Louise Chang, MD
If your skin becomes irritated when it comes in contact with certain jewelry, laundry detergent, or soaps, or you have a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis, you know how important it is to pamper and protect your skin. Although your underarms might not be top of mind when you think of hot spots of sensitivity, they should be.
“The underarm area practically invites antiperspirant irritation: The thin, delicate skin is more prone to allergic reactions, plus the warm, moist environment is a breeding ground for bacteria,” says dermatologist David Bank, MD, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Friction caused when underarms rub against skin or clothing can cause further skin irritation.
Finding a nonirritating antiperspirant for sensitive skin, or a combination antiperspirant-deodorant product, that stops sweat and body odor can be a challenge. But it’s not impossible if you carefully read the list of antiperspirant ingredients. Bank suggests checking for these key things.
Aluminum. Aluminum-based compounds are the most widely used active antiperspirant ingredient because they temporarily stop moisture flow to the skin by plugging sweat ducts. But aluminum in antiperspirants can irritate some people's skin. You can look for aluminum-free antiperspirants or check the antiperspirant’s active ingredient section for a gentler form of aluminum. Sensitive skin may be more tolerant of aluminum sesquichlorohydrate, Bank says.
Alcohol. Aluminum compounds and other active antiperspirant ingredients are often dissolved in alcohol because it dries quickly and feels cool when applied to skin. But it may also dry out skin and causes antiperspirant irritation. Because alcohol is commonly used in roll-ons, aerosols, and gels, people with sensitive skin might want to use antiperspirant sticks. Check the ingredient list before buying to see if it's alcohol-free.
Fragrance. Perfumes mask body odor and deliver a feeling of freshness, but they’re also a leading cause of skin sensitivities and rashes, Bank says. For this reason, he suggests avoiding combination antiperspirant-deodorant products. “If the product says ‘deodorant,’ then it contains a body-masking fragrance,” Bank says. Even products simply labeled antiperspirant may still contain perfumes, so check the antiperspirant ingredient list for the words fragrance, perfume, or parfum.
Parabens. Parabens are the most widely used preservative in cosmetics, but they may irritate underarm skin for some people, especially if the area’s been damaged by razor burn or cuts. Many major brands of antiperspirants are paraben-free, but you can check the antiperspirant ingredients list for words ending in -paraben, such as methylparaben or propylparaben, to be sure.
Even the best ingredient sleuths may sometimes develop an antiperspirant irritation. “Skin sensitivities can crop up unexpectedly,” Bank says. In fact, it’s possible to suddenly have a reaction to products that have never bothered you in the past. If an irritating rash develops, stop using the antiperspirant and wait until the area clears up before trying something different. This doesn’t mean you need to keep a 12-feet odor guard between you and others in the meantime. Bank suggests patting or dust baking soda onto clean, dry underarms at night and in the morning to help control odor and sweat.
SOURCES:National Cancer Institute web site, “Antiperspirants/deodorants and breast cancer: Questions and answers.” David Bank, MD, director, Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery, Mount Kisco, N.Y.
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