I saw the sponcon, I heard the podcast ads, I was urged by my most granola friends to finally make the great deodorant switch. To live my cleanest, greenest life, and join the aluminum-free army. In a world of natural beauty, our pits have become the final detox frontier. From drugstore to dermstore, there has been a global purge of aluminum, the compound in antiperspirants that temporarily “plugs” your sweat ducts and prevents wetness. The beauty industry’s reasoning? Aluminum’s potential link to diseases like Alzheimer’s and breast cancer, which are yet to be proven with any scientific evidence. My reasoning? Aluminum’s actual link to turning the pits of my white T-shirts yellow, which is proven by both science and by the graveyard of Everlane U-necks that now live in my “pajama drawer.”
My foray into natural deodorant started with Lavanila (too chalky), then transitioned to Schmidt’s (too much baking soda), then forged on to Malin & Goetz (too expensive) and Soapwalla (too intimate with that finger application situation), before finally landing on my holy grail, Crystal Roll-On. I began preaching the gospel to anyone who’d listen. Crystal was cruelty-free, unscented, unfussy, and most importantly, it actually worked! I was finally living my purest, odor-free life. Until, suddenly, my mental health situation changed, and oddly, so did my sweat. Crystal stopped working, and thus my journey began anew, leading me right into the arms of something even better.
The SSRI Sweat Situation
I’ve always been “sensitive” beyond just my delicate ghost skin. Sensitive to the sun and synthetic fabrics. Sensitive to lactose and antibiotics. Sensitive to every beat of the world around me, to the motions and sounds and feelings of others, all distilled into an overwhelming swell in my own brain. Which is ultimately why last year, I was formally diagnosed with a small collection of anxiety and panic disorders. After years in therapy, I decided to finally “add another tool to my mental health toolbox,” and try Lexapro, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which is often used to treat generalized anxiety disorder.
And like any anxious person embarking on a new medical journey, I prepared myself by way of internet research. On r/lexapro, I learned the side effects of SSRIs could fill an entire universe, from nausea and weight gain, to insomnia and anorgasmia (this isn’t a Lars Von Trier film, it’s the inability to orgasm, which now that I think about it, would make a decent Lars Von Trier film). I would soon become intimately acquainted with all of it and then some, but the one thing I wasn’t prepared for was a curious change in my sweat.
I wasn’t just experiencing night sweats—a symptom noted in the Lexapro leaflet, which was subsiding every day—but “different sweats.” I was sweating more, and smelling worse—like a gym sock steeped in toilet bowl cleaner possibly left to rot in a hamster cage. After researching further, I learned this wasn’t totally abnormal. To put it simply, SSRIs increase levels of serotonin in the brain, and affect both the hypothalamus, which sets our core temperature, as well as the spinal cord, which can lead to excessive sweating. Turns out I had taken my special flavor of body odor for granted, assumed that it was a trait as permanent as my eye color. But I was wrong. It was the dawn of a new era of stank, and I needed something stronger than Crystal Roll-On to keep it at bay. But what?
The Curious Incident of the Reddit Thread in the Nighttime
A few weeks later, something caught my eye on Reddit during an insomnia-fueled internet binge: “HOT TIP (got any acids lying around that didn’t work for your skin? try using them as deodorant!).” The original poster claimed that, after using some AHAs and BHAs on her armpits, she no longer needed to use deodorant. I was intrigued. Did I have a bunch of unused acids in my bathroom? Of course. As a r/skincareaddiction phD candidate, I had half a dozen. Did I want to try a new deodorant? Desperately. My brain was thriving, but my odor situation was dire.
So after my next shower, I dug into my medicine cabinet for the Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner that had previously wreaked havoc on my face. I squirted some of the highlighter blue liquid on a cotton pad, gave my pits a few swipes, and went about my day. And I’m delighted to report: Nothing happened. I was still sweating (you need an antiperspirant to be completely dry), but I smelled like, well, nothing.
It turns out Reddit was onto something. According to Michelle Wong, PhD and expert behind Lab Muffin Beauty Science, it’s not your sweat itself that smells, but “the bacteria that are feeding off your sweat and oil glands producing waste.” And the glycolic acid? It “may act like a weather change to the bacteria, causing a low pH environment so they can’t survive.” A Racked article often cited on r/skincare suggests testing this out with watery 2% BHAs or 7-10% AHAs, which are “strong enough for serious daily use, but not peel strength.” And fortunately, there shouldn’t be any risks associated with using these products as deodorant, but look out for irritation just in case. I was lucky enough to strike gold with the first acid I tried, but it’s important to tread carefully those first few weeks.
A Routine Renewed
Months later, my experiment has turned into a habit. My morning self-care routine now consists of Lexapro down the hatch, glycolic acid under my arms, some toothpaste on my teeth, and a lot of sunscreen on my skin. There’s something incredibly satisfying about opting for science over hype, like I’m privy to a secret that magically freed me from a life of twist-up deodorant goo. Although I can’t take credit for inventing this solution, I feel like an enterprising chemist every time I give my pits a swipe. Plus, it’s cheap. I’ve been working away at that $18 Mario bottle for almost a year now. It’s not exactly Instagrammable, but it works for me, for now.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned from my journeys in deodorant and anxiety, it’s that your mileage may vary. Talk to your doctor. Do your own research. Accept that life is one big experiment and sometimes it takes a bunch of tries before something works. And even then, you’ll probably change again. I’ve given up on trying to be a sweet-smelling, photo-ready, goddess of perfection. Instead, I’ve chosen to do what works for me, even if it isn’t luxurious or particularly impressive. Sometimes it’s okay to aspire for unscented.
Olivia Crandall is a writer and illustrator from Chicago. She’s passionate about mental health, reality TV, and crunchy snacks.