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Deodorant vs Antiperspirant: Are They Actually Different? We Asked a Derm

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When it comes to combating odor and sweat, the terms deodorant and antiperspirant have become interchangeable (with some brands even selling a combo of the two). But did you know that they're actually completely different? They both hold distinct benefits and properties that might make you do a double-take the next time you reach for your go-to stick. So, we tapped Dr. Michelle Henry, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, to explain once and for all the difference between deodorant vs antiperspirant—plus how to pick the right one for you.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Michelle Henry is a board-certified dermatologist and Harvard-trained Mohs surgeon. She's also the founder of the Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan. Dr. Henry earned her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. She served as the chief resident in her dermatology residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She followed up her residency with a fellowship in cutaneous oncology, Mohs micrographic surgery and reconstructive surgery at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Dermatology at the Lahey Clinic in Boston, Massachusetts.

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What Is Deodorant?

A deodorant masks body odor and keeps you fresh all day. A swipe (or two) in the underarm area, and you can expect a reduction of any unwanted smells, but it won’t stop you from sweating in the first place. Dr. Henry recommends finding deodorants “that go on smooth and provide up to 48-hour odor-fighting protection to keep you feeling and smelling fresh.”

What Is Antiperspirant?

An antiperspirant, on the other hand, controls both odor and sweat, but mainly it blocks sweat glands and keeps you dry all day. “I recommend antiperspirants that are gentle, while still providing great sweat protection that has skincare benefits,” shares Dr. Henry.

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Deodorant vs. Antiperspirant: What’s the Difference?

There’s a clear distinction between deodorant and antiperspirant, and deciding which one you need comes down to one question: Are you dealing with some serious sweating or serious body odor? Here are key differences between the two products that may help you:

  • They have different goals. Deodorant fights against odor while antiperspirant fights against sweat. The goal of deodorant is to keep you fresh (and smelling good) while antiperspirant aims to keep you dry (bye-bye pit stains).
  • They have different ingredients. Deodorant’s ingredients are usually alcohol-based to fight bacteria (a primary culprit for BO) and provide a fragrance to conceal the smell. However, there’s an exception with natural deodorants, which usually have ingredients like baking soda, coconut oil and activated charcoal to neutralize unpleasant odors. When it comes to antiperspirant, the main ingredient is usually aluminum. The active component (along with zirconium salts) is how it controls the amount of sweat you expel, and prevents sweat from reaching the surface of your skin.
  • They are scientifically distinct. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains that deodorant is considered a cosmetic product because its properties are “intended to cleanse and beautify.” However, antiperspirants are labeled an over-the-counter (OTC) drug because they can “treat or prevent disease, or affect the structure or function of the body.”
  • They aren’t applied at the same time. Antiperspirant should be applied at night when your sweat glands are less active and your body temperature is low. That way, the active ingredients have time to create what are essentially plugs that will keep your sweat in check. Because of this, you also don’t have to (nor should you) reapply antiperspirant multiple times throughout the day. However, deodorant should be applied in the morning and is OK to reapply as it wears.

OK, but Do They Have Any Similarities?

The main similarities between the two are they both provide body odor protection and overall freshness. It makes sense that people are confused, especially since more products are becoming hybrids of the two.

On That Note, What's the Deal with Products That Are Labeled as Deodorant-Antiperspirants?

You’ve probably reached for a deodorant and found that it’s also an antiperspirant (or vice-versa). For some, sweat and odor are an issue, so looking for a two-in-one is crucial. However, be sure to look closely at the ingredients to see if they truly offer a combination of the two. Often, it will have antiperspirant’s key ingredient—aluminum—but just a small fraction of fragrance to categorize it as a deodorant, too. You’ll want to find equal amounts of both properties to get the full benefits.

What's Safer to Use: Deodorant or Antiperspirant?

Both are safe. The main reason why some people prefer deodorants is because antiperspirant’s key ingredient—aluminum—has previously been linked to breast cancer. However, Dr. Henry puts those myths to rest. “There are myths floating around about aluminum and negative health effects and that using aluminum-free products are ‘better’ for women. However, the FDA, the American Cancer Society, Alzheimer’s Association and the National Cancer Institute have all refuted claims that link products containing aluminum to negative health outcomes. In fact, aluminum-based materials are the only ingredients approved by the FDA as safe and effective for the reduction of underarm sweat,” she assures.

How Do I Choose the Best Product for Me?

“Each of us has different needs,” says Dr. Henry. “Some people sweat more than others, and for others, odor is their main concern. So when choosing an antiperspirant or deodorant, it’s important to first identify what your needs are.” Ask yourself, “How much do I actually sweat?” Or “Is sweat the issue, or odor?”

FYI, we all sweat. The difference between normal sweat vs. odor is that sweat (which starts as being odorless and clear) can mix with bacteria (due to fat and protein production) and create a stench.

So, if you simply want to freshen up and prevent any BO, a deodorant might be for you. And if you’re more inclined to use natural products, reach for a deodorant (since there are alternatives out there with no aluminum or chemical ingredients included). But if you're constantly getting wet stains on your clothes and it bothers you, an antiperspirant may be the way to go. Some also suffer from excessive sweating (which is a medical condition called hyperhidrosis), in which case, a clinical antiperspirant might work better for you. However, it’s best to consult with your doctor before making the switch.

Now, we'll let you in on a little secret: You can use both (meaning, have a separate deodorant and antiperspirant). If this is the case, you’ll want to apply antiperspirant after showering and toweling off After a few hours have passed, you can apply deodorant on top if needed.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that both deodorant and antiperspirant have a distinct purpose, but they can also work together to care for your underarms. Just know what your goals are when picking one out. Here’s to fresher pits this summer!

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Beauty & Cultures Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, NY Native

Chelsea Candelario is a Beauty & Cultures Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the...