Armpit Detoxes Are All the Rage—But Do They *Really* Work? Here’s What Derms Have To Say

Photo: Getty Images/LaylaBird
Have you ever tried switching to natural deodorant only to give up because the formula left you smelling less than pleasant? (Guilty.) That happens because the funk-fighting stuff in traditional antiperspirants (aluminum-based compounds) work to temporarily cork the sweat duct, stopping sweat from hitting the surface of the skin—a trick that botanical-based deodorants just can't pull off.

The thing is, it may not be so healthy to block your sweat. Some research questions whether low-level absorption of aluminum may cause estrogenic effects (something that could stoke the growth of breast cancer cells). Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute says that there’s no link between breast cancer and antiperspirants, and the Alzheimer's Association declares that after 40 years of research, aluminum is not a significant health risk.

Experts In This Article
  • Debbi Burnes, founder of Sumbody
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital

Those who err on the side of caution and are looking to go without aluminum are left with a dilemma: Stick with traditional antiperspirant and minimize armpit wetness or opt for a plant-based product, a move that may keep you from hugging your friends or being a respectable cube-mate at work but that will ensure you're safe from any pit-related health risks (however low risk they may be).

For those that want to try the au naturale approach, a few new products help with that transition from conventional antiperspirant to something a bit cleaner—and making it as inoffensive (ahem) and seamless as possible. Keep scrolling to find out whether or not you need an armpit detox, and what the process is like from someone who tried it herself.

Clogged armpit pores are enemy #1 for fresh-smelling pits

To understand why you may need an armpit detox, it's first important to understand what happens to your pores when you're regularly applying aluminum-based deodorant . "Over time, sweat, dirt, oil, and antiperspirants can build up in the underarm area," explains Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a New York-based dermatologist. "In some cases, this may lead to irritation, inflammation, and disruption of the skin barrier. Some feel it also may alter the microbiome of the skin under the arms, which can become disrupted when the skin barrier becomes inflamed, leading to overgrowth of specific forms of bacteria."

In other words, clogging your armpit pores with aluminum (which is literally how antiperspirants work to stop sweat) may mess with the way you're sweating, which is where armpit detoxes come in.

What is an armpit detox?

With that in mind, the whole idea of an armpit detox is to clear away anything that might be clogging your armpit pores. Essentially, the process gives the area a chance to get rid of all the gunk that builds up under there, especially when you're swiping on a deodorant every single day. "Some people believe that discontinuing use of aluminum-based antiperspirant can give the underarms the chance to purge sweat, dirt, oil, and antiperspirant debris from the skin," he says. "This allows the skin barrier to repair itself and the microbiome to restore itself to a healthy state.

“If you stop using aluminum, salt-based antiperspirants, your skin will naturally shed the aluminum from the sweat glands over time,” says Dr. Zeichner. Plus, as Angela Ballard, a registered nurse and communications director, educator, and advocate with the International Hyperhidrosis Society, notes, the sweat glands aren't actually an effective way to remove toxins from the body. “Sweat glands reside in your skin and aren’t connected to the waste-elimination systems in your body—you have your kidneys, liver, lungs, and digestive system for that,” she says, adding that healthy eating, exercise, and hydration are the best way to keep organs functioning properly (and smelling optimally).

The process of an armpit detox first involves cutting off your antiperspirant use cold turkey. Then, to make the process more effective (and less stinky), you can try adding certain detoxifying products and ingredients into your routine—more on that below.

Do armpit detoxes work?

"If you do a detox on your armpits, then you'll have less sweat, and the sweat won't smell as bad because the bacteria won't grow," says Debbi Burnes, natural beauty expert and founder of Sumbody Skincare. "The bacterial growth is what causes the smell, and that happens when your pores are clogged—perspiration itself actually has no odor." Dr. Zeichner adds that though there is bacteria that lives on your skin no matter what, the "bacteria under the arms known as corynebacterium break down sweat and contribute to the development of body odor," he says.

So can our bodies really adjust post-conventional sticks and roll-ons? According to research, it's a possibility. As one study shows, habitual deodorant and antiperspirant users who stopped use for two days or more secreted far more Staphylococcus hominis (a bacteria that another study determined to be one of the stinkiest once broken down by the skin) than those who didn’t regularly wear deodorant or antiperspirant. What’s more, the group of non-deodorant users was found to have pits dominated by corynebacterium, a different type of bacteria that doesn’t top the stink list.

