There’s a Right and a Wrong Way To Wash Your Armpits, and It Can Make All the Difference in How Much You Stink

Photo: Getty Images/ Benjamin Egerland / EyeEm
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We can always count on hot, sticky summers to get our sweat glands working overtime, inevitably leaving us with the kind of stench that brings back memories of middle school gym class. And while deodorant and a regular soap-and-water cleanse may be enough for some people to stay stink-free, those with particularly smelly armpits may need a little something extra.

"If you know someone who's complaining that they smell two hours after getting out of the shower, it's not because they're unhygienic," says Mary Futher, TikTok's @MadameSweat and the founder of Kaia Naturals in a video, "it's because they don't know the little tricks to help this problem."

Experts In This Article

Why do my armpits smell so bad?

We've all had those days when our armpits smell like onions (... just me?), but what you may not realize is that sweat, on its own, is odorless. Things start to stink when sweat interacts with the bacteria on your skin, which can really build up when it's trapped within clogged pores, explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

"The bacteria under the arms known as corynebacterium break down sweat and contribute to the development of body odor," he says. "Over time, sweat, dirt, oil, and antiperspirants can build up in the underarm area. 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."

Why is deodorant alone not helping?

For many people, a regular cleanser should do the trick against fending off smelly sweat—as long as you're taking extra care to scrub the area under your arms and applying a deodorant or antiperspirant before you head out for the day. But if you've got a lot of bacteria-filled debris hanging around and clogging your pores then deodorant (which is basically armpit perfume) and antiperspirant (which blocks sweat glands to cut down on sweat) isn't enough.

How to remove underarm smell at home by effectively washing your armpits

1. Get a good antibacterial soap

Because armpit odor occurs when sweat and bacteria interact, the key to eliminating it is, simply, to tackle the bacteria—which means using some sort of antibacterial agent under your arms.

"If you're using tutti frutti [soaps], they're not gonna help with somebody who's got a lot of body odor you need something a little stronger," says Futher. "I make a soap with salt and apple cider vinegar you don't have to use this one but look for something that's antibacterial."

"Antibacterial" sounds like a scary word, but it's not. Antibacterial body washes aren't using the same strengths of ingredients that you find in antibacterial dish soap, for example. These formulas include ingredients like charcoal, rosehip oil, and grapefruit extract that gently remove odor-causing bacteria. Plus, they're paired with gentle surfactants and moisturizing ingredients so your skin is left clean, not stripped.

Kaia Naturals, The Takesumi Detox The Underarm Bar — $25.00

This antibacterial charcoal bar soap, which was created by Futher, uses apple cider vinegar, activated charcoal, and sea salt to keep stench at bay and help your deodorant of choice give you extra-strength protection.

Duradry, Wash — $10.00

This under-arm cleanser pairs gentle, foaming surfactants with grapefruit and bergamot, two ingredients with antibacterial properties, to thoroughly wash away odor-causing bacteria. Plus, it includes skin-loving ingredients like vitamin B5, avocado oil, green tea extract, olive oil leaf extract, and aloe juice to soothe and condition the skin.

PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash
PanOxyl, Acne Foaming Wash Benzoyl Peroxide 10% Maximum Strength Antimicrobial — $10.00

If your pits aren’t so sensitive, Lindsey Zubritsky, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in O’Hara Township, Pennsylvania, recommends this personal-hygiene hack—wash your underarms with this benzoyl peroxide face wash. The antimicrobial ingredient will help get rid of that stench.

Ouai, St. Barts Body Cleanser — $28.00

Rosehip oil is the star of this body wash from Ouai. It has anti-microbial properties that make it great for rinsing away the bacteria that make us stink. It also has moisturizing jojoba oil and glycerin to leave your skin soft and smooth. Bonus: The dreamy St. Barts scent will make your shower smell like a vacation every time.

2. Lather that soap on for 30 seconds

If you aren't properly cleaning your pits when you shower, you may not be fully whisking away all of that odor-causing bacteria. Futher says this could explain why you still smell less-than-fresh even after your standard lather-and-rinse. You may also leave behind deodorant residue and other impurities that trap sweat and further contribute to the stink.

Futher suggests applying soap to each armpit for at least 30 seconds to ensure it's truly eliminating any odor-causing bacteria. For those with underarm hair, be sure to really work the product into the skin to ensure it's penetrating properly, as hair is particularly prone to trapping bacteria. In addition to helping with stench, a thorough cleanse can also help treat and prevent armpit pimples and itchy armpits.

By regularly washing pits with an antibacterial and allowing the formula to sit for at least 30 seconds, you can give your hardworking deodorant a helping hand, ultimately leading to longer hours of odor-free assurance. You'd never wash your hands for two seconds and expect them to be squeaky clean, so why should washing your pits be any different?

3. Reset pit pH with an AHA-infused treatment

Think of this as the toning step of your armpit-cleanse routine—once your pits are clean and dry, it's time to apply a pit-specific alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), like glycolic acid, to lower the skin's pH, explains Alicia Zalka, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder and CEO of Surface Deep. That's because bacteria thrive in basic (aka high pH) environments, and soap is alkaline, which can make your pits more basic. Glycolic makes the pits more acidic, which is less hospitable for bacteria.

"The glycolic [acid] is acidifying the skin and keeping the pores unplugged, taking care of some of the oils, which when paired with a high pH can lead to odor," says Dr. Zalka. "If you're taking some of the oils away, the sebum, and if you're taking the plugged pores away, and you're acidifying the skin, awesome. No odor."

AHA solutions designed for the face are likely too harsh for the delicate underarm area, so using an AHA-infused deodorant will do the trick. For example, "With glycolic, there is a sweet spot of what strength to use," says Dr. Zallka. "Because a 10 or 20 percent glycolic would be quite irritating and a two or five percent might be too low. The key is to get just that right acidification, just that right exfoliation, without being over-irritating."

Surface Deep, Anti-Odorant Spray — $18.00

Created by Dr. Zalka, this spray blends glycolic acid with lactobacillus ferment, a soothing postbiotic. “Probiotics are live. You can’t really put a live product into a bottle that sits on your sink because, unless it’s refrigerated, those live organisms are going to perish,” she says. It also has a light dash of eucalyptus to add a gentle fragrance.

Drunk Elephant, Sweet Pitti Deodorant Cream — $16.00

This acidic deodorant uses mandalic acid, an AHA that’s gentler than glycolic acid thanks to a larger molecule size (which can’t penetrate the skin as deeply), to kill off odor-causing bacteria while arrowroot powder absorbs sweat and shea butter moisturizes and soothes.

Saltair, Fagrance Free AHA Serum Deodorant — $12.00

AHA’s mandelic and lactic acids come together with gluconolactone, a polyhydroxy acid (PHA), to combat odor while brightening the look of discoloration and reducing ingrown hairs. The formula also includes niacinamide to soothe and xylitol esters to reduce skin adhesion of odor-causing bacteria.

Nécessaire, The Deodorant Gel — $15.00

This gel deodorant uses AHAs lactic and mandalic acids to combat odor, fade discoloration, and smooth bumps. It also uses niacinamide and chamomile to strengthen the skin barrier while soothing and comforting the skin.

Once this step is done, your pits are prepped and ready to take on the day. If you use antiperspirant, it'll still be there to cut down the amount you sweat without working overtime to mask stench—you've already taken care of that.

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