Do you need a prescription antiperspirant?

deodorants, assorted
When the powdery-scented solids and gels just aren't cutting it, do you need stronger stuff from your doctor?
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If the armpits of your clothes are soaked within the first few hours of getting dressed and you haven't even done any manual labor, you may wonder whether you need a stronger antiperspirant -- or even a prescription-strength one. Some personal hygiene issues like perspiration or body odor problems can be uncomfortable or just plain embarrassing. But you don't have sweat it anymore: We'll break it all down and show you what's going on with this bodily function and some ways to manage excessive perspiration.

First, let's make it clear that body odor and perspiration are two separate -- yet, closely related -- facts of life. Your body produces perspiration through glands that pump sweat through your pores. Sweating is your body's method of cooling itself off. Although you've got sweat glands all over your body (except for your lips, nipples and genitals), you've got special ones in your armpits and anal-genital area. These glands are located near the bottom of your hair follicles and produce fluid with a yellowish color. Once that fluid combines with bacteria, it gives off that noticeable odor we associate with sweat. So, should you be more concerned about preventing excessive perspiration or disguising the dank smell that accompanies it? In other words, should you be using antiperspirant or deodorant?


That's a tough question to answer, especially because people use the terms deodorant and antiperspirant interchangeably. That's not exactly incorrect; after all, most underarm-care products on the market today are combination antiperspirant-deodorant. But as their names hint, antiperspirant reduces sweating, whereas deodorant masks your body's natural scent or odor. What's more, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies antiperspirants as drugs and considers deodorants to be cosmetics.

Here's the skinny: You may or may not need a prescription antiperspirant. It just depends on the severity of the issue -- be it odor or sweating -- and whether you've tried everything else to manage it. Your doctor will probably have you try alternative treatments, such as implementing changes to your diet, before prescribing an antiperspirant.

Read on to learn some ways you can manage your perspiration and odor issues with and without a prescription.


Managing Perspiration and Body Odor

man sweating
When you break a sweat, you don't want your nice clothes to show it. Can a prescription antiperspirant stop sweat stains and underarm circles?
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As we've learned, perspiration and body odor are related but separate issues. Although the body releases sweat from head to toe throughout the day (and even while we sleep), most of it evaporates. As a result, we don't even know we've shed quarts of it within a 24-hour period. But extreme perspiration can make you want to change clothes several times a day either for comfort's sake or to save face. What's more, excessive sweat can be more than an inconvenience; it can get in the way of carrying on daily activities like holding a pen or typing on a keyboard. People with a condition called hyperhidrosis sweat profusely from the underarms, face, feet or the palms of the hands -- four or five times as much as the average person.

If you're dealing with a serious perspiration issue, you might be ready to tackle it with some prescription-strength chemicals. But there are a few things a doctor will want you to try before resorting to a prescription antiperspirant. He or she will want you to make adjustments to your diet, like staying away from caffeine and spicy foods, such as hot peppers. You might also be encouraged to wear absorbent pads in the armpits of your clothes and to bathe and apply a moisture-absorbent powder to your problem areas every day. Your doctor will likely recommend using an antiperspirant at night before going to bed, then reapplying it in the morning. After you've tried all of these alternative treatments, your doctor will assess the success of your underarm care regimen. Finally, he or she might look into treating your condition with a prescription antiperspirant, which is like the stuff you buy on the beauty aisle, but with a higher composition of aluminum. Prescription antiperspirant formulas vary and may or may not contain alcohol (a known skin irritant for some people).


Now that we've learned about controlling perspiration, let's explore what can be done about odor. Sweat that comes from your underarms and anal-genital area is more likely to give off an odor. Everyone's body has a distinctive natural scent; the passing of time and strenuous activity brings out a more intense smell. Your doctor can advise you on how to keep this odor in check, but there are a few things you should try before seeking professional help. Try using an antibacterial soap at least twice a day when you bathe, and be sure to pat your skin dry. Apply a light layer of loose baby powder or cornstarch to odor-prone zones, and use an antiperspirant, deodorant or antiperspirant-deodorant combo. You'll also want to drink plenty of water, which is an overall healthy habit and can help with odor control.

After you've exhausted alternative treatments, and if a prescription deodorant isn't cutting it, your doctor may recommend surgery or Botox injections. But for now, cut back on the coffee and try not to sweat it.

To learn more about sweat, antiperspirants and deodorant, see the great links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Clark, Josh. "What's the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant?" June 30, 2008. (Sept. 24, 2009).
  • Freudenrich, Craig. "How Sweat Works." Oct. 9, 2000. (Sept. 24, 2009).
  • HowStuffWorks. "What is in an antiperspirant that stops sweat?" May 2, 2001. (Sept. 24, 2009).
  • International Hyperhydrosis Society. "Antiperspirants." (Sept. 24, 2009).
  • International Hyperhydrosis Society. "Know Sweat 101: Tips to Manage Excessive Sweating for All Ages." (Sept. 24, 2009).
  • National Cancer Institute. "Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer: Questions and Answers." Jan. 4, 2008. (Sept. 24, 2009).
  • Toothman, Jessika. "How Hyperhydrosis Works." April 28, 2008. (Sept. 25, 2009).