Antiperspirant: Bad to Worse?

Despite the popularity of antiperspirant deodorants today, most Americans didn’t use them until the early twentieth century. For the average person, the antidote to unpleasant smells was often heavy amounts of perfume and altered clothing, such as cotton sweat pads under the armpits.

Something to think about before you swipe that stick.

So maybe you’re used to swiping antiperspirants as part of your pre-ride ritual, but when was the last time you cycled without it? Do you If you look back a little further you may find that antiperspirant is a relatively new ritual that humans partake and which seems to be directly correlated with target marketing.

Despite the popularity of antiperspirant deodorants today, most Americans didn’t use them until the early twentieth century. For the average person, the antidote to unpleasant smells was often heavy amounts of perfume and altered clothing, such as cotton sweat pads under the armpits. So when the first antiperspirant was released to the public in 1903 manufacturers had trouble getting people to buy the product. American society was still Victorian in its’ sensibilities and discussing perspiration or body odor in public would be considered an “indelicate” subject.

from the magazine True Experience, July 1934

But in 1919 ads by antiperspirant companies presented perspiration as a social faux pas that will make people gossip behind your back. The most aggressive marketers were from a brand called Odo-ro-no, who started a campaign in 1919 with the intention of inciting a “frank discussion of a subject too often avoided,” with copy like:

A woman’s arm! Poets have sung of it, great artists have painted its beauty. It should be the daintiest, sweetest thing in the world. And yet, unfortunately, it isn’t always. (1919 edition of the Ladies Home Journal )

According to the copywriter who wrote the ad, James Young, deodorant sales increased 112% the year after the ad was published (200 subscriptions were canceled by women who were offended by the ad). By the 1930’s advertisements were much more direct in their message, like the copy from the Mums antiperspirant deodorant ad (pictured below) reading, “The smartest girl is stupid when she doesn’t live up to her looks – when she allows the ugly odor of underarm perspiration make her unpleasant to be near.”

Since the 1920’s antiperspirant sales have been on a steady incline, even more growth after the release of liquid roll-on and aerosol spray can antiperspirants in the 1950’s. Companies saw an increase in men antiperspirant use during the 1930’s Great Depression when advertisements targeted men worried about losing their job because of “unprofessional grooming” and being stinky at the office. Seaforth, an antiperspirant deodorant released in the 1940’s, was shaped like a whiskey bottle and had a pirate on the packaging – a clear way to distance the antiperspirant deodorant association with women.

Advertisment for Seaforth Men’s Deodorant 1945

It wasn’t until the last decade that studies were published suggesting that the main ingredient in antiperspirant, aluminum, was causing cancer, Alzheimer’s, bone disease and kidney disease. Even the FDA, who do not regulate cosmetics, has acknowledged that “small amounts of aluminum can be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and through the skin.” However, many scientists have also said that these studies are inconclusive or misleading, and manufacturers claim to not have an alternative that works as effectively as aluminum salts do in preventing sweat and stink. The US remains the biggest deodorant market worldwide with over $3 billion in 2015 and 90% of the population using antiperspirant deodorant. It’s remarkable how such an inexpensive product to make can be so profitable; there are a lot of companies and people who’ve invested in the success of antiperspirant sales.

Aluminum may be the most discussed, but there are other ingredients included in antiperspirant deodorants that should be considered before using. A study found that some products labeled as “anti-microbial” (intended to kill stinky bacteria) may actually make you smell worse. In 2012, Chris Callewaert, a Ph.D student specializing in microbial ecology, and a team of researchers recruited eight subjects to pledge not to use deodorant or antiperspirant for an entire month. What they found was that antiperspirant use resulted in an increase of actinobacteria, the major bacterial instigators of armpit odor. This bacteria dominates the armpit on antiperspirant users, while the same study, test subjects who switched to aluminum free deodorant showed a decrease of the bacteria. That’s not to say that aluminum in antiperspirants is solely responsible for body odor, but it doesn’t help.

What can you do?

Perhaps it’s not that the sweat you’re considered about, and body odor is the real concern (especially if you’re riding with a new friend). Try switching to deodorant, which only prevents the development of odor in perspiration and doesn’t reduce the amount of perspiration. Deodorants are more like a perfume for your underarm than a preventative measure. It’s still a good idea to check the ingredients on deodorant labeled products because some can turn out to be antiperspirants in disguise. Companies like Lush aggressively avoid aluminum in their deodorants and instead turn to natural ingredients to combat odor causing bacteria, like witch hazel which is a natural astringent. Tom’s of Maine deodorants are a popular natural choice and are sold at major stores like Target. Consider carrying some cotton wipes if you have excess sweat, especially if it is getting in your eyes.

No need shy away from a little sweat, sweating is a way that your body rinses away toxins. For this reason, sweating has great benefits for your skin by clearing blemishes and even helping to heal wounds. Sweat can also serve to cool the body in dry areas when moisture on your skin evaporates into the air and heat from your body is transferred away. Keep in mind that you are losing water while you sweat so be sure to always stay hydrated.

Feel free to sweat!


Men: “Old Spice Pure Sport High Endurance Deodorant. No aluminum. Prevents the stink and maintains the benefits of perspiration, but is cheap and I can find it almost anywhere. Kyoto, Japan? Check. Anywhere in US / CA ? Check and check. For other deodorants, I’ve tried Tom’s, hippie crystals etc. but the Old Spice stands out as keeping me smelling fresh.” – Chris

Women: “I’ve tried a lot of different natural deodorants that put in the work on bike rides and none have been as good as ARROW protect by Birchbox. I definitely still sweat, which isn’t much of a problem for me, but this deodorant is the best smelling that I’ve tried from the natural options. You’ll glow under the sun and smell like a citrus.” – Kelley

Sans-deodorant: “I prefer not using any products, and I do a pretty good job not offending with just some simple lifestyle changes. I don’t have any scientific reasons, mostly just going with how I believe the body works. Your skin releases a lot of chemicals and has undergone a seriously long process of fine-tuning. I just try to facilitate the naturally-occurring protectives of my skin. I don’t like the feel of foreign oils or other things on my skin, and with a good diet, some basic cleanliness (not wearing clothes too long, changing sheets, rinsing off), I don’t build up very much smell anymore.” – Victor

Honorable mentions: Toms of Maine, Lush, EO Certified Organic Deodorant Spray Vetiver

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