On my constant quest to become an all-around healthier person, I started having reservations about the products I use on a daily basis. For a while, I thought health was an internal concern — one that could be solved by eating healthier foods. I soon realized that it’s not just what I put in my body that matters, but also what I put on my body.
While I cut out the sketchy ingredients of my skin care routine and switched to organic black soaps, Neem oil-based moisturizers, and witch hazel toners, I wasn’t ready to give up my Dove antiperspirant deodorant. According to a 2017 case study, aluminum is a “main component of the large majority of commercialized antiperspirants.” My beloved Dove, for example, is made up of nearly 15 percent aluminum. It’s thought to work by “physically obstructing” sweat glands and is thus absorbed through the skin. It’s also possible aluminum-based deodorants and breast cancer are linked, although it hasn’t been definitively proven.
Not wanting to take that risk, I knew I had to say goodbye to conventional deodorants and try something else. But first, I decided to forgo deodorant altogether. May as well jump right into the deep end, right? Here’s what happened.
My husband was at work when I made the decision to embrace my au naturel underarms. “I’m not going to wear deodorant for a week and report my findings,” I said in a text message, complete with a smiley face emoji — naturally. While his reaction went from “What, really?” to “Oh man. When?” and eventually ending in a puking face emoji, I was not to be deterred.
I thought my first day without deodorant would be easy. In a way, I was kind of looking forward to it. Since I take my showers at night and also apply deodorant before going to sleep, I decided to wash my underarms after waking up to start out on the right foot — or armpit, as the case may be. Within a few minutes, I already didn’t like the feeling of being without antiperspirant.
Instead of the gliding and powdered feeling I was used to, my underarms grated against my sides and felt squishy. “Why am I doing this?” I thought. I went out to dinner that evening and, after several sly smell checks, I was surprised that I didn’t actually stink — at all. I’ve got this.
After sleeping in on a summer Saturday, I woke up feeling sweaty and ripe. After having a cup of coffee, I told my husband I was thinking about washing my pits. “I think that’s cheating,” he said while shrugging. Yes, the one who originally was not on board with my crunchy plan to go without deodorant was now a stickler for the rules. I agreed, though, as washing up isn’t something I’d have done had I still been riding the deodorant train.
While still in my pajamas (don’t judge me), I took my dogs for a walk and the odor, well, let’s just say it was apparent. After I got inside, I knew I had to get out of my shirt. Immediately. I dabbed my pits with my shirt — it’s true — and tossed it into my dirty clothes pile.
I’ve never been so thankful for a clean laundry-scented t-shirt. Saturday was humid in New Jersey, so even the new shirt didn’t stay clean for long. I ended up showering earlier than normal so I could hopefully go out to dinner without a stench cloud following me. To my surprise, it worked.
Although my intention was to wake up early on Sunday (ha), I snoozed my alarms and woke up late. My AM pit sniff confirmed what I thought: I smelled terrible. My signature scent, if bottled, would’ve been called Musty Onions. Yeah, it was bad.
I was meeting friends in the afternoon and stared at the deodorant on my dresser longingly. I shoved it in a drawer — out of sight out of mind — and started picking out an outfit. Have you ever tailored an ensemble to your armpits? This was a new experience for me. I settled on a maxi dress with a smell-buffering cardigan — but not before I used a dry microfiber cloth to dab my underarms. The dab was becoming a very real part of my life this week. I felt self-conscious around friends and was feeling thankful no one hugged me so I could keep my arms at my sides at all times. I realize this probably isn’t a running endorsement for giving up deodorant.
In the evening, I cooked dinner and felt slimy the entire time. All I wanted to do was take a sweet, sweet shower.
