An asinine advertisement for Secret antiperspirant recently made this entirely obvious assertion: "25 percent of women naturally perspire more than others." You don't have to take a class in statistics to realize that antiperspirants make big money for cosmetics companies primarily because they play on people's fears of being nasty and stinky (and if you've ever sat next to someone on the subway who smelled like he needed a shower or three, that fear isn't totally crazy). People do smell, and most don't want to. But which antiperspirants and deodorants, if any, really work? And how do they work, anyway?
Sweat itself is actually odorless—it's the bacteria eating it that make the stink. Assuming you don't have a problem like fish-odor syndrome or hyperhidrosis, your deodorant and antiperspirant needs will probably be met by one of the many products sold at your local drugstore. Deodorants work by making your armpit unfavorable to sweat-eating bacteria by turning your skin acidic (that's what stick deodorants do) or salty (that's what natural crystal or "rock" deodorants do); some also use antibacterial agents. Antiperspirants, on the other hand, plug your pores with aluminum salts, reducing the amount of sweat that exits your body, thus providing less nourishment for the fragrant beasties. If, however, you don't find a product strong enough, your doctor can prescribe an antiperspirant such as DrySol or Odaban, or you can undergo a new type of surgery that disconnects certain nerves from your spinal column. And now, according to The New Yorker, high-society ladies and fashion models are getting Botox injections under their arms for temporary paralysis of their sweat glands. (Click
But suppose you don't want to go under the knife—which brand is the best? Does Kiss My Face Natural Deodorant leave you smelling like a ripe hippie? Is Secret's new "Platinum Protection" any different from its traditional solid? As a person whose natural body odor falls on the smell spectrum somewhere between three-alarm chili and a damp sock, I felt uniquely qualified to act as a guinea pig for field testing, providing ample odors to be prevented or masked. But because most deodorants and antiperspirants do a decent job of keeping you scent-free and dry during a typical day spent sitting in front of a computer, I needed to find a way to thin the herd. So I fashioned a gauntlet of sweaty and stinky situations to separate the weak from the strong, and I took notes on style along the way.
As any scent aficionado knows, the human armpit has a rich palette of odors it can produce, depending on the situation. Workout sweat is different from stress sweat. (In fact, the average person sweats more when stressed out—700 milligrams per hour—than when in a 100-degree room—600 milligrams per hour.) And then there's the scent generated by simply not bathing for a few days on end. In order to methodically test each brand, I put each to the following tests: Old Stink, Stress, and Workout.
The criteria I used in picking which antiperspirants to test—and there are plenty out there—were two-fold: 1) They had to be gender neutral or designed for women—women really do have a different underarm pH from men; and 2) the brand had to have two varieties to chose from, one "clear" or "sheer" and the other standard. (I wanted to see if the clear brands were actually as good as the old waxy sticks.) I also tested two deodorants, both as a control group and out of curiosity. For each test I relied on a single application of deodorant or antiperspirant on freshly showered, dry skin. (I didn't test any sprays, on the assumption they're as effective as other forms of antiperspirant.) In order to accommodate women with and without armpit hair, I kept one shaved (left) and one furry (right). In all cases I wore cotton T-shirts, long or short sleeved. All smell ratings (see below) were verified by an independent third party who prefers to remain nameless. (I would like to give my most heartfelt thanks to this assistant. He is truly a good sport.) In the case of disputes, scores were averaged. Now, on to the sniff trials!
The Smell Ratings:
1. Only Perfume/No BO
2. Detectable BO
3. Clear and Present BO
4. Very Strong BO
5. Noticeable-Across-a-Room BO
Old Stink Test: For this I didn't bathe for three consecutive days, on the second day of which I completed a 40-minute rowing workout. This three-day death march was not just tough on me and my carpool mates (sorry, guys!), it was tough on the products. Some immediately crumbled: Kiss My Face Active Enzyme Natural Stick Deodorant With Baking Soda and Clay failed the fastest. By the second day it was already up to Level 2 and by the third day at was at an eye-watering Level 4. Surprisingly, the clear or gel antiperspirants generally did better than their stick counterparts, especially in the thatched armpit. So not only do they not smear white shmutz on your shirt, they're more effective.
The winner was Secret Platinum Protection. On the third day it barely registered as a low Level 2. A note on this product: I got some of it on my fingers and had real difficulty washing it off. I tried hand soap and dish detergent, but the water kept beading up on my hand. In the end I wiped it off as best I could and then just waited for it to wear off. This impermeability is probably the key to its effectiveness: During the second-day workout my armpits remained absolutely dry while my face, back, and arms sweated up a storm. After 40 minutes both underarms were completely dry, which was a bit eerie, considering I applied it over 24 hours ago. No other product came close to this. Here's a chart of how the eight products measured up:
Stress Test: For this I played a violent video game ("Unreal") for 30 minutes. Instead of putting the whole stable of products through the test, I picked the top three finishers from the Old Stink Test: Lady Mitchum Clear Gel, Secret Platinum Protection, and the surprise natural option, Crystal Stick Deodorant, which far exceeded my expectations. (Though if they ever want to adopt a mainstream audience, I suggest toning down the soft-core package photo.) This test produced a smaller range of results: The Mitchum and Secret both prevented all stress sweat from being released, and there was no detectable scent other than the (gaggingly intense) perfumes in both. The Crystal Stick, which is odorless, couldn't match that and did give way to a low but detectable stress-sweat scent after my 30 minutes of defending myself from vicious and merciless robots.
Workout Test: For this I applied the product and then immediately rowed at a constant rate and energy output on a machine for 20 minutes. Afterward I pressed a paper towel in my underarm and inspected the resulting moisture in the towel as an indication of actual liquid output. Having seen the uncanny power of Secret's Platinum Protection earlier, I pretty much knew how this one was going to shake out. The Crystal (which makes no claims toward stopping sweat) was the dampest; Mitchum was second; and the Secret came out on top, with a creepily bone-dry towel.
Conclusion: If you're looking for a product that is going to let you sweat through a shirt everywhere but under your arms, then Secret Platinum is the best of the bunch. But I was impressed by how well the Crystal held up. It is made of mineral salts that prevent bacteria from growing. Low-tech, yes, but you also have no concern that in five years there will be an FDA warning about it. If you already have attachment to a favorite brand, I suggest trying out the clear variety. Not only are they supposed to stain clothing less (companies claim they won't create the yellow underarm stains regular antiperspirants cause), but they work better. As for me, I'm going to keep a variety around. The Crystal Stick for sitting around at home, and the uncanny pore-blocking Secret for my public speaking moments.