What's the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant?

The Neanderthal people (shown circa 30,000 B.C.) depicted in this illustration likely would've smelled pretty ripe.
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

You stink. But don't worry, all people do. Humans emit a natural body odor: a heady, rank scent, with which anyone who's ridden the subway in any major metropolitan area is familiar. It's an ancient odor -- anthropologist Louis Leakey suspected the original function of body odor was to make humans repellent to animals who sought to eat us [source: Ramirez].

Research into body odor has found that people produce unique scents called odortypes, based in part on both genetics and environmental factors, such as what you eat. One 2006 study found that people who eat a vegetarian diet produce a more attractive and pleasant body odor than those who eat meat [source: Havlicek and Lenochova]. Studies like these have been used to counter arguments that different races have characteristic body odors, a theory that some anthropologists claim propagates racist attitudes [source: Lynn].


Whether body odor is affected by race, diet or some other factor, people typically try to mask their natural scents -- usually with hefty doses of perfume. It wasn't until the late 1950s, however, that it became an actual social taboo to smell in most Western societies. The taboo set in around the time that marketing firms launched advertising campaigns to sell deodorant. These firms tapped social insecurity among consumers by suggesting they would become pariahs if they failed to use deodorant to cover their body odor [source: Ramirez]. Despite the fact that deodorants offer no real health benefits -- unlike soap and toothpaste -- you could say these marketing campaigns were successful. In 2006, sales of products that combat body odor and prevent the unpleasant feeling of sweating under the arms reached $2.5 billion in the United States alone [source: Mintel].

Today, there are shelves of personal hygiene products designed to keep your odor at bay available at any grocery store or pharmacy. They come in myriad scents with names like "Touch," "Powder Fresh," and "Scent Killer" (for the deer hunters among us) [source: Wildlife Research Center]. But if you look closely, you'll find that some sticks, sprays and roll-ons are deodorants while others are antiperspirants. Have you ever wondered what the difference is? Find out on the next page.


Functions of Deodorant and Antiperspirant

Showing off her prize-winning axillae (with Chuck Woolery) is Nikki Bohannon at Dove Deodorant's 2002 Most Beautiful Underarms contest.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The basic difference between antiperspirants and deodorants is that the former keeps you from sweating while the latter cuts down on what makes you stink when you do sweat. To get to the nuts and bolts of the difference, though, you'll have to learn a little armpit anatomy. There are several sources for our natural scent. The most prolific perpetrator is the underarm. The scent produced here is called axillary body odor (named after the medical term for the underarm, axilla).

You've got two types of sweat glands all over your skin, and they're both found most highly concentrated in your underarm. These glands don't generally begin to develop until humans hit puberty, so most people don't produce body odor until around age 11 or 12 [source: Greenberg]. The eccrine glands act to cool you off when you're hot. These glands excrete only water and salt and have nothing to do with your troublesome body odor. The apocrine glands are the culprit behind your terrible smell. These glands carry secretions of fats and proteins from within your body, along with your sweat, to the exterior surface of your skin. Here, these fats and proteins react with bacteria to create an odor [source: Lynn].


Deodorants don't have any reinforcements to keep you from sweating -- once you apply deodorant to your axilla and go play basketball, you're going to perspire. But deodorant does work to counteract the smell that's produced after the fats and proteins emitted from your cells migrate to the surface of your skin. Deodorant targets the bacteria that hang around your armpits. Ingredients like triclosan in deodorants make the skin in your underarm too salty or acidic to support the indigenous bacteria that are meant to thrive there [source: Truitt]. Without any bacteria to feast on the proteins and fats delivered through your sweat, no smell is produced.

Antiperspirants cut down on body odor using the exact opposite principle: They actually keep you from sweating. Without any sweat, the bacteria found in abundance in your underarms don't have anything to eat. Most antiperspirants have some of the same ingredients found in deodorants that kill bacteria as a failsafe [source: Unilever]. Their main function, however, is to keep you from perspiring. They do this through ingredients like aluminum and zirconium, which plug the sweat glands found in your underarms [source: Ramirez]. When you apply antiperspirant, it's literally no sweat.

There may be drawbacks to not smelling like you're meant to, however. Some studies have found a link between breast cancer and antiperspirants. The aluminum found in antiperspirants has been shown to cause DNA mutation, a requisite for uncontrolled growth of cells (cancer) [source: Darbre]. Other studies have refuted this claim, and reproducing results has been hit or miss -- the link remains inconclusive [source: National Cancer Institute]. Equally troubling and mysterious is the warning label found on antiperspirants that suggests the user consult with a physician before using the product if he or she suffers from kidney disease [source: CBS News]. Aluminum can prove fatal in large enough doses to people with impaired kidney function [source: KOMO].

It's a risk many people are willing to take, judging from all the options on the market. Of course, you could buck the entire system by not wearing deodorant at all.

For more information on health and other related topics, visit the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Attkisson, Sheryl. "Sweating over antiperspirants?" CBS News. December 6, 2005. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/12/06/eveningnews/main1101165.shtml
  • Bart, Peter. "Advertising: Success for the deodorants; industry's boom is laid to promotion by Madison Ave. market created on the basic theme of insecurity." New York Times. April 26, 1964. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA081FFD3E5E147A93C4AB178FD85F408685F9
  • Greenberg, Jerrold S. "Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality." Jones and Bartlett. 2006. http://books.google.com/booksid=ZdYh_iFZvbkC&pg=PA485&lpg=PA485&dq=body+odor+begins+age&source=web&ots=Ji3jY01Am0&sig=2GKREq_pUteTwJoBA2e8EFgXXA&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result
  • Havlicek, J. and Lenochova, P. "The effect of meat on body odor attractiveness." Chemical Senses. October 2006. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16891352
  • Lynn, Sharon. "Do members of different cultures have characteristic body odors?" University of South Carolina. http://zebra.biol.sc.edu/smell/ann/myth6.html
  • Ramirez, Anthony. "All about deodorants, the success of sweet smell." New York Times. August 12, 1990. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0CE3D9123AF931A2575BC0A966958260<
  • Truitt, Eliza. "No sweat." Slate. December 28, 2000. http://www.slate.com/id/95549/
  • Vedder, Tracy. "New warning labels coming for antiperspirants." KOMO News. August 31, 2006. http://www.komonews.com/news/archive/4139861.html
  • "Antiperspirants - aluminum and breast cancer." Control Your Impact. http://www.controlyourimpact.com/articles/antiperspirants-aluminum-and-breast-cancer/
  • "Antiperspirants and deodorants - U.S. - February 2007." Mintel Reports. http://reports.mintel.com/sinatra/reports/index/&letter=1/display/id=226537&anchor=a226537/display/id=262586
  • "Antiperspirants/deodorants and breast cancer: questions and answers." National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/AP-Deo
  • "Understanding deodorants and antiperspirants." Unilever Australasia. http://www.unilever.com.au/ourbrands/beautyandstyle/Understanding_deodorants_and_antiperspirants.asp