To sweat, perhaps to stink? Perish the thought! At the first inkling of wetness, whether it's from the heat or just a bad case of nerves, we panic. We know what comes next-putrid, pervasive body odor. To guard against becoming odorous social outcasts, we spray, powder, and perfume ourselves religiously with drugstore deodorants and antiperspirants.
Although we'll do just about anything to inhibit wetness, sweat is actually good for us. Not only does it regulate our body temperature by cooling us when we're overheated, but also it helps remove toxins from our system. And surprisingly, body odor may also serve a purpose. Since human body odor develops during adolescence, some researchers believe that naturally produced scents contain pheromones, the chemicals that attract the opposite sex. According to James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press, 1997), "Scientists have known for a long time that pheromones play a principle role in animal mating. But until fairly recently, conventional scientific wisdom held that these chemicals had no amorous effect on us humans. Now studies have demonstrated that pheromones do indeed play a subtle but very real role in human attraction."
The Smell from Hell
While some body odors may be attractive, even downright sexy, too much of a good thing can be embarrassing. What produces the noxious odor we've come to dread? Our bodies contain two types of sweat glands-eccrine and apocrine. While the eccrine glands act as the body's thermostat, the sweat they produce has no smell. The odor comes from the apocrine glands, located under the arms, around the nipples, and in the genital area. Composed mainly of water and salt, sweat from the apocrine glands is fairly benign-at least until it comes in contact with the bacteria that lives on the surface of the skin. This bacteria feeds on sweat and decomposes it, causing odor. According to Dr. Duke, the only way to prevent the build-up of bacteria is to wash it away every six hours or so-an impractical goal at best.
Diet can also play a major role in the odor we produce. "The type of foods you eat can contribute to the way you smell," says Elson M. Haas, MD, founder and director of the Preventative Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California, and author of The Detox Diet (Celestial Art, 1996). According to Dr. Haas, a meat-based diet and highly spiced foods can heighten body odor. To counteract a potentially odorous diet, he recommends adding some deodorizing foods to your meal including papaya, pineapple, cinnamon, oregano, and parsley, which have bacteria-fighting properties.
Ok, you meditate regularly, shower daily, and eat only the right foods, but just as a precaution you reach for the deodorant. Over-the-counter deodorants and antiperspirants may stem the flow and stop the odor thanks to a myriad of chemicals, but could this additional odor insurance actually be hazardous to your health, especially after decades of daily use? Deodorants are designed to kill bacteria and mask offending odors with a pleasant long-lasting scent using synthetic chemicals, fragrances, and colors, many of which are derived from petroleum sources. Whether deodorants come in the form of a spray, cream, roll-on, or solid stick, most contain propylene glycol. In industry, propylene glycol is used in anti-freeze and brake fluid. Readily absorbed into the skin, recent studies have tied this chemical to contact dermatitis, kidney damage, and liver abnormalities. It also inhibits skin cell growth and directly alters cell membranes.
Another ingredient commonly found in deodorants, deodorant soaps, and body washes is triclosan, a broad-spectrum antibacterial. An ingredient that can cause allergic contact dermatitis, long-term exposure to triclosan has been linked to liver damage in animals.
Antiperspirants, on the other hand, reduce perspiration by blocking the pores with aluminum compounds. Since these compounds must remain in the pores for long periods of time to work effectively, they are easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Aluminum-based ingredients, which are one of the leading causes of skin irritation, are also suspected of contributing to the development of Alzheimer's disease. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, "a statistically significant trend emerged between increasing lifetime use of aluminum-containing antiperspirants and the estimated relative risk of Alzheimer's disease."
