Science Facts

How Does Deodorant Work? – Chemical Process


Deodorant is one of the popular skin care products which helps to keep underarms smelling fresh. Since it can not stop sweating, it is commonly used in winter to stop the odor from escaping pits. All human beings share one thing in common: stink. It’s just a part of life, and each of us stinks uniquely.

Whether it be stinky feet, bad breath, or rank underarms, the culprit is the human microbiota. It is the collective group of microorganisms that live on or in the human body. In underarms, there are up to one million bacteria per square inch, making them odor factories. Sweat plays a big role in odor production, but it isn’t the sweat that stinks. Instead, it’s the byproducts bacteria spit out when chomping down on sweat. This is where deodorant comes in, killing or suppressing the bacteria by being mildly acidic to make it smell nicer.

How does deodorant work?

Modern deodorants don’t just make smell fractionally fresher. They also serve as antiperspirants, reducing the amount of sweat. The modern antiperspirant was invented in the 1940s by a man with the spectacularly French name of Jules Montenier. All-natural deodorants cover the little buggers with essential oils, salts, or alum, but whether they work depends more on the person and their situation.

There are two main glands under the arm that produce sweat: the eccrine and apocrine glands. The primary suspect is the apocrine sweat gland, present in both armpits. Each of the pits contains up to 50,000 glands. And the average human produces around a liter of sweat every day. Members of the Corynebacterium clan manufacture enzymes that break down sweat into a variety of acids. Many of which, including Propionic and Butyric acids, and especially trans-3-methyl Hexeomic acid, stink.

Eccrine lets out a water and salt solution to help cool down, while the apocrine gland lets out a mixture of fats and proteins. Bacteria then munch down on those apocrine secretions. It produces three primary odor compounds (3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid, 3-hydroxy-3-methyl hexanoic acid, 3-methyl-3-sulfanylhexan-1-ol).

Deodorant chemical structure
Deodorant chemical structure

This one carries the weight of the typical human BO smell, but these two produce nice cumin and oniony addition to the mix. To stop this aromatic issue, deodorants apply certain compounds that either kill or deactivate bacteria. While antiperspirants use substances that help block sweat glands, giving bacteria fewer nutrients to turn into gross smells. Even though the products are different, you can easily find hybrids at the store. And both always have some fragrance in them.

  • Deodorant contains triclosan which is a compound that slows bacterial growth.
  • Deodorant typically has a fragrance and alcohol. The alcoholic deodorant kills the pesky bacteria that’s making the smell.
  • The alcohol would evaporate, leaving behind Al-Cl-3, which, according to the American Chemical Society, would stop up those eccrine glands, cutting sweat production.

Deodorants use chemicals such as triclosan to make the environment of the armpit too salty or acidic to sustain bacterial life. Triclosan has recently gone under scrutiny due to links to hormone regulation issues in animals. Also, there may be links between triclosan and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There’s evidence that they can reduce pheromones’ effect, the chemical markers that help us attract mates.

For this reason, the FDA is putting this stuff through a rigorous scientific review. But for the time being, triclosan is considered safe for human use. There are also many other antibacterial agents used, and most deodorants also use alcohol which sterilizes your armpit when applied.

Deodorant Vs Antiperspirant

Deodorants don’t stop sweating. They work either by masking the smell because they have antimicrobials that kill the bacteria that cause the smell.

On the other hand, antiperspirants block the darks that produce sweat essentially by stopping sweating. Antiperspirants removed the bacteria’s food source, thereby starving them into submission: no sweat, no bacteria.

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