Axillary Auxiliary (Armpits!)

It’s getting to be winter in the northern hemisphere, and that means more time spent indoors. And for some it means travel, holiday gatherings, and generally more time spent in close proximity to others. For a lot of us punk type folks, winter also means experiencing a wide range of quickly changing temperatures along with sometimes negotiating space with non-punks. Maybe it’s cold where you sleep, and hot where you work. Or it’s cold where you usually sleep, and hot where you’re spending your holidays. For me, being in a warm place often coincides with being around people I don’t want to share my smell with Here’s the scene: it’s chilly where I get dressed so I sleep in long-johns, jump out of bed and put on lots of layers as fast as I can, then I go somewhere hot and take off layers, only to discover that I totally stink under there. Sometimes, like when I’m with a lover, this is totally fine- even preferred. Other times, I’m with people I don’t want to share ‘smell-intimacy’ with, for me that’s some friends, some co-workers, classmates, and family. Personally, I only like to share the way my body smells with people I share other things about my body with. For me, my smell is personal and lovely and I don’t want to share it with just anyone. Some people figure capitalist society wants to reduce our smell to reduce our wildness, I personally think they just like to capitalize on insecurity because it’s a great way to sell people stuff. For me, deciding to stink all the time in reaction to capitalism would still be a way of making a decision about my body with culture at the center, rather than myself. Relationship to body odor is of course different for everyone, but whatever your own reasons are for wanting understand the causes or perhaps lessen your odor, read on!

So, first things first: how does it work? Body odor (here i’m speaking mostly of armpit smell) is caused by several things. I’m going to keep this post simple, the main cause is bacterial poop. Sweat itself has no smell. For real. It really doesn’t. Ok. Folks have loads of bacteria on our skin at all times, just like we have bacteria in our guts. These bacteria (also referred to as “normal flora” just like the gut bacteria) are mostly helpful, living peacefully on your skin and taking up all the space so that bad bacteria can’t get established and cause trouble. These bacteria need to eat and poop (or “take in nutrients and excrete”, the process looks a bit different for them than it does for us) just like every other living thing. Their poop makes up your smell. It’s your smell because they are your bacteria.

So, the smell in your armpits is (pretty much) due to bacterial poop. They (pretty much) eat your sweat. People have different smells because they have different bodies, and different habits, and slightly different bacteria. This has to do with genetics, habits, favorite foods, medications, environment, etc!The immune system balances our skin flora and there isn’t generally a reason to worry with its composition. The immune system sorts them out and if all is going pretty alright, it ‘picks’ the ones for you. Interestingly, there is evidence that people are attracted to the body odor of people whose immune systems are very different than their own! Some people have an “extra” type of sweat gland in their armpits that secrete a milky sweat that’s rich in proteins, pheromones, and other things bacteria love to snack on. This sweat doesn’t have it’s own smell either, but it contributes to a more odoriferous armpit by being really nutritious as compared to that of folks who just have the one kind of sweat gland. But the point is really the bacteria and their poop here, not the sweat, so let’s get back to that.

There are several ways to reduce armpit smell. Below are some of my favorites.

Generally speaking, these strategies work best after cleaning the armpits with soap and water.

No ins, No outs: you can reduce the amount you sweat thus taking away the bacteria’s food. No food means no poop means no smell. This is a little hard to accomplish, and is basically the arena of anti-perspirants. I go this route when I know i’m going to be sweating, like during stressful interviews. This way I also avoid looking quite as nervous, i.e., no tell-tale wet spots on my nice shirts. Anti-perspirants aren’t too good for your health though, so I recommend using them somewhat sparingly.

Is that… swamp violets?: you can cover the smell with another smell. Sometimes this works just fine, sometimes it is not helpful (some personal smells are just too strong). This is the realm of deodorants without anti-perspirant. If you are taking this route, I suggest picking a scent that “goes along with” your own scent, rather than against it. I personally think muskier, woodsier scents tend to go well with body odor and powdery/floral scents go badly with it. This is clearly a matter of opinion.

Faster– Kill!! Kill!!: If you kill off the bacteria in your armpits, you won’t have armpit smell until they come back. Don’t worry, they repopulate just fine from the surrounding area, but you’ll have a little while (hours?) scent-free. Basically, splash or wipe your ‘pits with rubbing alcohol. This is a great method to use if you don’t have any deodorant on hand but you do have rubbing alcohol. It isn’t great for your skin, so don’t do it all the time. But, say you only need to not-smell like once a year (holidays, anyone?) and you don’t want to buy deodorant just for that one day… this is a great method! I use this method also when I’m working in a clinic or hospital (where alcohol wipes are plentiful) and forgot to de-stink before I got there. An extra note- a good option if you have “the philly funk”, also known as “spaghetti fungus”, the alcohol will help you get rid of it.

No home and it’s got to roam(?): If you shave your armpits, you will smell less. The hair traps the smell and holds onto it. Shaving won’t totally eliminate it, but it really can make a big difference. I prefer to trim the hair really short with a beard trimmer, myself. I do this before I go traveling, or any other time I might not be showering as much.

ARRRRTTAAAXXXX!!!! or, too slow to poop: this is your salt “crystal” deodorants. The salt makes your armpits so dang salty that the bacteria either die, or slow their metabolism so much that they aren’t pooping. I think of it as if they are stuck in quick-sand, though this metaphor actually has nothing to do with what’s physically happening. This stuff works really well and as far as I can tell, isn’t bad for you. You will still sweat, and the bacteria will live, but they will not be able to grow and eat and poop. Here’s the deal though: the crystal-salt has to actually coat your skin. This means if you have a lot of armpit hair, it’s not going to work quite as well. My suggestions here, either shave the hair or trim it short with clippers (I use a beard trimmer), then wet the crystal and rub it on your armpit. The trick here is to rub it all over and rub it a lot of times. Try rubbing up and down and also side to side. It’s got to coat the area. If you don’t want to remove hair, or if you don’t have ready access to water, I suggest the crystal roll on or spray- it’s already liquified and more easily coats and gets past hair. Either way, once you get it on there, it basically lasts until you shower or rub it off. This is a really good option for many punks in my opinion. It doesn’t add extra smells necessarily, and it works, and it isn’t bad for you. Your punk friends won’t know you’re using deodorant, and you also won’t be sharing your personal smell with others. The other punk-friendly thing here is that the solid forms of crystal deodorant last for years. I’ve been using the same crystal deodorant for almost three years now! Note- I’m talking about potassium alum, sold as “crystal deodorant”, not table-salt or quartz.

Well, that’s sums it up for now! There are surely other methods out there, let me know if you know of any good ones! I hope negotiating this coming holiday(s) goes alright for folks. 

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