Back in 1966 a new deodorant product appeared on store shelves which claimed to be "essential to your cleanliness and your peace of mind about being a girl-an attractive, nice-to-be-with girl." The labels on feminine deodorant sprays have changed over the past three decades to reflect our changing society, but until recently the ingredients were essentially the same. Promising to banish odor in the genital area, these products traditionally relied on talc to keep private parts fresh and dry. Chemically similar to asbestos, talc has been linked to an increase in ovarian cancer in a study by Dr. Linda Cook of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Since the chemicals found in talc-based products migrate up the vaginal canal to the reproductive tract, the study found that women who used feminine deodorant sprays had an increased ovarian cancer risk of 90 percent. While the two leading manufacturers of feminine deodorant sprays have switched from talc to cornstarch in response to consumer demand, other ingredients found in these products remain a cause for concern.
Most prevalent are benzyl alcohol, which is corrosive to the skin and mucous membranes, and isopropyl myristate, an ingredient which can cause blackheads. The University of Maryland, College Park Health Center warns that these irritants can also contribute to the development of yeast infections when sprayed on underwear and sanitary pads or, as manufacturers suggest, directly on the vaginal area.
While the makers of feminine deodorant sprays have gotten the message regarding talc, manufacturers of deodorant body powders haven't. Unfortunately, neither have the thousands of women who liberally sprinkle these powders under their arms and around their genital area every day.
Seduced by catchy advertising jingles, these women are unaware of the fact that not only are they increasing their risk of ovarian cancer by 60 percent, but also according to a report by the National Toxicology Program, each fragrant cloud of powder deposits a fine, but irritating, coating of talc in their respiratory tract. Prolonged inhalation can lead to respiratory disease.
If, by this time, you've decided to forget the whole thing and simply mask odor with a dose of your favorite eau de cologne, think again. Synthetic fragrances are among the leading cause of allergic reactions according to the FDA, who've received complaints of headaches, dizziness, rashes, hyper pigmentation (brown spots), coughing, vomiting, and skin irritation.
Despite all these potential health hazards, manufacturers aren't required to list the ingredients on the labels of perfumes. According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, 95 percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, 84 percent of which have never been tested for safety.
Of those that have been tested, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that 884 were found to be toxic and capable of producing respiratory problems, neurotoxicity, multiple chemical sensitivities, and allergic reactions.
Many of these synthetic chemicals are listed as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including methyl ethyl ketone, methylene chloride, and a-Terpineol, all of which can adversely affect the central nervous system. Benzaldehyde, a highly toxic allergen is also a common addition to perfumes. A number of synthetic ingredients can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, including benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, and acetone. Salicylic acid, used as a fixative in perfumes, may cause photosensitivity.
If you're hooked on perfume but would like to play it safe, experiment with the vast array of pure essential oils on the market today. Simply dilute a few drops of the essential oil in 1/4 cup of vegetable oil and dab on your pulse points for a delicious scent.
Nice 'N' Natural
Fortunately, you can avoid the chemicals found in deodorants, antiperspirants, and perfumes and still enjoy feeling fresh and dry. While nothing takes the place of proper hygiene and frequent bathing, a number of natural deodorants are available that prevent odor sans petrochemicals, using antibacterial herbs such as coriander, licorice, and thyme. Some include essential oils, such as lavender and tea tree oil, which boost the products' antiseptic effect. To check wetness, look for products containing natural astringents such as witch hazel and sage.
One product gaining popularity is the deodorant stone. Made from mineral salts, the stone not only banishes odor but also shrinks pores to reduce the flow of perspiration. To use, simply wet the stone and rub it under your arms to keep you smelling sweet all day. According to manufacturers, one stone will last a year or more, making it an economical, synthetic-free alternative to traditional sticks and roll-ons.
Or head to the kitchen to make your own herbal remedies. For an effective deodorant/antiperspirant, combine a handful of dried sage and thyme in a large bowl. Cover the herbs with boiling water and steep for 30 minutes. Cool, then strain the liquid into a clean spray bottle. To use, simply spritz the mixture under the arms and allow it to dry before dressing.
If you prefer powders, try a dusting of baking soda (a terrific deodorizer), arrowroot, or cornstarch. These natural powders have absorbent properties and are safe to use on sanitary pads and vaginal areas.