When I woke up on Monday morning, I was just happy I’d made it through the weekend without caving. As I work from home and my dogs are my coworkers, I didn’t have to worry much about my offensive smell anymore. Even still, I wasn’t loving stewing in my own juices. Why was I feeling sweatier than normal? I decided to reach out to an expert for some answers. Michele Green, a dermatologist and contributor to RealSelf, told me, “There is a difference between deodorant and antiperspirant. Deodorant often has perfume and odor blocking absorbers, while antiperspirant prevents or reduces sweating.” I never missed my combination antiperspirant-deodorant more.
Immediately after work, I took a shower and scrubbed away the sweat and stench. Even though I showered earlier than I would have had I been wearing deodorant, I felt awesome afterward. By the time I fell asleep, I didn’t smell at all. This was a victory, people.
By my fifth day of the deodorant detox, I was doing well. I woke up without feeling like I’d emerged from a swamp. My pit checks revealed I was still smelling fresh from my shower the afternoon before. While it continued to be hot and humid in Jersey, my armpits weren’t discernibly sweatier than any other body part. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so excited about my underarms before, but I was definitely reveling in my sweat-free, smell-free status.
When evening rolled around and I still didn’t smell, I started to have a minor freakout. What if I do actually smell and I’m just not aware of it? What if I’m so used to my body odor that I literally can’t smell myself anymore? Am I becoming Bernard in a parallel West World, telling people, “It doesn’t smell like anything to me.” After chasing my husband around pestering him to “just smell me,” he finally caved. “Weird,” he said, “You don’t stink.”
Those four words were magical and enough to convince me that I should try skipping a shower to see what happens. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a good idea.
Okay, I know it’s gross to skip a wash, but it was all in the name of research — or at least that’s what I told myself. By the morning of day six, it became obvious that my reprieve from stench was over. Come the afternoon, my armpits were also super itchy. But here’s the thing about your armpits being itchy when they smell awful: you don’t want to use your hands to scratch them. Is this TMI? Oh well.
Instead, I used my handy-dandy microfiber cloth (that, yes, I’d been using all week) to scratch my underarms. At this point in the week, I was feeling especially thrilled that my career allows me the opportunity to work from the privacy of my own home. And you all are super lucky that I work from home too — I was a mess.
As sweat can dehydrate skin, I attributed my itchiness to that. An arguably worse problem, however, was how absolutely horrid I smelled. It was a new kind of funk — and it didn’t go away.
By the time I woke up on day seven, I wasn’t as itchy, but my funk factor was off the charts. There was no disguising this odor, either. Looking back on the week, I was surprised I was able to mask it for as long as I did. I took to Google to dissect what it was I was smelling. Before long, I realized my new fragrance could be labeled “Mildewy Washcloth.” Not a best-selling perfume, to be sure.
Scouring others’ search engine results, I found other people with weird body odors too. I’m talking weed, cat pee, onions, garlic, cumin, maple syrup, metal, ammonia, grapefruit, and yes, mildew. Armpits are a mysterious beast and one that I’ve gotten to know very well — perhaps a little too well — this week. Now that my week was almost up, I had some decisions to make. Would I go back to deodorant or would I continue living without?
I made it! I actually made it! I didn’t expect the week to be so hard, nor did I expect to smell so rancid. Surprisingly, and without much hesitation at all, I ran back to my Dove antiperspirant deodorant like one would to a toxic ex-boyfriend. Slathering it on like butter — its 14.8 percent aluminum content and all — I was thankful my deodorant-free challenge was over. Yet and still, I knew it was finally time to tell Dove to lose my number.
In speaking with Dr. Michele Green, she helped me understand that “natural deodorants can be sufficient for most people.” Jennie Ann Freiman, a physician, author, and founder of the wellness company Oobroo Inc. also told me, “Natural deodorants actually work, do not expose the user to potential health risks, and in some cases have extra benefits” whereas “conventional deodorants are a cesspool of toxic chemicals.”
So, while I will be giving up conventional deodorant and trying out some natural brands, I won’t be embracing a totally deodorant-free lifestyle with open (under)arms just yet.
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