The Science of Beauty: How Does Antiperspirant Work?
In our new series, The Science of Beauty, we're going to do a bit more research into the making of a great beauty product. While we've talked about the textures, scents, and efficacy of our favorite formulas in our Reviewed series, this one is meant to feed the other side of the brain—the side we perhaps haven't tapped into since chemistry class. We'll talk science, experiments, and the ingredients that make each product work with experts in each specific field. Then we'll check back in with our favorite hair and makeup artists to get a breakdown on how to best use the products once they're out of the lab and back in our bathrooms.
First, we dove deep into the technology behind volumizing hair products (which are more incredible than we thought, as it turns out). The next beauty marvel we're exploring? Antiperspirant.
Have you ever had a day when you show up to work perfectly on time only to realize, "Oh no, I forgot to put on deodorant?" It's not a good day when all you can think about is whether or not your pit stains are visible. Until these moments, we take the modern miracle that is antiperspirant for granted. When something does its job as well as antiperspirant does, we often fail to stop and think, Wait a second—how does this ish actually work?
To find out the history and chemistry behind this skincare staple, we spoke with two top experts in the field: Dr. Alicia Barba, dermatologist at Dove, and Doug Tomczak, senior R&D manager at Unilever Deodorants.
Keep scrolling for your nerdy beauty lesson of the day!
Before jumping into the lab, let's discuss why antiperspirant is necessary. In other words, why do our armpits get so sweaty?
"Sweating is a defense mechanism we have to protect ourselves from overheating," Barba explains. It does this through a process called the evaporative cooling effect. "As the sweat (which is mostly water) evaporates, it provides a cooling effect," adds Tomczak.
We have sweat glands all over our bodies, but our armpits are a hot zone mostly because they're closed off from the air. That is to say, we notice sweat more under our arms because it can't evaporate as easily from that area as it can from, say, you neck or your limbs.
If you think you sweat way more than other people, your genes might be to blame. "Genetics likely plays a role in determining how many sweat glands we are born with and how much sweat we produce," says Barba. Simple things like consuming too much alcohol, caffeine, and spicy food can factor in, as well.
In more serious cases, medical conditions like hyperhidrosis and endocrine problems can also cause excess sweating, says Barba. If you feel like your sweating is severe (like, no-antiperspirant-on-earth-can-handle-me severe), Barba recommends discussing it with your doctor.
Now let's jump into the technical details. What is the story behind antiperspirants? When were they first invented, and how do they work their magic to make us stop sweating?
According to Tomczak, the first over-the-counter antiperspirant was introduced in 1902 to help control the release of sweat. Ever since then, the technology has steadily improved to offer benefits beyond odor and wetness protection.
The key ingredient in antiperspirants is aluminum salts, which form tiny salt plugs in the sweat glands of the underarms to prevent sweat from exiting the pore. "No sweat, no bacterial breakdown, no smell," Barba says. "Many antiperspirants also contain fragrance, making them deodorants too."
Aluminum is the only material approved by the FDA for use as an antiperspirant, adds Tomczak. Studies have shown a potential connection between aluminum and an increased risk of breast cancer. Though there's no hard evidence, some prefer to go a more natural route.
Though there's no all-natural equivalent that works the same way, certain lifestyle changes can help reduce sweat production. We recommend drinking more water and tea, as water helps reduce your internal body temperature and tannic acid works as a natural astringent.
According to Barba, modern antiperspirants have evolved far beyond simply blocking sweat. Today's products offer skincare benefits and clinical-strength ingredients to suit a variety of different needs, whether you're very active and require more odor control or prefer your antiperspirant to have a super-dry texture.
"Two out of three women experience some kind of underarm issue, whether it be red marks, dry skin, uneven skin tone, or irritation," Barba adds. Keep scrolling to find the right antiperspirant for your skin's needs!
Degree Clinical Protection Antiperspirant ($7)
"The most effective products for wetness control are the clinical products sold in a box," Tomczak explains. If your underarms need the extra help, try this no-nonsense product, which features a formula that responds to your body to offer the longest-lasting wetness and odor protection.