In wellness and beauty spaces, we're regularly asked to "detox" a lot of ourselves. Detox our pores, our gut, our diet, and so on. One of the strangest areas we do this? The armpits. But anecdotally, many who say they switch from traditional antiperspirants to natural deodorants note they go through a "transitory" phase where they feel they sweat and stink more. To speed this phase up, some tout an armpit detox.
This, of course, is hotly debated—with some swearing by it, while others deem it unnecessary. Here's what you need to know.
What is an "armpit detox"?
Armpit detox is the transition from antiperspirant to natural deodorant. It often involves masking your armpits with charcoals, clay, apple cider vinegar, or mud to accelerate your transition from antiperspirant to natural deodorant. But to explain why you do this, we need to explain the difference between traditional antiperspirants and natural deodorants, why people make the switch, and what happens to the area when you do.
Antiperspirant vs. deodorant:
Antiperspirant and deodorant are not interchangeable words.
- Antiperspirants are products designed to stop you from sweating (hence, anti and perspirant). They do so with aluminum, which blocks the sweat from coming out your pores.
- Deodorants do not address sweating but do prevent smell by targeting odor-causing bacteria and/or masking the B.O. with fragrance.
Why do people make the switch?
Some decide to make the transition from antiperspirant to deodorant over concerns about ingredients, like the aforementioned aluminum. The scientific consensus around how concerning these are is still widely debated in skin care circles, with some arguing that they have been proved safe—while others claim it's not worth the potential risk. Still others simply make the switch due to having sensitive skin and not being able to tolerate traditional products, and they find natural options are more soothing. In addition, some folks deal with hyperpigmentation in the area and find natural, fragrance-free deodorants to be better suited for their needs.
Regardless, it is simply a personal hygiene choice that individuals can make for themselves. If you want to make the switch to natural deodorant, great, and if you don't, it's also your call.
Why would you try an armpit detox mask?
While this is a completely normal process your body might go through, internet- and social-media-led stories say applying a mask to the area will aid in this transition. Here are the purported benefits:
- Helps "purge" antiperspirant ingredients. This is the claim you'll most often see touted, but there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Your body sheds the antiperspirant ingredients in about 24 hours naturally, so what you're experiencing after that point is simply your body readjusting.
- Curbs odor. Anything that cleans the area can help curb odor, so if you decide to skip the mask, soap and water can do just fine. Then the natural deodorant you apply after will help mask it long term.
- Soothes skin irritation. As some people are irritated by antiperspirant ingredients ("The downside to antiperspirants is that they dry skin in an effort to decrease sweating and may cause irritation if used too liberally or if used on sensitive skin," says Nazarian), some look to masks to help calm the skin. If this is you, be sure to patch test the mask beforehand so as not to further irritate the inflamed skin.
- Balances the microbiome. Here's where the theoretical use does hold some weight. Given your armpits' micro niche is adjusting to switching products, you can help the area by using masks that aid the biome. In DIY versions, the biome-balancing ingredient is usually vinegar, as it will help bring the skin's pH back to its slightly acidic natural state. While the research on the armpits biome is still developing, there are some studies that suggest switching from antiperspirants causes an increase in the odor-causing Actinobacteria1. And by bringing your baseline pH back to normal, you can help balance out the bacteria in the area, theoretically encouraging Actinobacteria to go back to normal levels.
Does it work & how long will it take?
Here's the thing: Your body naturally "purges" antiperspirant ingredients from the pores within 24 hours. And it does so naturally and totally on it's own (your body's pretty cool, no?). However, some people feel that for several weeks or months after their switch, they have increased sweat and odor. This is an anecdotal phenomenon that actually is traced back to your pores, microbiome, and leveling out sweat output. (We'll explain in full below.) But again: Your body actually does this naturally, and so while you can use a mask during this time, your body doesn't need it.
