Our bodies are designed to sweat for a reason. It’s how we rid ourselves of toxins and cool ourselves down. Yet as many as 90% of Americans slather on deodorants and antiperspirants as part of our post-puberty hygiene routine.
We know that these products achieve the desired effects of curbing unwanted body odor and reducing underarm moisture, but could we be doing more harm than good when it comes to stopping the sweat?
“On our skin, just like in our mouth, it is the good bacteria’s job to keep the odor-causing bacteria in check.”
How the hygiene products we use affect our microbes
Whether you realize it or not, our modern-day hygiene products have a major influence on the communities of microbes that live on and within our bodies.
The artificial ingredients in many kinds of toothpastes, mouthwashes, lotions, and even those your daily deodorant stick are designed to wipe out undesirable bacteria - which can be helpful if you want to quickly freshen your breath or temporarily eradicate body odor.
However, many of these products also have a tendency of destroying the beneficial bacteria meant to keep you healthy. Until recently, the long-term impact of these products on our flora hadn’t been well understood. Scientists are now beginning to decipher the not-so-obvious biological implications of the hygiene products many of us use each day.
In a study published last week in the PEERJ by Julie Horvath, head of the genomics and microbiology research laboratory at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, researchers from several prestigious North Carolina universities sought to answer the question: how does human behavior influence our microbes?
Specifically, researchers focused on the way deodorants and antiperspirants affect the bacteria and microorganisms within the armpit.
Because bacteria tend to congregate in the gut, oral cavity, and on the skin - studying the impact of deodorants and antiperspirants on the microbial ecosystem of the skin is an excellent starting point for determining just how much we're altering our microbes with the products we use.
Deodorant vs. antiperspirant
While deodorants can be traced back to ancient Egypt when "perfuming the armpit" was a common hygiene habit (according to the New York Times), antiperspirants arrived on the scene more recently - and they aren’t simply designed to mask odors.
Instead of acting as an antibacterial agent as deodorant does, antiperspirant targets the sweating process head-on with aluminum compounds which essentially plug up your sweat glands. In fact, it is these questionable compounds that have made many of us in the natural health world wonder about the negatives surrounding the use of antiperspirant.
To gain an understanding of how these products influence skin microbes, scientists studied three groups of participants for a total of eight days: one group who used deodorant, one group who used antiperspirant, and one group who didn’t use any products.
All three groups were encouraged to continue their typical hygiene routine on the first day but asked to go without using any products for the following five days.
The group who didn’t use any products was asked to use antiperspirant and deodorant on the final two days of the study - this helped scientists monitor the rate of change in diversity and richness of the bacteria present on the skin.
By sequencing the bacteria this way, researchers could gain a key understanding of how exactly our daily habits influence the microbial life that calls us home.
Antiperspirant causes a drastic reduction in microbes
The results were compelling, starting with the initial analysis. The group of antiperspirant users had fewer microbes to begin with, yet also had a greater variety of microbes. The deodorant users had more microbes on average, but less diversity than the antiperspirant group.
When these two groups stopped using their respective products, they experienced a quick uptick in their numbers of microbes - making things even across the board for all three groups. Similarly, when everyone used antiperspirant at the end of the study, all participants microbes were reduced significantly and almost instantaneously.
It might sound obvious that using either deodorant or antiperspirant causes an instant effect on our microbes, but here’s where it gets good: the group who didn’t use either product had microbiomes plush with Corynebacterium - a bacteria partially responsible for armpit odors but also thought to be one of the body’s key defenders against the bad guys.
Does that mean it's better to go au-natural? Possibly, the jury is still out. What we do know is that doctors and practitioners are recommending that we have an abundance of probiotic bacteria in and on our bodies and that this includes replacing the good guys that are often depleted as a result of age, stress, antibiotic use, dietary choices, and hygiene habits.
In fact, there is a growing school of thought (and we absolutely agree) that claims it is the good bacteria’s job to keep the odor-causing bacteria in check, citing our modern antibacterial skin care products as the root of the problem.
As we learn more about why we need probiotics, and how many of our common hygiene products are indiscriminately targeting our good bacteria, possibly causing questionable health effects, this study provides an intriguing avenue for taking a closer look into the world of our microbiome and how our modern hygiene products influence our bodies over time.
Julie Hays is the Communications Director here at Hyperbiotics. Health writer and mama of two little girls, Julie's on a mission to empower others to live lives free of the microbial depletion many of us face today. For more ideas on how you can maximize wellness and benefit from the power of probiotics, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.
Have you experimented with natural deodorants, or even no deodorant? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
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