The Best Antiperspirant…

How We Found the Best Antiperspirant

To start out, we compiled a list of 151 antiperspirants based on a collection of “best of” lists from Men’s Fitness, Real Simple, and The Fashion Spot as well as the top sellers on Amazon, Walgreens, Sephora, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Walmart. It wasn’t totally comprehensive (we didn’t, for example, collect every scent from every line of Axe), but it was a solid representation of the most well-known brands across all audiences — men, women, unisex.

We focused on ingredients that fight sweat first — namely aluminum zirconium.

The FDA regulates antiperspirants, even over the counter ones, and in its final monograph defines them as “a drug product applied topically that reduces the production of perspiration (sweat) at that site.” (Section IIA, Comment 2). More specifically, to be marketed as an antiperspirant, a product must reduce sweating by at least 20 percent in tests (Section IIC, Comment 9).

This regulation is helpful — anything with “antiperspirant” on its packaging is more or less guaranteed to work. What makes it work is aluminum, which activates by chemical reaction: When combined with your sweat, it creates a precipitate (a jelly-like plug) that blocks your sweat glands, preventing moisture from coming out.

Pit stain problems.

Aluminum can also coat fabric, creating a base for sebum (an oily secretion released by hair follicles, including those inside your armpits) to cling to. The result: yellow armpit stains on your crisp, white shirts.

The obvious elephant: There’s a pretty common consumer fear that the metals in antiperspirants may wind up in your bloodstream and cause cancer, hence the market trend for aluminum-free, “natural” deodorants. The National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, and FDA all believe there’s not enough evidence to support the claim. The FDA does require antiperspirants to come with a label advising anyone with severe kidney issues to consult with their doctor before using (aluminum is eliminated from the body by the kidneys), but even the National Kidney Foundation indicates that the risk is low.

Indeed, we spoke with five dermatologists, and they all agreed that aluminum-based antiperspirants can be considered safe to use by most people. Those dermatologists also helped us home in on which form of aluminum is best: aluminum zirconium. It’s a newer form and preferred over aluminum chloride and aluminum chlorohydrate for two reasons.

The first is that it’s “less irritating to the skin,” according to Dr. Whitney High, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado.

The second is that it’s more effective at stopping sweat. “Newer antiperspirants which contain both aluminum and zirconium are most effective,” says Dr. David Pariser, a practicing dermatologist of 40 years and senior physician at Pariser Dermatology. Indeed, a 2015 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Science proved this by comparing how different types of aluminum interacted with “bovine serum albumin” (they used proteins secreted by cows, similar to the proteins secreted by you when you sweat). Aluminum zirconium worked most efficiently of all the tested forms, producing the most precipitate — aka sweat gland plugs — at the lowest necessary dose. (We’ll point out that the study was backed by Palmolive, makers of Speed Stick, Lady Speed Stick, and Tom’s of Maine, but the research is still compelling.)

High efficacy with less irritation? This was a clear win, so we eliminated any formulas that used aluminum chloride or another form of the metal. Interestingly, this knocked out all deodorant sprays, which are popular in Europe and started making a comeback in the US in 2015. Turns out, most sprays use aluminum chloride.

Then, we thought about skin.

At this point, our search for the best antiperspirant took us down two different tracks. One was for people with sensitive skin: those who want an effective antiperspirant, but not the potential for irritation.

We initially thought these would be the best for everyone — we typically take a “no irritation stance” in our skincare reviews. But knocking out the potential for irritation also eliminated any antiperspirant that included fragrance in its ingredients list, a major part of many formulas, be it Old Spice’s “Bearglove” scent or the ubiquitous “Powder Fresh.”

We still wanted to eliminate the most common irritants, no matter how sensitive your skin is: Regular shaving can expose underarms to irritation, and even if you don’t shave, your underarm skin is delicate.

There are good alcohols too.

Note that simple alcohols differ from fatty alcohols, another ingredient commonly used in body care products. Fatty alcohols appear on labels with prefixes like “cetyl,” “cetearyl,” “stearyl,” or “behenyl” and actually have moisturizing properties as they’re derived from fats and oils.

Simple alcohols are typically used in antiperspirants to create a cooling sensation as the product glides on, and can have mild bacteria-fighting properties to boot. At the same time, they can destroy the skin’s protective lipid barrier, causing irritation. “If you have dry or sensitive skin, any skincare products with alcohols should be avoided,” confirmed Dr. Audrey Kunin, a board-certified dermatologist and founder and CEO of DERMAdoctor skincare. Not sure what to look for on an ingredients label? Simple alcohols commonly show up as isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol.

Hydrogen peroxide destroys cell membranes, making it great at killing bacteria. However, it’s also “great if you are looking to cause an irritant contact dermatitis,” said Dr. Adam Friedman, associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. That’s the case even if you don’t have sensitive skin.

For those with sensitive skin, we also eliminated fragrance.

Fragrance (on an ingredients label it’s often listed as “parfum”) is a common trigger for allergic reactions. Not only that, but also the terms on an ingredients label can actually mask a slew of mysterious chemicals that the FDA doesn’t require to be listed.

Only eight of our remaining antiperspirants didn’t include fragrance, and we got them all to explore closer and try out on our own.

