’re shopping for deodorant vs. antiperspirant, you have to understand they’re not synonymous.
In fact, you’re looking at products that have two distinct purposes and are designed to perform two different tasks.
An antiperspirant is a product that’s formulated to stop you from sweating. It’s right there in the name: anti – perspire.
Most antiperspirants use a formula that incorporates an aluminum compound of some kind, typically aluminum chloride.
Aside from making awesome beer cans, aluminum has the quality of blocking the sweat ducts, thus preventing sweat from exiting the body where it’s been applied.
An old trick for make-up departments in theater, television, and film when they are working with bald actors is to apply antiperspirant to their forehead and exposed portions of their scalp prior to their performance.
In theory this blocks or at least reduces the actor’s forehead sweat glands from pushing out sweat and ruining his make-up or otherwise affecting his appearance.
For the record, in order for antiperspirants to work effectively, manufacturers recommend applying them the night before when you go to bed. This way the sweat gland ducts are already blocked when you get up.
The antiperspirant should be effective for 24 hours.
If over-the counter antiperspirants aren’t strong enough to stop the flow, there are prescription-level antiperspirants available as well, and that raises an important point: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies antiperspirants as a drug.
According to their definition, antiperspirant fits the profile of being a drug because it’s considered a product that can ‘…affect the structure of the body.’
In a moment we’ll get to why this is an important point, and what it may mean in terms of picking a deodorant vs. antiperspirant, and what the health implications of your choice of deodorant vs. antiperspirant might be.
A deodorant is designed to do exactly what the name implies also: de-odorize, or cover up or eliminate odor.
A deodorant functions by increasing the skin’s acidity and thus reducing the ability of that stinky, sweat-eating bacteria that lives on you from multiplying and proliferating in the area.
Most deodorants are alcohol-based to amplify your skin’s acidity, making the area unfriendly to those hungry bacteria who are looking to make a meal of your sweat. Deodorants also contain perfumes or other scents to further mask the odor of any bacteria that does slip through.
Again, according to regulating agencies like the FDA, a crucial distinction between deodorant vs. antiperspirant is that deodorants are classified as a cosmetic product. That is to say, a product that is meant to ‘cleanse or beautify.’
Most people become painfully aware of this next point sometime in their lives, but just for the record, unlike antiperspirants, deodorants typically don’t last anywhere near 24 hours.
You’ve got to apply it in the morning before heading out, and for many of us, reapplication throughout the day isn’t a bad idea either.
Health issues in choosing deodorant vs. antiperspirant
Are antiperspirants safe?
There are some corners of the natural health web where you can find lots of articles regarding the health threats of antiperspirants due to the aluminum content. They usually focus on two areas: links to Alzheimer’s disease and to breast cancer.
Here’s the deal:
Aluminum and alzheimer’s
The rumor of a link between Alzheimer’s and everyday exposure to aluminum in substances like antiperspirant and household items like cookware got its start in the 1960s.
A few spotty, largely debunked studies over the subsequent decades purported to link environmental aluminum to Alzheimer’s because some patients have higher aluminum levels than is typical in their brains.
Today it’s almost an article of faith that there’s just got to be some link between antiperspirants and Alzheimer’s. However, despite true believers clinging to this notion, scientists have pretty much conclusively determined that there’s no real risk there.
Aluminum and breast cancer
Another such rumor came about regarding aluminum in antiperspirants and breast cancer. Some researchers noticed that oftentimes breast cancer appears in the upper, outer part of the breast – right near the armpit.
Other researchers suggested that since some women shave their armpits near that area, slight nicks and cuts could allow aluminum to enter the bloodstream and, over time, perhaps cause cancer.
Given that 1 in 8 women develop breast cancer and billions likely use antiperspirant, such a revelation would be earth-shattering.
However, this hypothesis too has proven to be false, according to subsequent studies, as well as other research that dissected the numerous flaws in the original work. As far as we know today, with copious research being poured into it, the aluminum in antiperspirants is not harmful when used normally.
So should I use deodorant or antiperspirant?
What the question of choosing deodorant or antiperspirant comes down to in the end is what is it you’re trying to accomplish?
If you are someone who sweats profusely and you want to prevent big, wet armpit stains on your clothing, then probably an antiperspirant is the one for you.
If, on the other hand, you don’t sweat all that much but you have a funky odor, then steer toward the deodorant section.
Keep in mind too that we can assume logically that if you use an antiperspirant you will have a secondary effect of having reduced odor.
That’s simply because the aluminum-based antiperspirant will prevent sweat, which will reduce the number of bacteria that are attracted to the area, thus reducing the odor they release.
Antiperspirant versus deodorant: Why decide?
Today, we can pretty safely say that neither antiperspirant nor deodorant is harmful, so there’s no reason you can’t have both.
Many products market themselves as hybrid antiperspirant/deodorants these days. If you aren’t sure which one a product might be, check the label for aluminum compounds.
Usually if it’s an antiperspirant, aluminum chloralhydrate or aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly will be the first ingredient.