“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”
― Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
I don’t have a rational reason for thinking that I stink. It’s more of a concern, a symptom of social anxiety more accurately. When I’m around other people, I become inordinately afraid that I smell. My breath, my hair which instantly absorbs the odors of every room I walk into, my Goodwill clothing, my underarms, my crotch beloved by dogs the world over. And what if my house has a terrible house-smell, to which I’ve become nose-blind?
I am convinced that I reek, and because I believe this utterly, I’ve been forced to go to great lengths to purchase products promising to eradicate the multiple odors which I imagine visibly emanate from my body in wavy brown lines much like Pigpen from The Peanuts.
Special mouth rinses, coconut scented wet wipes for intimate areas, a pH balanced body wash, anti-bacterial this, that, and the other in bottles line my bathroom shelves beside a rainbow of fruity spritzes and herbal-scented sprays and a couple fancy perfumes just for fun. Most obviously, I also use deodorant, which is a given, because the very foundation of my anti-stink offensive is of course, underarm deodorant. None of those other products matter if you have rank pits. As my grandfather used to say, when you try to cover up a bad smell with perfumes, it’s like someone took a shit in a rosebush.
I have used the exact same scent and brand of deodorant since I was in high school. As a person who doesn’t like change or having to make decisions, this has worked out fantastically for me. At Target there is an entire aisle devoted exclusively to deodorants, which come in myriad formulations and fragrances, none of which I’ve ever needed to familiarize myself with, because I am a Lady Speed Stick Powder Fresh kind of woman.
Or, at least I was, until I learned it was definitely going to kill me.
I’d been hearing rumors about this for some time, even before Facebook, back in the days when everyone had that friend or relative who forwarded chain emails with sensationalized, all-caps subject lines about the horrors of things like NutraSweet, vaccines, and well, deodorant. I never opened those emails, but now here we are in the era of social media when entire websites devoted to misinterpreting scientific data, or to just making shit up all together, exist under the guise of wellness education. They always have cheesy names like HEALTHHEADLINESGREENINTERNATIONAL that sound like Nigerians in Internet cafes with a shaky grasp of English launched them and then half-assed wrote all the articles after loading the pages with ads for herbal Viagra. Yet it seems like a good 75% of the people I know post these articles regularly.
GMOs, Monsanto, natural remedies for Autism that the government doesn’t want you to know about, 15 benefits of marijuana you never heard of, more Big Pharma conspiracies - you know the type. And then…
Your deodorant is toxic.
Deodorant has aluminum, and that causes Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. Or something. If this is the case then I hope my deodorant gives me Alzheimer’s before it gives me breast cancer. My logic is that the dementia will render me less frightened of the cancer. Maybe if the Alzheimer’s is advanced enough I won’t have a clue what’s going on.
But that’s not all. Apparently deodorant can also cause kidney failure, so not only will I be senile and riddled with cancer, I will also be on dialysis. This seems like the worst death imaginable, but at least I will smell divine.
I should not believe this stuff, and logically I don’t, but there’s a part of me that’s always like well, what if? It doesn’t not make sense, which is why we’re inclined not to question the headlines, even though they might come from the St. Petersburg troll farm.
We live in an era of uncertainty. Over the past twenty years we’ve lived through terrorist attacks we never dreamed could actually happen, the collapse of the housing bubble, the mortgage crisis, the great recession, mass shooting after mass shooting. We’ve seen crooked financiers that we trusted to manage our money hauled away in handcuffs, and we’ve watched on video as police officers kill innocent people in cold blood during traffic stops. We’ve heard about cancer clusters and we’ve seen Erin Brokovitch, and everyone knows the story of thalidomide. It feels like the very institutions designed to protect and serve us are the ones out to get us in order to make a buck. Who will save us when we can’t trust anyone? In a society like this, everyone feels expendable and unsafe.
When this is our reality and our worldview and when our newsfeeds are flooded 24/7 with hate and destruction on a scale far bigger and with greater consequences than body odor, it’s easy to see how simple it is to believe that deodorant is deadly. It’s not a stretch to imagine that aluminum accumulating in our brains like an inner foil hat.
