How Body Odor Works

Antiperspirants and Deodorants

In 1888, a product called Mum hit the markets and kicked off the personal deodorant industry that is in full flourish today. Mum was the first commercially trademarked antiperspirant in the United States but it was messy and hard to apply. Things improved by the turn of the century with stick-style deodorants and later aerosols, which eventually fell out of favor due to their role in depleting the ozone layer.

Today, Americans spend over $2 billion a year tackling their BO [source: Park].

There are two primary ways to minimize axillary, or armpit, odor: antiperspirants and deodorants. Antiperspirants work because they contain one or more chemicals like aluminum chloride or hydroxybromide. When microscopic portions of the aluminum enter the skin, they take water with them. This causes sweat ducts to swell and eventually close, preventing them from delivering their contents to the skin's surface. Less sweat means less breeding ground for bacteria, which means less odor. Antiperspirants tend not to be as effective when applied immediately after a shower, as the body is still moist, which may keep the substances from sticking to the skin. The strongest antiperspirants available contain 12 percent aluminum chloride and include Certain Dri and Xerac. If they don't get the job done, stronger preparations containing up to 20 percent aluminum chloride are available by prescription.

If you don't sweat to excess, a deodorant might be sufficient to muffle your malodor. Deodorants don't block the body's natural sweating mechanisms. Instead, they use a variety of chemicals like triclosan, an antibacterial agent that makes the environment under your arms inhospitable to the critters that foul your personal airspace.

For people who like to go natural -- but not au naturale in terms of odor protection -- there are deodorants like Tom's of Maine that are free from synthetic chemicals. When evaluating such products, it can be helpful to look for ingredients such as chamomile, lemongrass, sage, licorice, goldenseal, tea-tree oil or coriander -- which have either anti-odor or antibacterial properties.

Another natural option is a mineral crystal deodorant that makes the underarm environment too salty for odor-causing bacteria to thrive. Because everyone's body chemistry is different, it may take a bit of experimentation to find a natural deodorant that works for you but the science of making the skin's surface unfriendly to bacteria is sound, and thousands of people use these products successfully every day.

Still having trouble with body odor? It might be time to consider if a medical condition is the cause, as we do in the next section.