How to do an apple cider vinegar armpit detox at home

One of the best ingredients for detoxing your armpits is apple cider vinegar (ACV), which has naturally occurring antimicrobial and antifungal properties. It can be combined with other actives to up its stink-reducing effectiveness.

ACV and baking soda: One of the ways you can drum up your ACV armpit detox involves another hack-worthy ingredient, baking soda. "You can use apple cider vinegar, water, and baking soda," says Burnes.

ACV and charcoal: To soak up even more of the gunk in your armpit pores, Burnes says you can use the three ingredients above with some charcoal. "Just make sure to not use full-strength apple cider vinegar for these—always dilute with water," she says. "The key is to do three parts water to every one part ACV."

ACV and clay: If you use ACV and Bentonite clay, you can create a paste to wipe onto your armpits for about 20 minutes for two days straight, then you're good to go.

What happened when I tried an armpit detox

For my own switch from antiperspirant to non-aluminum deodorant, I opted to jump in with a prepared armpit detox product I could order online without having to play chemist. Kaia Naturals Takesumi Detox Stick ($24) is a so-called “detox" deodorant meant to be used as a way to wean oneself off of conventional antiperspirants. The formula, with bamboo charcoal and activated charcoal, is meant to help stymie odor control. Use this stick for 30 days to help stifle the rush of odor-causing bacteria that hits your pits once you stop plugging glands with traditional antiperspirant. After about a month’s time, your body will self-regulate and produce less stink.

Unlike antiperspirants, it doesn’t block sweat from surfacing, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t help cut down on body odor. That's because sweat itself (secreted from eccrine glands) doesn't carry odor, explains Ballard. "Body odor occurs when the bacteria naturally found on our skin breaks down substances in our sweat, leading to that characteristic smell," she says. As for why your armpits are more foul-smelling than other parts of your body? The scent-secreting apocrine glands contain a protein that's key to this breakdown, which results in the funky scent.

Indeed, when I tried the stick for a month, it didn’t seem to be helping much in the stink department during the first few weeks—if anything, it smelled like I was backpedaling, particularly in the first week, when my body odor seemed more pungent than ever. I began to wonder if I was expecting too much.

I hung in there with my own experiment, hoping that easing up on traditional gland-plugging antiperspirants may make for less body odor. And on days when my armpits seemed particularly gross, I supplemented my new Takesumi stick use with another product designed to help transitioning pits: Lavanila The Healthy Underarm Detox Mask ($26), a brush on mask—that’s right, an armpit mask.

Did it feel a little weird to brush a charcoal mask onto my underarms? Absolutely. But could it really draw out aluminum and impurity buildup in the pits, as promised? That’s a little harder to pin down.

The mask did seem to give my armpits a clean slate, thanks to its skin-tending formula. “This mask contains a combination of skin soothing and hydrating ingredients,” notes Zeichner. “Plus, charcoal and clay can help reduce inflammation and absorb excess oil and dirt from the surface of the skin.”

By the end of week four in my armpit experiment, I’m happy to report that the excessive sweat and stink that I experienced in weeks one and two have subsided. I now toggle between reaching for Vapour AER Next Level Deodorant ($19), which is effective and smells lovely, thanks to a blend of essential oils, and the baking soda-free Agent Nateur Holi(stick) Sensitive Deodorant, ($21), which doesn’t make my armpits red, like some clean deodorants do. But unlike when I was using conventional antiperspirant, I notice that I can now go a day without having to apply, if needed, because my armpits simply don’t seem to stink as much anymore.

Yes, I still get sweaty—and unfortunately, I haven’t found a way out of using deodorant altogether (a girl can dream). But I’m pretty psyched about having settled into a less-stinky state. And if I happen to be optimizing my health by not applying controversial ingredients like aluminum to my skin? Well, that’s pretty sweet, too.

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Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Darbre, P D. “Aluminium, antiperspirants and breast cancer.” Journal of inorganic biochemistry vol. 99,9 (2005): 1912-9. doi:10.1016/j.jinorgbio.2005.06.001
  2. Urban, Julie et al. “The effect of habitual and experimental antiperspirant and deodorant product use on the armpit microbiome.” PeerJ vol. 4 e1605. 2 Feb. 2016, doi:10.7717/peerj.1605

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