Some articles I’ve read believe that it’s not just the aluminum and parabens that will kill you. They say deodorant screws up your microbiome too, which is actually kind of obvious, because BO is caused by bacteria, so yeah, you’re preventing foul-smelling bugs from taking over your armpits in order to avoid stinking. But your microbiome is important and you don’t want to mess it up. It’s the colonies of bazillions (an official number) of single celled organisms living all over our bodies.
I only recently learned that all this was going on in and on my body, and frankly, I’d like to go back to the days of blissful ignorance when I had no clue that entire civilizations of microscopic organisms were thriving on me as their host.
It’s not that I’m grossed out by it. I’m actually not bothered by the idea that I’m covered in bacteria. I’m bothered by the fact that my microbiome is one more thing I have to worry about. I mean, I already have a cat to take care of and she’s enough of a pain in my ass, and now I’m expected to care for bazillions of bacteria too? It’s a lot of responsibility and I don’t need any more pets, much less bazillions of them.
The microbiome is a delicate ecosystem that has to stay in perfect balance or all sorts of terrible things will happen. A number of diseases have been blamed on bacterial imbalances, and there’s even a theory that anxiety and depression is affected by gut bacteria. Any woman who’s ever suffered from a yeast infection knows the importance of keeping the good morale of the crotch colony going.
Since all this bacteria is so important to our overall health we have to be nice to it. There’s “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria, and you have to strengthen the “good” bacteria so the bad guys don’t take over. It’s like a never ending invisible Game of Thrones episode playing out in our bodies and you have to make sure the Stark bacteria always wins over the Lannister bacteria or you’ll get sick. This is a lot of work. You have to take probiotics. Now there are even PRE-biotics, which I gather is like food that the good bacteria enjoys, and you have to take them too and in the correct amounts. Conveniently, and I’m saying that sarcastically, the good bacteria, like a pack of little Gwyneth Paltrows, loves stuff like kale and quinoa and plain sweet potatoes. It demands fancy food, whereas the bad bacteria is all over the strawberry Twinkies and Dr. Pepper. It likes Cool Ranch Doritos too. (I’m actually starting to wonder if I’m not a bad bacteria myself.)
And now they’re telling me that deodorant wreaks havoc on your bacteria. Do you see how exhausting this is?
I may have continued to ignore all of the warnings about how apparently toxic deodorant is and kept on slathering my armpits in Lady Speed Stick were it not for the fact that a lot of the smartest, most beautiful, healthiest, and most successful women I knew wouldn’t go near an anti-perspirant. Toxins, yo.
Perfect women didn’t load their bodies full of chemical poisons, so I decided neither would I. As part of my commitment to wellness, meaning my goal not to be a fat loser anymore, I decided I would try alternative methods of dealing with my funk.
What if, I wondered, for all these years I’d been using deodorant unnecessarily? How did I even know my armpits stunk at all? Truthfully, I didn’t, because I’d never not used deodorant. I decided I needed to establish some kind of baseline state, and figure out what would happen if I left my underarms totally naked. Let me see how bad the problem even is, I figured. I hoped that perhaps it would turn out that I didn’t smell at all and I could live my life joyously deodorant free.
This was not the case.
After a few hours I had some smell. After a few more hours I had a lot of smell. By that evening, my daughter asked me why I smelled like taco seasoning.
Okay, so it looked like I needed something, but what?
My sister informed me that she hasn’t used deodorant in years and that she swipes a bit of coconut oil under her arms and goes about her business just fine and she has never had BO.
Jeez, is there anything that coconut oil cannot do, I thought.
Yes there is. It cannot prevent my underarms from smelling like taco seasoning and I found this out fairly rapidly. Not only that, it made oily stains on my tee shirts and clogged up a pore under my arms so that I got a gigantic sore which I proceeded to pick at until I had a gaping wound, thus making myself even grosser because what’s worse than stinking? Stinking and having sores, naturally.
Thank you next, coconut oil. My stank is no match for you.
