Dear Home-Ec 101,
I have black underarm stains on many of my shirts. That’s right —BLACK. It started happening after we moved to the western NC mountains, where we have well water, but it’s only my shirts—not my husband’s. I’ve tried changing deodorants (though I suspect they all have the same active ingredients) with no effect. I’ve tried scrubbing the stains with various stain removers. Nothing. The stains are on the inside of the shirts – but after a while, it shows through to the outside of any light-colored shirts. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and— to be honest—it makes me feel like kind of a freak.
Can you help?
Thanks, Funky in Franklin
Antiperspirants and deodorants are two distinct products, but in our everyday speech, we tend to use the terms interchangeably, and I have done so throughout this response to help people using search (Google) find what they need.
You were on the right track when you tried switching deodorants.
If you take a walk down the antiperspirant/deodorant aisle, you’ll notice quite the selection. Most of the antiperspirants/deodorants you see will all have the same active ingredient(s): aluminum chloride, aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum-zirconium, or a combination of thereof. Did you notice something about those three active ingredients?
They all contain aluminum.
For most of us, the aluminum in antiperspirants isn’t a big deal, it helps us stop sweating from our underarms for a few hours, and we go through the day without offending our neighbors. Neat.
However, everyone’s body chemistry is a little different, and that chemistry is affected by the food you eat, the water you drink, and your genetics.
Do you know how everyone likes to giggle about what eating asparagus does to urine? Well, it doesn’t do that to everyone’s pee.
Some people think cilantro tastes like soap—and I cry a little for all they miss. Your quirk is that something in your sweat makes that aluminum show up on your shirts. Your husband doesn’t have that same quirk. Lucky you.
Since we’re all special snowflakes, the first tip is specific to people, like you, who have dark stains from their deodorant/antiperspirant.
Tip # 1 Avoid antiperspirants with aluminum.
So, in your specific case, I’m going to suggest first avoiding the deodorants with aluminum.
Try switching to aluminum-free antiperspirants/deodorants. I did a search on Amazon that will show you some specific brands and labels to look for the next time you head to the store.
On a side note, some people avoid aluminum because they believe that aluminum is a cause of Alzheimer’s. That hasn’t been proven; what they’ve found is that people with Alzheimer’s tend to have more aluminum in their brains. This doesn’t mean that aluminum was the cause. It just means that it shows up in people’s brains when they have Alzheimer’s. It could be like the way ketones show up in the urine of people with diabetes. Their insulin is absent, so ketones show up where they normally wouldn’t. Just because something is there doesn’t mean it is the cause. (I haven’t done a lot of research lately, but feel free to link to peer-reviewed sources if you want to discuss this point).
You didn’t mention where you moved from.
Why do I ask? Well, if you moved from a cooler climate, there is a chance part of the problem is only noticeable now that you live in a hot environment. As someone who lives in the hot and sticky south, well, there’s just something special about our summers that you just don’t get in other parts of the country. I’m always reminded of this quote from To Kill a Mocking Bird
“Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”Harper Lee
It’s just a special kind of hot down here, you sweat a lot and all the antiperspirant and deodorant in the world sometimes doesn’t do “a lick of good.”
Tip #2 Use less antiperspirant.
Antiperspirant works by blocking your pores—I’m simplifying here—once those pores are blocked, an extra coat of the white stuff isn’t going to be helpful. It’s just going to rub off on the inside of your clothing. When your antiperspirant wears off, and you begin to sweat, you’ll have more aluminum hanging out on your shirt to react with your sweat and create that dark stain.
For those who don’t react to aluminum, we have to remove deodorant build-up from our shirts. You can try to remove the dark stains with the same tips as in that article, but it may be permanent because of the chemical change.
Tip #3 Try letting your antiperspirant or deodorant dry completely before putting on your shirt.
Finally, try to let your antiperspirant or deodorant dry completely before putting on your shirt. This will also help reduce the amount absorbed by the fibers of your clothing. It’s less likely to get wicked into your shirt.
So your homework is to find an aluminum-free antiperspirant/deodorant, use less, and try to let it dry before putting on your shirt to prevent future stains.
There is a rare health condition that can cause colored sweat, which can stain clothing. In most cases, black underarm stains are related to deodorant, but if following the three tips above doesn’t help, and you still have problems with black underarm stains, check out the advice in this post.
Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.