Why doesn't my deodorant work?

When I told my husband I'd been researching why my deodorant doesn't work, he asked if I meant "antiperspirant." When I told him I'd ordered us a dozen new deodorants for an unscientific trial, he confirmed I meant "antiperspirant." When he sees the title of this piece (Hi, sweetie!), he'll probably think to himself "she means antiperspirant."

As a doctor, he's inclined to focus on what drugs do, and there's a clear difference between deodorant (a fragrance that masks odor) and antiperspirant (a drug that plugs sweat glands). I sweat even when I think about warm weather, so my husband knows I need antiperspirant, not deodorant. 

Turns out we're both right. Deodorant is the retail industry's category for underarm spreads, and antiperspirant is a sub-category of deodorant. At least in retail terms, that means all antiperspirants are deodorants. Furthermore, as a shopper on the female side of the deodorant aisle, I'm more likely to encounter deodorant-antiperspirants than my husband. The men's side contains more stand-alone deodorants than the women's side. Most women's deodorants are antiperspirants. 

Our son has eschewed both terms, electing instead to use the term "toy." 

Snackdinner HQ's deodorant test definitively proved that anything is a toy if you play with it. 

Snackdinner HQ's deodorant test definitively proved that anything is a toy if you play with it. 

Odor? Oh No!

One more reason that I might use "deodorant" as a catch-all term is that I've been socially conditioned to fear smelling bad. 

Sarah Everts attributes this conditioning to Odorono, an antiperspirant invented by a surgeon who wanted to keep his hands dry while performing operations. His daughter, Edna Murphey, thought she could sell it to women.

Odorono early advertisements emphasized their medical value. Odorono was created by a doctor! It's safe! This advertising also functioned to pathologize sweating. If a doctor was advocating a product designed to make you stop sweating, maybe sweating itself was unhealthy. 

After her product achieved modest success during a particularly hot Atlantic City exhibition, Murphey teamed with copy writer James Young, who suggested portraying sweating as a social ailment, not a medical one. In short, stinky women don't get husbands.

Antiperspirant sales boomed. 

Math lessons from the deodorant aisle

Now that we know we're looking for antiperspirant to help us gain and keep husbands, we need to know why some antiperspirants don't stop sweat. And to answer that, we need a quick math lesson. 

Somewhere between Odorono and Gwennyth's list of must-have non-toxic deodorants, American consumers became concerned about the aluminum in most antiperspirants, which has been linked to skin toxicity in breast cancer patients as well as Alzheimer's. But that's like saying that vaccines have been linked to autism. The skin toxicity claim has been debunked, as has the Alzheimer's claim. 

I'm all for aluminum. The more the better. Until recently, my general strategy was to buy the cheapest antiperspirant with the highest concentration of aluminum. That's how I recently came home with a twin pack of...well, I'm not here to shame any particular smooth-talking deodorant, so let's call it Brand X, which was 20% aluminum.

After two mid-day shirt changes, I recognized my first mistake: not all aluminum compounds are created equal. The one I just pitched in the trash can contained Aluminum chlorohydrate. I replaced it with...I'll keep this one confidential too and call it Brand Y, which contained 19% aluminum zirconium trichlorohydrex. 

I didn't have to change my shirt as often, but this deodorant didn't seem worth its steep price tag. I resorted to the Brand Y's 18% aluminum zirconium trichlorohydrex version, which worked better than the 19% version. How is that possible? 

Marketing history has primed me to look at antiperspirant labels in terms of raw numbers. With a husband on the line, it's to my advantage to choose the highest possible concentration of aluminum. It's that logic that got me to pay for the top shelf clinical strength versions, which promise 1-2% more aluminum than their cheaper counterparts. If every tube of antiperspirant was exactly the same shape and size, my strategy would work. But the different applicators erase a lot of the difference between percentage points. If you end up putting on less antiperspirant in a higher concentration, that extra $10 for the clinical version isn't really helping you. 

1) Choose your aluminum.

My current favorite antiperspirant is Brand Z, a peaceful-smelling...well, okay, I'll just tell you it's Dove, which contains aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex. That's my preferred aluminum, but don't take one sweaty woman's word for it. If you want to be absolutely sure which aluminum works best for you, you'll have to collect all 18 approved by the FDA.

2) Choose your concentration.

Once you know the aluminum compound that works best for you, you can play around with the regular and clinical versions. If you start reading labels, you'll notice that most brands use the same aluminum in their regular strength and clinical strength versions. It might be that you don't need the clinical strength (read: more expensive) version if it doesn't apply as evenly for you.

I'm happy to report that, after 3 weeks after switching to Dove, I still have a husband. Stay tuned for an update on correlation vs. causation.