Nor was it a match for the fancy, all natural deodorant that we sold at yoga. I bought 2 sticks of it because they smelled like Princess Aurora – one lavender and one rose.
Here is my review of the fancy deodorant we sold at yoga. Most important, I didn’t stink. Yay! That was a definite check in the winning column. The cons, however, were that the lavender stick for some reason that I haven’t figured out was really crumbly and fell apart and left chunks in my armpits. Since I didn’t want to waste it, I ended up trying to smush it up with a butter knife, which I then used to smear it on. This was a less than satisfactory outcome. In addition to that, it stung my skin when I applied it (the butter knife didn’t help), and it didn’t stop me from sweating (just smelling) and I live in Florida so I don’t want wet armpits, especially at work. That’s not a nice look in front of a room full of teenagers.
The rose stick smelled heavenly. I’m not kidding, this deodorant was the best body care product I’ve ever smelled, but it’s dark brown. Yes, people. You heard me right. Dark brown deodorant. The color of a Hershey Bar. When you use this one you will have mahogany colored pits and look like you need to shave. Worse than that, it will stain your clothing, which is absolutely unacceptable. I love this deodorant, but it has too many restrictions. I can’t use it when I need to work, and I can’t use it unless I’m wearing a black shirt with sleeves.
It was back to the Whole Foods self-care aisle for me. (They don’t actually call it the self-care aisle, but the fact that they don’t, I believe, is a huge missed marketing opportunity.) That’s where I bought myself a rock.
Obviously it wasn’t just any rock. It was a special, magical crystal deodorant rock. I wet it and scraped it on my pits, which felt more like a sacred ritual than part of a normal hygiene routine, but whatever. I felt like I ought to chant a special incantation to make it work, but it didn’t say anything about that on the packaging, though anything to elevate my vibration, right?
Because you are advanced, you have unlocked the highest level of New Age woo if you use an actual hunk of crystal to prevent odor. I felt like I was finally doing it right.
You should have seen this thing. It literally glittered. I wondered if I should build a pedestal for it in the middle of my bathroom to display how beautiful it was. It looked like it could open up portals to alternate universes, and I half expected to wake up some morning to find a Gelfling rifling through my drawers looking for it in order to restore peace to its mystical fantasy world and save its civilization from the evil Skeksis. My deodorant looked like it had that much power.
It may have been able to play a role in a 1980s, obscure high fantasy, but alas, ‘twas no match for my BO.
I don’t know if I did something wrong or not. Maybe the armpit crystal wasn’t meant for me, an actual human woman with active sweat glands. Maybe it was only meant for yoga girls who weigh as much as finches and eat nothing but the occasional drop of food-grade, organic lemon, essential oil that has been blessed by high priests in the Amazon under the first new moon of spring. Maybe it was meant for people who are so enlightened that they have transcended normal bodily functions, people who are so advanced that they can communicate with their microbiome and politely ask it to tone down the odor output. I don’t know, but what I do know is that I stunk like taco seasoning again.
Not only that, my BO was so bad that it somehow contaminated the deodorant rock too. Yes, folks, I’d like to introduce you to me, the only person who is gross enough to transfer her body odor to her deodorant, therefore rendering it useless, unless perchance you might want to use my pit crystal to flavor your carne asada. (Seriously, why do my armpits smell like cumin???)
It seemed I had two choices. I could stink or I could die. I decided to conduct further research, and predictably the mainstream sources scoff at claims of deodorant’s toxicity. Studies say it’s harmless. Holistic practitioners say it’s not, and it’s tough to know who to believe anymore, although anecdotally I’ve never known a soul who has passed on with Old Spice or Secret listed as their cause of death.
I fantasize sometimes about going off the hygiene grid, totally pure, abjectly alive and real. But I conform to societal norms where we tell women it’s not polite, not responsible to smell like our healthy bodies in their natural states. There would be consequences for a move so bold, and I’m not willing to face them, so it’s back to powder fresh, smelling like middle-aged spirit. If the warnings are true I can only keep hoping that the dementia sets in first.
Anyone in the mood for tacos? Didn’t think so.