Deodorant vs. Antiperspirant—What's the Difference?

When it comes to body odor, do you know whether to use a deodorant or antiperspirant? We break down their differences.

Two unlabeled sticks of deodorants and antiperspirants with the cap off
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Knowing the differences between deodorants vs. antiperspirants can help you decide which product to use and for what purpose. While deodorant is a term that gets used all the time, not everything that you swipe under your arms is, in fact, a deodorant.

Armpit products are categorized into two distinct groups: deodorants and antiperspirants—and they have one main difference. The clue is in their name: Deodorants control odor, whereas antiperspirants prevent sweat. Here's what you need to know about each and what dermatologists say about comparing the two.

What Is Deodorant?

A deodorant is a cosmetic product that masks odor wherever used on the body (usually the armpits). Long story short: Deodorants won't keep you from sweating. If you don't mind a bit of moisture under your arms and merely want to ward off body odor, consider a deodorant.

"They typically contain ingredients, such as fragrance, that mask the odor expressed in the underarms," says Alicia Zalka, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Connecticut and the founder of Surface Deep.

Most of them also contain ingredients that absorb moisture and/or slow down bacterial growth, adds Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. (As a quick reminder, bacteria is responsible for the unpleasant smell, not the sweat itself.)

Are Deodorants Safe to Use?

Deodorants are safe to use by the majority of people in good health. (Always check with your healthcare provider if you have concerns specific to your health.) Yet, while deodorants are positioned as a more natural alternative to antiperspirants, it's important to recognize that even the most natural deodorants can contain irritating ingredients.

"Many natural deodorants rely on baking soda to absorb moisture and neutralize odor, but too much baking soda can cause skin irritation in some people," says Dr. King. A baking-soda-free option is Kopar, one of our favorite deodorants for women. Also, the fragrance in many can come from essential oils, a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis, Dr. King warns.

At the end of the day, because none of the ingredients in these formulas block eccrine (aka sweat) ducts, the efficacy of how much moisture they can absorb will vary from person to person, notes Dr. King. So if you are going the deodorant route, be aware that you may have to get used to feeling a little damp under your arms.

Benefits of Using a Deodorant

Even though sweating is healthy and a naturally occurring body function, body odor is no fun and can even be embarrassing. Here are some benefits of using deodorants:

  • Deodorants help with odor by masking it and, at times, adding fragrance, depending on the product.
  • Deodorants can help with confidence since you won't be concerned about body odor.
  • Deodorants don't contain aluminum.

What Is Antiperspirant?

An antiperspirant is classified as a drug product and therefore is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), unlike deodorants. Antiperspirants do prevent sweat, but many question their ingredients.

All antiperspirants contain some type of aluminum salt compounds—common ones include aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum zirconium, and aluminum chloride—all of which block sweat ducts by forming a plug when mixed with sweat droplets, thereby preventing perspiration, says Dr. Zalka. Sweat flow is impeded, and the skin is kept drier, Zalka explains.

Are Antiperspirants Bad for You?

Antiperspirants are safe to use by most people in generally good health. (Again, if you have concerns, always check with your healthcare provider.) But you've probably heard some not-so-great things about aluminum.

"Aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer's disease and to breast cancer, but whether or not the aluminum in antiperspirants contributes to these conditions is not yet definitively known, and there is no research data showing this," says Dr. King.

Dr. Zalka and Dr. King underscore that even the American Cancer Society (ACS) has not proven a direct cause and effect between antiperspirant use and a higher risk of breast cancer. According to the ACS, "There are no strong epidemiologic studies in the medical literature that link breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use and very little scientific evidence to support this claim."

So while you may hear a lot about the correlation between antiperspirants and cancer, take it with a grain of salt. Avoid using aluminum-containing products (such as antiperspirants) when receiving a mammogram, though. The tiny metallic crystals in the products can impede the optimal reading and interpretation of breast imaging studies, Dr. Zalka explains.

Benefits of Using an Antiperspirant

To control sweating in the first place, an antiperspirant is the way to go. Here are some benefits of using antiperspirants:

  • Antiperspirants prevent sweating, which will avoid a wet feeling in the armpits.
  • Antiperspirants are regulated by the FDA.
  • Antiperspirants can help avoid wet spots on clothing since they keep the skin dry.

Should You Use a Deodorant or Antiperspirant?

Choosing between deodorants and antiperspirants is a matter of personal preference and comfort level. While the data proving any problems with aluminum is low, many antiperspirants contain other skincare ingredients you may want to avoid, such as triclosan, propylene glycol, and parabens—all of which come with their own set of concerns, notes Dr. King.

And, as Dr. Zalka points out, your body is made to sweat—it's a normal regulatory function. That being said, if you really don't like feeling wet and/or you sweat excessively, an antiperspirant is the only thing guaranteed to keep you dry.

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  1. American Cancer Society, Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Risk. Date Accessed [May 02, 2023].

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