The 8 Antiperspirants for Sensitive Skin We Tested

  • Arm & Hammer UltraMax Invisible Solid Unscented Antiperspirant Deodorant
  • Arrid XX Solid Unscented Antiperspirant & Deodorant
  • Ban Invisible Solid Unscented Antiperspirant & Deodorant
  • Clinique for Men Antiperspirant Deodorant
  • DERMAdoctor Total Nonscents Ultra-Gentle Antiperspirant
  • Dove Sensitive Skin Antiperspirant Deodorant
  • Mitchum Sensitive Skin Antiperspirant & Deodorant
  • Speed Stick Power Solid Unscented Antiperspirant & Deodorant

For everyone else, we narrowed the pool, looking at potency and odor-blockers.

Potency is tricky because the only thing the FDA reliably regulates is that a formula decreases sweating by 20 percent — as long as a formula can achieve that, it doesn’t matter how much aluminum it contains. Formulas with 20 percent aluminum, as opposed to 11 or 15 percent, are often labeled “clinical strength,” but through our research, we discovered this to be merely an unregulated marketing term (and a reason to jack up prices between $2 and $16). That said, to keep our testing field as level as possible, we focused on regular-skin formulas with at least 15 percent active aluminum zirconium.

Odor blockers are much more straightforward. Remember that your sweat, when secreted, is actually odorless; it’s the bacteria that feast on it that release odor. Fragrance goes a long way in masking that odor, but we also looked for ingredients that kill bacteria, and found two that do it. Triclosan was banned by the FDA in 2016 “for health concerns relating to hormone disruption and other skin irritations,” leaving us with one: C12-15 alkyl benzoate. “It’s generally considered to be safe and provides emollient and antimicrobial benefits,” said Dr. Kunin. This left us with 36 options to choose from.

We hand-picked 11 to try out ourselves.

We wanted a good selection of scents and formulas, so we looked for representative products from each remaining brand.

  • Axe Signature Night Antiperspirant Deodorant Stick
  • Ban Invisible Solid Antiperspirant & Deodorant in Powder Fresh
  • Degree MotionSense Antiperspirant Deodorant in Shower Clean
  • Dove Advanced Care in Original Clean
  • Dove Men+Care Sensitive Shield Antiperspirant Stick
  • Gillette Endurance Invisible Solid Antiperspirant & Deodorant in Cool Wave
  • Lady Speed Stick Invisible Dry Antiperspirant/Deodorant in Powder Fresh
  • Old Spice Wild Collection Invisible Solid Antiperspirant and Deodorant in Bearglove
  • Secret Clinical Strength Invisible Solid Deodorant in Completely Clean
  • Secret Invisible Solid Antiperspirant Deodorant in Shower Fresh
  • Speed Stick Gear Drycore Antiperspirant Deodorant in Fresh Force

Combined with the eight sensitive skin formulas, we had a total of 19 antiperspirants to explore with our noses, armpits, and clothes.

We evaluated scent, application, and residue in all our finalists.

In addition to being effective, the best antiperspirant should have a pleasant scent, not overpowering or cloying. Our 10 testers sniffed each product both in their containers and two hours after being applied to their pits in an effort to pin down those that had the least noxious scent. (Scent is obviously a subjective matter, but with our 10 noses — both male and female — combined, we felt we had a pretty good representation of average tastes.)

We also wanted to see what the application process was like. Whether your armpits are hairy or bare, an antiperspirant should glide on smoothly, never clumping, crumbling, or stubbornly refusing to stick. Here again, we applied each product to our underarms, assessed how it felt going on and then how it felt after two hours of wear. Preference was given to those that felt “buttery” and “velvety,” not wet or sticky. If a product clotted armpit hair or skin with little white clumps, it was a goner. We wanted a smooth, even application, not something that would feel awkward all day, or adhere to our shirts, increasing the odds of yellow stains.

Finally, since we all have those days when we have to change our shirt half a dozen times before heading out the door, we tested to determine which products left the most egregious streaks. We applied each product to our armpits and, after two hours, swiped a square of black T-shirt fabric across the skin and assessed the level of residue.

A Note on Men’s and Women’s Formulas

Or rather, a question: Do men and women need different antiperspirants? The answer is unclear.

On one hand, research by the journal Experimental Physiology shows that men sweat more than women and begin sweating at a lower body temperature. The reasons for this difference aren’t known, but researchers surmise it has to do with testosterone since studies comparing prepubertal boys and girls didn’t show the same difference. (Note these studies found no differences in the content and smell of men’s and women’s sweat.)

On the other hand, none of our experts felt strongly that there’s a good reason men need a different antiperspirant product than women. Even more compelling:

“In terms of active ingredients, there’s no difference between men’s and women’s products. The main difference is scent.”

You’ll notice in our top picks for sensitive skin, the scent is either neutral or nonexistent enough that we didn’t feel the need to assign in a gender, even if the product was marketed toward one or the other.

Our picks for those without sensitive skin are specified by gender — though like Dr. Pariser points out, it’s a completely scent- and marketing-based distinction. (Too bad there’s no such thing as a scratch-and-sniff computer screen, right?) The only other difference we noticed in men’s and women’s formulas is the shape of the stick; men’s antiperspirant tends to have a wider head to accommodate larger armpits. This may lead to a less-messy application, but in our experience, it was pretty negligible.

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