Dermatologist debunks TikTok natural deodorant trend: ‘Won't work’

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Dr. Shreya Andric is a dermatologist based in Sydney. She is passionate about skin health and her mission is to educate the public on how to care for their skin, and also clear up the vast amount of misinformation out there on this topic.

While Dr. Andric has independently chosen the products that appear in this article, she does not receive revenue from the links. Some of the links may return revenue to Yahoo Lifestyle Australia.

Dr Shreya Andric is a Sydney-based dermatologist on a mission to educate people on how to look after their skin. Photo: supplied.
Dr Shreya Andric is a Sydney-based dermatologist on a mission to educate people on how to look after their skin. Photo: supplied.

In the lead-up to summer, let's talk about sweat...

Why do we sweat?

In humans, sweating is essential for what is called 'thermoregulatory homeostasis', which is a process that allows your body to maintain its core internal temperature.

There are two main mechanisms for cooling the body: radiative cooling, where the blood vessels in the skin dilate (become wider) so that blood can flow away from your core to your skin where it is cooler, and evaporative cooling via sweat.

Sweat, which is produced by the eccrine glands in the skin, results in loss of heat as it evaporates. Few mammals except humans and horses produce sweat in enough quantities for it to be effective in cooling the body.

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There are two to five million eccrine glands distributed within the skin; importantly, none are found on the clitoris, glans penis, labia minora, external part of the ear, or lips.

Why does sweat smell?

Apocrine sweat glands are concentrated in the hair follicles of the scalp, armpits and groin. These glands release a heavier, fat-laden sweat that carries a distinct odour, referred to as body odour. This smell occurs when apocrine sweat breaks down and mixes with the bacteria on the skin.

The average healthy adult can produce over 500mL of sweat per hour, 99 percent of which is water. Athletes or those acclimatised to hot environments can produce up to 3-4 litres per hour – this feels like me on my Peloton bike!

Physically fit or acclimatised people begin sweating sooner and conserve sodium, chloride, and other electrolytes more efficiently. Thermoregulatory control is similar in men and women and only slightly reduces with age.

The most common areas of sweating on the body include armpits, face, palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

Midsection of businesswoman wearing a pink blouse with sweaty armpits holding fan against green background - stock photo
Sweating is completely normal and helps the body cool down. Photo: Getty Images.

Triggers of sweating

Sweating is very normal and occurs regularly as part of life. There are, however, a variety of causes that can stimulate increased sweating such as high body or environmental temperatures and emotions and stress (e.g. anger, fear, embarrassment, anxiety, emotional stress).

Some foods — especially spicy foods, caffeinated drinks, alcoholic beverages — as well as medications and illness and menopause can also cause sweating.

A normal amount of sweating does not need specific medical treatment. In order to make yourself more comfortable and minimise your sweating:

  • Wear light layers of clothing that allow your skin to breathe

  • Remove layers as you heat up

  • Wash dried sweat off your face and body for optimum comfort

  • Change out of sweaty clothes to reduce the risk of bacterial or yeast infections and minimise the chances of developing 'back-ne!'

  • Drink water to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweating

  • Apply underarm antiperspirant or deodorant to reduce odour and control sweating

  • Avoid foods that may increase your sweating.

A screenshot from a TikTok video showing a hand holding a bottle of The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
Using glycolic acid as deodorant is a trend that's taken off on TikTok. Photo: TikTok/jasmijnxanthe.

Alternative or 'natural' deodorants

A recent TikTok trend has been using glycolic acid as a deodorant. This may help reduce body odour by lowering the pH of the skin and making it harder for odour-causing bacteria to survive.

However, it will not work at stopping sweating itself and will likely be irritating on the thin skin under the arms. That being said, glycolic acid — such as The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution — works as a chemical exfoliator and may help with ingrown hairs and increased pigmentation in the area. If you're considering doing this, only do it once or twice a week.

Other natural deodorants are just that: they may help to neutralise odour, but they won't act as antiperspirants and stop sweating from occurring in the first place.

If natural is what you're after, ingredients to look out for include:

  • Magnesium – reduces bacteria on the surface of the skin that cause odour

  • Tannic acid – works similarly to glycolic acid

  • Baking soda – helps to absorb excess moisture from the skin to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for bacteria

When you sweat too much

Not sweating enough and sweating too much can both cause problems. The absence of sweat can be dangerous because your risk of overheating increases. Excessive sweating may be more psychologically damaging than physically damaging.

Hyperhidrosis is a condition of excessive sweating from the underarms, hands, and feet. This can be embarrassing and may stop people from going about their daily routines. Primary hyperhidrosis is the most common type and is not associated with a systemic disorder. Men and women are affected equally and most will have a family history.

Management of primary hyperhidrosis starts with topical antiperspirants. The main active ingredient in these is aluminium salts, which deposit within and temporarily block the sweat duct.

There is a myth that has been circulating around aluminium in antiperspirants being absorbed into the skin and stopping toxins from leaving the body, resulting in breast cancer. A scientific review in 2016 (see footnote) found there was no link between antiperspirant/deodorant use and the risk of getting breast cancer.

Other treatment options for hyperhidrosis include prescription tablets, iontophoresis, botulinum toxin injections, and surgery. These should be discussed with your GP or dermatologist.

(1) Allam, M. Breast cancer and deodorants/antiperspirants: a systematic review. Central European Journal of Public Health. 2016; 24(3), 245-7.

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