Do you really need deodorant? Experts weigh in
(CNN) — Like brushing your teeth or washing your face, putting deodorant on every day might seem like one of those rituals crucial for basic hygiene.
But your decision is most likely based more on personal and cultural preferences than any potential medical necessity, dermatology experts say.
“People have strong preferences and sensitivities to smell. People, from the beginning of time, have used perfumes (or) colognes to mask odor,” said Dr. Nina Botto, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. “But it’s not like flossing your teeth, where there’s data that you’re actually going to live longer if you floss your teeth regularly.”
“We live in a society where body odor is not universally accepted, making deodorant a part of your daily hygiene routine,” said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, via email. “There’s also a stigma surrounding wetness of the clothes because of sweat, which has pushed antiperspirants into daily skincare routines.”
Deodorants neutralize body odor, while antiperspirants reduce wetness on the skin, Zeichner added. Both are often offered in one product.
Despite the commonly accepted reasons why people wear deodorant, natural body odor isn’t necessarily considered unpleasant by everyone.
Ahead of his return from a military campaign, Napoleon is infamously said to have written to his wife, Joséphine Bonaparte, that he would be home in three days and that she shouldn’t wash herself before then, said Tristram Wyatt, a senior research fellow in the department of biology at the University of Oxford, in “Smelling Your Way to Love,” the December 6 episode of CNN’s podcast “Chasing Life with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.”
Like many people today, Wyatt added, Napoleon was an “enthusiast” of smells — both colognes and natural scents, or at least his wife’s.
One reason why someone might find a certain person’s natural scent more attractive than those of others is due to differing immune systems, Wyatt said, since we tend to be more attracted to people who are immunologically different.
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to your personal preferences, and what — if any — products you might use to mask body odor. With those preferences and other personal factors in mind, CNN asked dermatologists to address common reasons behind people’s choices, and how to manage in either scenario.
Reasons for or against antiperspirant or deodorant
Sweat has a purpose.
“We sweat to help control our body temperature,” Zeichner said. “However, in some cases we sweat beyond what is necessary. This is known as pathologic sweating, or hyperhidrosis. Sweat itself is odorless. However, bacteria on the skin break down the sweat, creating a foul smell.”
If you choose to use antiperspirant products for this reason, apply them in the evening, Zeichner said. “Since we make less sweat at night, they can more effectively form a plug within the sweat gland if you apply them before bed.”
But if you don’t sweat excessively, blocking sweat production with antiperspirant “is probably not a good idea,” said Dr. Julie Russak, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City. “(By) blocking it completely, you are risking paradoxical increase of sweat production in other areas.”
Some people prefer wearing deodorant to have a more pleasant smell or if they deal with certain skin issues, such as irritation under breasts or between abdominal skin folds, Russak said via email.
The odor of your sweat can be influenced by diet, too, Zeichner said. The sweat of people who eat large amounts of cruciferous vegetables — broccoli, kale and cauliflower, for example — can have a distinct, sulfurous smell.
“Gut health, health of the skin and health of the microbiome of the skin can all influence our body odor,” said Russak via email. “Some metabolic disorders produce a very particular odor in general (for example, ketoacidosis or uremia from diabetes). Healthy skin and a healthy body should not have malodor.”
If you’re considering foregoing deodorants or antiperspirants because of concerns about potentially harmful ingredients or rumors that wearing such products causes cancer, know that those claims haven’t been scientifically proven, these experts told CNN. Research on whether there’s a causal relationship between cancer and use of talcum powder products that don’t contain asbestos has also been inconclusive.
“Usage of inorganic ingredients like aluminum salts in cosmetics and personal care products has been a concern for producers and consumers,” said Dr. Amanda Doyle, a board-certified dermatologist who works with Russak at the Russak Dermatology Clinic. “Although aluminum is used to treat hyperhidrosis some worries have been raised about aluminum’s role in breast cancer, breast cysts and Alzheimer’s disease. The absorption of aluminum by the skin is not fully understood yet but the carcinogenicity of aluminum has not been proved.”
Managing without deodorant
Not wearing deodorant or antiperspirant products can have pros and cons depending on how you and others feel about your natural body odor.
“If you stop wearing deodorant or antiperspirant, you can develop a stronger odor over time,” Doyle said. “When you stop using (such products) and sweat more, this creates a breeding ground for bacterial and fungal overgrowth, which can cause odor to become stronger.”
Thoroughly bathing every day, however, is the most important way to avoid bad body odor, experts said. You should focus in particular on bathing the face, under arm and genital areas — these tend to have more sweat than other parts of the body, which can facilitate overgrowth of microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria, Zeichner noted.
Having unusually bad body odor could indicate that you’re not cleansing your skin how you should be, he added.
Other ways to reduce odor risk by preventing sweat and bacterial overgrowth include wearing loose-fitting, breathable, cotton clothing and using topical antibacterial washes such as benzoyl peroxide or prescription topical antibiotics like clindamycin, Doyle said.