Ever catch a whiff of yourself only to be met with what you’d imagine onions going bad smells like? Yep, that’s B.O. hard at work. There’s no two ways about it: Everyone gets body odor. Whether you experience it rarely or on the reg, foul B.O. is an all-too common dilemma that even the most hygienic of people deal with at some point or another. But before you reach for every stick, spray, and gel deodorant you own, there may be an easier way to fend off those odors — and it’s likely already in your skin care drawer. Two words: Glycolic acid.
It’s hailed for its exfoliating and complexion-brightening properties when it comes to skin care, but using glycolic acid as a deodorant is also the latest beauty hack to make waves in the industry. Though it may sound unthinkable at first, it has several dermatologist’s stamp of approval. And, applying the ingredient onto common B.O. hot spots may come with other skin care benefits (more on that later).
Below, TZR spoke to board-certified dermatologists to learn why B.O. forms in the first place, how the well-loved skin care ingredient can help keep said BO in check, how to actually use the acid as a deodorant, and if there are any risks involved.
Why Does Body Odor Occur?
It’s pretty simple: body odor occurs when sweat mixes with bacteria. As board-certified dermatologist Dr. Azadeh Shirazi explains, sweat itself is virtually odorless — rather, it's the rapid growth of bacteria that breaks down sweat into acids that causes an unpleasant smell. “Body odor can be influenced by hormones, the food you eat, infections, medications, or underlying conditions like diabetes or other metabolic conditions,” notes Dr. Shirazi, who adds that the most common areas people experience B.O. are areas that lack airflow such as the armpits, feet, groin, genitals, and pubic area.
How Does Glycolic Acid Fight Body Odor?
Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that works by “breaking the bonds between the outer layer of skin cells (including the dead skin cells), exfoliating them off, and boosting cell renewal,” Dr. Shirazi tells TZR. “This results in a peeling effect that leaves the skin smoother.” As it relates to the skin on your face, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Brendan Camp of MDCS Dermatology notes that the acid can help brighten your complexion, improve discoloration, and lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. But what can do this for foul-smelling pits?
“It is thought that glycolic may help address body odor by lowering the pH of the skin and thus, making it less likely for bacteria to survive,” explains Dr. Camp. “By lowering the bacterial burden on the skin, glycolic acid may help reduce body odor.”
But make no mistake: A glycolic acid formula may only help with body odor but it will not function like an antiperspirant, as Dr. Shirazi says glycolic acid does nothing to reduce or absorb sweat. Rather, because glycolic acid is anti-bacterial, it can help to exfoliate dead skin cells that contribute to bacterial build up and eventually, body odor.
As board-certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep Dr. Alicia Zalka says, “sweat is intentional, odor is preventable.” You can “embrace sweat (unless it is excessive as in the medical condition known as hyperhidrosis) while preventing unwanted odor by using a [glycolic acid-containing] formula,” she says.
Other Benefits To Glycolic Acid
Struggling with dark underarms? Swiping on a glycolic acid formula may help. According to Dr. Camp, dark underarms are caused by layers of dead skin cells accumulating on the skin surface. But by exfoliating these dead skin cells away via glycolic acid, this may help lessen this hyperpigmentation.
Glycolic acid may also help fight ingrown hairs by loosening up the dead skin cells and sebum that block pores. It can also help prevent razor bumps and reduce inflammation if you’re prone to it. Finally, making the switch to a glycolic acid formula gives your skin a break from traditional deodorants and antiperspirants, which tend to “layer residue on your skin day after day, clogging pores and sweat ducts,” notes Dr. Zalka.
Risks To Using Glycolic Acid Deodorants
Glycolic acid is an acid after all, and like all chemical exfoliants, you’ll want to be mindful of overdoing it. Over-exfoliation can occur if you combine a high concentration of a glycolic acid-containing formula with things like shaving or waxing, which also exfoliates the skin. This can damage the skin barrier and lead to inflammation as well as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, particularly in darker skin tones, notes Dr. Shirazi.
You’ll want to skip this trend altogether if you’re getting laser hair removal treatments in the underarm area, as Dr. Camp says these treatments may disrupt the barrier function of the skin, rendering it more susceptible to irritation from glycolic acid.
Finally, bear in mind that the underarm skin is thin, delicate, and at risk for rubbing and friction, which can further exacerbate risk of irritation, says Dr. Zalka. You may also experience stinging if you apply an acid-based product directly onto your skin after shaving or waxing. Dr. Zalka recommends looking for glycolic acid deodorants that contain anti-inflammatory ingredients, as well as conducting a patch test to see how your skin reacts.
How To Use Glycolic Acid As A Deodorant
The market isn’t exactly brimming with glycolic acid-based deodorants just yet, but there are certainly options. Follow the instructions of the product if you’re using a glycolic acid deodorant (usually this just involves swiping it on like a traditional deodorant). Aside from this, you can use a glycolic acid skin care product (like a toner or serum), but it’s best to start low and go slow. “At first you can apply a lower concentration of 5 to 7% every other day,” recommends Dr. Shirazi, who notes that a cream formulation may be better tolerated than gels or liquid toners. Then, once you know your skin can tolerate it, you can up the frequency.
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