As the wellness movement has increased bodily awareness and inspired us to to embrace traditionally less-thought-of parts of our physical being, underarm care has emerged as a new category, one that’s particularly intriguing as the past two years has, for many of us, brought on an abundance of sweat stress. (Or is that just me?) The good news is, perspiration is absolutely a good thing—especially now.
“For humans, the physiology of sweating is crucial to maintaining a safe and healthy body temperature,” says Alicia Zalka, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep, who goes on to explain that we offset excess heat from our bodies by way of our built-in cooling mechanism. “When the body produces too much heat, sweat droplets from within sweat glands are produced,” she continues. “Through the portals of microscopic sweat ducts, moisture permeates on the skin surface. As the moisture of sweat meets the air by evaporation, it releases [and] heat and cooling takes place.”
As important as sweating is to helping the body stay balanced, its outcomes aren’t always desirable—especially when there’s an excess of body odor. But what many don’t realize about sweat is that at its source, it has no smell. “It gains odor when the bacteria known as corynebacterium present on the skin interacts with the sweat and oils creating the smell we know as ‘body odor,’” explains Dr. Zalka. That’s where underarm care, from thorough cleansing and exfoliating to a refreshing deodorant, comes in: to not only to keep odor under control, but also contribute to your body’s overall well-being. Here, a guide to how you can detox and nourish your underarms.
Underarms are a part of the body that’s considered an intertriginous zone, which means that due to the folding of the skin, it’s prone to being moist due to lack of airflow, and it can often harbor particular bacteria and fungal-yeast organisms. “Proper care and cleansing is important to reduce unwanted moisture and keep the natural balance of the microbiome,” explains Dr. Zalka. “Yet, doing so must be approached delicately.” She recommends washing your underarms once a day (no more, unless you have a very athletic or physically demanding job or hobby) and alternating between different pH-balanced body or underarm cleansers.
Like the face, underarms can be impacted by skin sensitivity and irritation. According to Dr. Zalka, “too much oil, clogged pores, pimples (known as folliculitis), and a buildup of dead, dull, and sometimes discolored skin cells,” are all reasons exfoliation should extend below the neck. To this end, there are physical exfoliants, such as masks or scrubs that manually remove dead skin cells and debris, or chemical exfoliants such as toners that harness the power of AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs to gently melt away the buildup. To avoid irritation, Dr. Zalka is partial to the latter, and recommends using a glycolic toner (no more than 5% glycolic acid) to slough away dead skin and improve overall tone and texture, and/or using exfoliating deodorant pads such as Surface Deep’s innovative Anti-Odorant Pads, which team fruit-based glycolic acids with probiotics and antioxidant-rich ingredients to inhibit the bacteria that cause bad odor and reset the natural balance of the skin’s microbiome.
If You Shave, Do So Gently
If you choose to shave your underarms, think of doing so like skiing. “If not done on a smooth surface, you are skiing moguls and it is a bumpy experience,” explains Dr. Zalka. “You want to glide down to prevent razor ouches.” For a smooth shave, a shave gel (or at least a moisturizing cleanser) in a warm shower is critical to prevent razor burn and razor bumps, she emphasizes. If you’re prone to irritation or want to safeguard against ingrown hairs as much as possible, prep the night before. “Go to bed with a thin layer of moisturizer on the area you will be shaving,” instructs Dr. Zalka. “This will create a friction-free experience the next day.” Razor-wise, be sure to change your razor at least once every one to two weeks. “It’s expensive, but prevents problems!” Dr. Zalka emphasizes.
In the same ways your face and body crave moisture, your underarms need hydration to look and feel their best. They just don’t need it quite as frequently. Since they are damp, Dr. Zalka recommends using a pH-balanced underarm or body lotion once or twice a week, or more as needed for dryness. Another tip for keeping underarms sooth and supple: “If you notice irritation, take a break from shaving and deodorant,” she says.
In navigating the deodorant market, Dr. Zalka’s foremost advice is: Listen to your body. “If your deodorant is causing irritation or leaving too much residue on your skin and clothing, choose another.” If you want to take things to the next level, consider opting for one that is “clean and simple,” i.e. fragrance-free and avoiding phthalates, parabens, sulfates, or dyes. “Look for products with the fewest chemicals,” she says. “Isn’t that the case with the foods we eat too?” Additionally, unless you need to block moisture because you have excessive sweating (known as hyperhidrosis), Dr. Zalka advises avoiding aluminum in your deodorant. “Aluminum-containing antiperspirants are lifesavers for some, but we don’t all need aluminum in our day-to-day underarm care,” she explains. “It is possible to prevent odor without blocking sweat. Sweat is intentional; odor is preventable.”
This article was originally published on Vogue US.