The History of Masking Body Odor
With climate change making heat waves longer and more intense, one thing is for certain: we will be sweating more.
Sweating – like breathing, sleeping, or going to the bathroom – is what our bodies do to maintain homeostasis (physiological balance). It’s only within the past hundred or so years that we have conceptualized this bodily process as something to be stopped.
From the Babylonians to Renaissance Europe, people have masked body odor with perfume. What, then, led to the creation of a multibillion-dollar industry of products that prevent odor and sweat? It began in early 20th-century Cincinnati, Ohio, when a surgeon created an antiperspirant to keep his hands sweat-free while performing operations. The surgeon’s daughter would hire an advertising agency to convince the general population – especially young women – that sweating is a social faux pas and bad for one’s romantic life (and, therefore, they need the surgeon’s hand antiperspirant for the underarms) (Everts, 2012).
The Origins of Antiperspirants
For years, there’s been concern that aluminum-based salts in antiperspirants – which are being used with much greater frequency than, for example, perfumes in ancient Mesopotamia – are not just unnecessary, but can cause breast cancer. The concern is largely due to the fact that breast cancer has a propensity to first develop in the upper outer quadrant of the breast area – the same place where antiperspirant is applied. Yet so far science has not found a conclusive link between antiperspirants and breast cancer (Namer et. al., 2008, Allam, 2016). The one study that did find such a link (and claimed that antiperspirants, by blocking sweat glands, lead to a backup of sex hormones) was poorly designed and didn’t use a control group – and also failed to mention that, as it is, the upper outer quadrant has more breast tissue than other quadrants to begin with (Gorski, 2014).
Even though the link between aluminum-based salts and cancer remains inconclusive, it’s true that, medically speaking, we don’t really need antiperspirants, although it’s understandable why some people use them. One of my cousins takes a medication that causes her to excessively sweat, and she’s self-conscious of her pit stains. I, likewise, am self-conscious of how I smell if I go for one day without applying anything under my arms after showering.
Modern Day Antiperspirants
I’ve opted for what I like to think is a middle road in 21st-century hygiene: to prevent odor, but let my body do its job and sweat. I use a plain crystal stone deodorant. Not only does it lack irritating dyes or fragrances (because it involves just one ingredient – a hunk of potassium alum) but even its mechanism of action is pretty cool. Potassium alum is a naturally-occurring mineral salt (not to be conflated with synthetic aluminum compounds in antiperspirants). Mineral salts are applied to the skin wet, but when they dry they form a salty layer; that layer doesn’t kill odor-causing bacteria, but creates an inhospitable environment for them.
Deodorant sans antiperspirant may not be for everyone, but if you don’t mind a bit of odorless dampness, a crystal stone might be for you!
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-Written by Laura Miller