We’ve all been there: nonchalantly giving our pits a whiff after a workout or a stressful day. Could it be … me?
The good news is that if you were born with a specific gene, ABCC11, you will never stink (hooray!). The bad news: The gene is prevalent in East Asia, but rare in America. So how can the rest of us keep dreaded body odor at bay—and, what if we want to do it naturally?
The culprits of body odor
We all know when we have it, but how often do we think about what causes it? Sweat is the short answer—but not the complete one. At the most basic level, the mixing of sweat and bacteria causes odor, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Each of us has a unique odor, determined by a range of factors. And the folks who study this stuff (yep, there are people who study stench and sweat; most often they’re called organic chemists) have dug deeper to learn more about how odors can indicate deeper health issues. Sometimes how a person smells can be linked to rare conditions, such as TMAU (or trimethylaminuria), according to George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Other more common health concerns, such as diabetes and liver and kidney disorders, can also alter body and mouth odor when they are advanced or unregulated, Preti says.
Other times, it can relate to lifestyle, according to experts, who say that simple tweaks can also make a difference—and that includes assessing the foods you eat. Some preliminary evidence suggests diets heavy in certain foods, including sulfur- containing cruciferous veggies and red meat, may trigger foul smells. A low-carb diet may also be a concern, because when your body has fewer carbs to burn for energy, it burns fat, which can affect your odor.
The stress connection
These days, stress reduction seems to be a cure-all, doing everything from supporting healthy inflammation response to clearing your complexion. So it may come as no surprise that reducing stress in your life can also diminish body odor. The type of sweat you release when you’re stressed is different from the kind from a hard workout, because it comes from a different type of sweat gland (apocrine versus eccrine), Preti says.
A hard workout equals watery (and often not that smelly) sweat from eccrine glands. The apocrine glands, however, are found in your pits and release sweat when you’re struggling to meet a big deadline, arguing with a friend or running late for your kid’s school concert. These psychological stressors trigger the apocrine glands, and the resulting sweat contains a higher concentration of fat and proteins. It’s a less wet sweat but a more potent-smelling one.
Deodorants vs. antiperspirants
Although we often use these terms interchangeably, there’s a big difference between deodorants and antiperspirants. (Note: Some products function as both.) “There’s a lot of confusion in the category, and there’s one fundamental difference,” says Eric Rabichow, COO of French Transit, Ltd., a California-based company that manufactures mineral-salt deodorants. “Deodorants are considered cosmetic products because they simply control odor, while antiperspirants are regulated as drugs because they affect the body’s physiology by blocking the pores.” Deodorant quells B.O. by using ingredients that tackle odor but not sweat.
Antiperspirant blocks ducts to prevent your body from releasing sweat. These generally contain aluminum, which has become known as “the sweat blocker.”
Au naturel: How to fight body odor naturally
Sweat isn’t really the biggest villain in all of this. In fact, sweat can be your friend—releasing toxins and regulating your body temperature. But we all want to keep it in check and, more importantly, ensure it doesn’t give off an unpleasant odor.
Tackling these problems naturally doesn’t need to mean avoiding deodorant. Today there are a host of mineral and plant-based options that really do work by getting to the odor’s source, without blocking sweat or making you smell like a rental car. One important thing to note when shopping for a natural deodorant: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to inhibiting body odor.
“Different ingredients found in different antiperspirants and deodorants can impact people in different ways,” says Rabichow. “Each person’s body chemistry and bacteria on their skin is completely different, so the reaction to a specific deodorant or antiperspirant will be fairly different for each individual.”
To find what’s right for you, we recommend sampling, sampling and sampling some more until you identify a product that works well with your body chemistry.
Where to start? Mineral salts were one of the first natural alternatives and continue to be a popular one; they create a barrier that prevents odor-causing bacteria from forming on the skin. Beyond salts, many current options contain a base of arrowroot powder and/or baking soda to absorb wetness and plant-based butters and essential oils to nourish skin and neutralize odors. The charcoal craze, too, has made its way into the deodorant space to draw out impurities, as have new (and sometimes resurrected old) deliveries, including pit pastes and on-the-go wipes. As for the question of whether you need deodorant or antiperspirant … Generally, sweat is good and even necessary. So if you see a product labeled just “deodorant” (as is the case with most natural brands), it could very well get the job done.