There are thousands of videos on social media — namely TikTok — that claim some of the acids that are traditionally associated with facial cleansers, like glycolic acid and salicylic acid, are an effective deodorant.
Specifically, TikTokers claim these acids get rid of body odor by ridding the body of the bacteria that makes you smell. And while it isn’t quite that simple, there are some possible perks.
Here’s what to know about using these acids to get rid of body odor — and the potential hazards to keep in mind.
Yes, these acids do kill the bacteria that help create body odor — but that doesn’t mean they eliminate the smell entirely.
“You have to understand what makes body odor to understand why glycolic acid or salicylic acid might be helpful,” said Dr. Christopher Bunick, a dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut.
He noted that a few years ago, researchers discovered the types of bacteria that actually cause body odor. When it comes to armpit odor specifically, a species of normal bacteria that lives on our skin, known as staphylococcus hominis, is able to turn a chemical that comes from sweat into a byproduct that then causes body odor, Bunick said.
These acids help lower the pH levels in your armpits, which makes it harder for that bacteria to grow. According to Dr. Zakia Rahman, a clinical professor of dermatology at Stanford in California, your armpits, along with your genital area, naturally have higher pH levels. And when using products made with glycolic acid or salicylic acid in your armpits, you’re lowering the pH, which “reduces the bacterial overgrowth in that area.”
Within the beauty industry, these acids are often also used as exfoliators, which plays into their use as deodorant, too, according to Bunick. This means after using a product with this acid in your armpits, you have fewer dead skin cells for the bacteria to act on, added Dr. Brandon Cohen, a dermatologist at Cedars Sinai in California.
But that’s only one part of the BO equation. What’s not being conveyed on TikTok is that it takes both sweat and bacteria to create body odor — “the bacteria by itself isn’t going to produce a smell,” Bunick said.
“So, if you were to just use the glycolic acid or the salicylic acid to kill the bacteria, fine, you can kill the bacteria. But the root cause of the smell actually takes the combination of the bacteria and the sweat,” Bunick explained.
For the most reliable treatment, Cohen said you need to address sweating more than bacteria, which is what many dermatological interventions do. Botox, prescription antiperspirants and prescription wipes are all potential treatments. And Rahman added that laser hair removal has also been shown to reduce body odor.
That said, if you’re not overly struggling with body odor and want to test out a different intervention, “I think it’s reasonable to try the acids,” Cohen said.
If you do go the acid route, proceed with caution.
Start gently. “More isn’t necessarily better, stronger isn’t necessarily better, a really expensive product isn’t necessarily better. I think I would just focus on one that is a lower concentration, ease into it,” Cohen said.
Cohen recommended using a body or face wash made with one of the acids. That way, you can rinse it off in the shower to help reduce the risk of irritation. He also pointed out that whatever gets applied to your armpit and isn’t rinsed out is kind of stuck there because your armpits are closed most of the day with your arms being down.
If you want to combine an acid with deodorant, there are options there, too, according to Rahman. He noted that some deodorants are made with either glycolic acid, salicylic acid or mandelic acid.
“When we’re looking at these acids, I think mandelic acid is probably the one that’s the most tolerable,” Rahman said.
These deodorants can also be a nice alternative to aluminum-based deodorants that some people don’t like to use. (But, Cohen pointed out that there is not much data that links aluminum to outcomes like cancer, which has long been a rumor.)
Just keep in mind that these acids won’t work for everyone, particularly if you have sensitive skin, the experts told us. So, it’s always important to be careful when trying a new skin care treatment.
“I think the main concern would be these acids acting as an irritant on the skin. The skin on your armpit is already very thin,” Cohen said.
An irritation could cause pain, itching or burning, according to Bunick. Beyond that, Rahman said some folks could deal with additional problems. “That inflammation can cause pigmentary abnormality and break down the skin even further,” Rahman said. In other words, you could be faced with pigmentation issues after a bad reaction to one of these acids.
Finally, don’t expect it to work miracles. “It’s very important for people to understand that it’s not going to help with sweating and there’s not a guarantee that it truly helps with odor,” Bunick said. “I think that there’s going to be some people it may help and there’s going to be other people it may not work [for].”