As for how long it takes you to get used to using deodorant? Ultimately, your body will adjust to your new product in time and on its own schedule. This is unsurprising: Every new skin care product you introduce will take time to get used to, and your pits are no different. If you choose to use a mask during this transition, it may help aid the microbiome and skin itself, but it will do little to help "purge" the area as your body does that naturally regardless.
And what do experts say about using a mask? More or less the same: "Many people use clay products to absorb the moisture and odor, but, again, it doesn't offer any major benefit," says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC.
DIY armpit mask
Let's say you want to try it (by all means!), here's a simple DIY version you can whip up at home. Here's the most popular at-home mixture:
- 1 Tbsp. bentonite clay
- 1 to 2 tsp. water
- 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
Mix all ingredients together, gently apply to the area with your fingers, and rinse off in the shower after about 10 minutes.
Common armpit mask ingredients
You'll see several common mask ingredients floating around social media and the internet. So let's dive into why they might be used, as well as some cautions.
- Baking soda: Baking soda is used in many at-home beauty recipes from shampoos to scrubs. For your armpit, you can use it as an exfoliant—however, many people are sensitive to the ingredient as it can dramatically alter the skin's pH. Please be cautious if you go this route and spot test on your arm prior to applying it to your armpit.
- Bentonite clay: A classic clay that's included in our DIY recipe above, this ingredient is chock full of minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium. Bentonite clay is porous, and thus can absorb gunk, dirt, moisture, and so on—making it popular for "detox" masks for your hair, skin, body, and pits. If you're looking for the most popular option, reach for Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay.
- Apple cider vinegar: This do-it-all tonic is acidic, and thus shifts the skin microbiome—making it less habitable for odor causing bacteria.
- Activated charcoal: Another popular skin care ingredient, activated charcoal attracts stuff from your pores.
What actually happens when you transition to natural deodorant.
"Antiperspirants are absorbed by sweat glands, and the sweat glands do not return to normal levels of sweat production after 24 hours of non-use. It may take several days for the sweat glands to produce their baseline amount of sweating after even one application of antiperspiration," says Nazarian. "As you move further away from use of antiperspirants, during the 'switch,' your body slowly regains the ability to activate sweat glands. Essentially, nothing drastic happens when you stop using conventional antiperspirants; it just takes time for your sweat glands to learn to sweat fully again."
So what we've anecdotally deemed as "purging" or "detoxing" is actually just our body doing what it's supposed to do. "The weeks and days following cessation of these products are when you'll notice sweating increasing and then normalizing to baseline levels—while the natural deodorant aides in masking scent," says Nazarian. "There is no real 'purge' other than this basic adjustment. Just let your body get used to the change or the new product."
But there's also the skin microbiome aspect. The microbiome is what we call the collective of bacteria, yeast, fungi, and other microorganisms that live on our skin. "The skin microbiome changes depending on the 'eco-niche3,' or location. The critters also vary depending on the amount of light and whether the area is moist, dry, hairy, or oily. And the microbiome differs with age and gender4. For instance, a hormonal, sweaty teenage boy sports a very different microbiome than a sedentary, postmenopausal woman," says physician Kara Fitzgerald, N.D.
Your armpits, we know, have a very specific micro niche, which is why the area smells in the first place. Essentially, there are certain strains of bacteria that live in the area, and when you perspire, they consume the sweat and sebum in the area and produce what we know as B.O.
And the microbiome is a very delicate thing that can be influenced by what we put on it. Some theorize that when we go through this transition phase, the excess odor is on account of your skin's microbiome5 readjusting. But again, this is a completely normal thing that happens—your microbiome may be delicate, but it's also resilient. And when you use microbiome-supporting products, it's able to bounce back fairly quickly.
For many, there is a distinct transitional phase marked by fluctuating sweating levels and increased odor. This is a completely normal and natural thing to happen as your body adjusts to a new type of product. And while many deem it as your skin "purging" or "detoxing" certain antiperspirant ingredients, it's really nothing more than your skin getting back to baseline.
If you decide to use an armpit mask, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting it works, but it's not confirmed by research or expert opinion.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.