When Did Deodorant Go Full-Body?

In recent years, the product — long confined to the armpits — has seen its purview expand.

A vintage photograph of a woman collaged with a Lume full-body deodorant product.

One day, I was minding my business, thinking that deodorant was solely for my armpits; the next, I was enlightened. Thanks to a TV ad featuring a centaur (excuse me, a Scentaur), I learned that “full-body deodorant” — odor-controlling sprays, sticks, and lotions designed to be applied indiscriminately, from your underboobs to your feet to your groin — is readily available.

Many of the major players in the body care game have entered this product category: Dove, SheaMoisture, Old Spice, even my beloved Secret, which I’ve been wed to since adolescence. Upstarts like Mutha, Curie, and Native are also angling to get a piece of the action.

I’ve been a little baffled by the eagerness to embrace a universal solution to a problem that might otherwise be tackled by two, three, four sold-separately products. In the beauty industry, the trend goes indisputably in the other direction. As a teen, I used Proactiv’s three-step skin care regimen to battle my cystic zits; I’ve since gathered I need at least two more products to achieve acceptable skin, but probably three. (In this sense, I’m an underachiever, having failed to live up to the K-beauty 10-step routine.) And while in the past I might have just used a body cream and face cream, I’ve now stocked up on specially formulated lotions for my hands, feet, neck, and cuticles as well, lest even the smallest patch of skin betray dryness. This is the promise made to American women: Yes, you will continue to discover new sources of bodily shame, but the market will always supply an answer. And dutifully, every time the hydra that is my unruly appearance sprouts a new head, I enter the temple of Sephora, ask one of its apron-clad oracles for assistance, and leave with a new potion.

So, when my eyes were opened to the vast possibilities of deodorant use, I’ll admit I was curious: Who decided there should be One Product to Rule Them All? And could any lotion, spray, or stick possibly be equally effective on a ’pit and a vulva?

Enter Lume, an OB-GYN-founded company whose entire business model says “yes.” When Dr. Shannon Klingman, M.D., was in her medical residency, she noticed that many people were coming in with complaints of below-the-belt odor, and being wrongly diagnosed with conditions they didn’t have, and prescribed medications they didn’t need. Noting the demand for a product that could safely control odors around (but not inside) the vagina, she set to work developing one — with a goal to ultimately destigmatize these odors. She landed on a mandelic-acid-based formula and realized it worked perfectly well all over the body.

When Klingman founded Lume in 2017, the company introduced consumers to the concept of “full-body deodorant” (an apt name, given that many of these products aim to inhibit bacteria growth by acidifying the skin, as do traditional deodorants). But, like me, many people only became aware of it in recent months, thanks to the marketing efforts of Secret and other big players who’ve thrown their hats into the ring.

Each brand positions these products slightly differently. Dove, for example, advertises its sticks and sprays as “anti-friction,” and primarily for the armpits, underboob, and thigh areas; others explicitly suggest using theirs near the vagina (see Native’s “for your pits, privates, boobs, thighs, and feet!”). Perhaps anticipating that some potential consumers, like me, would be confused by such sweeping claims, the advertisements preempt questions: 4 out of 5 gynecologists would recommend it; it’s been tested by clinicians and dermatologists.

“This is another product being marketed to women that teaches them to be self-conscious of their bodies and natural scent.”

“I’ve been telling people for years to apply deodorant on other sweaty areas of their body, so it’s nice there are products now with the full-body designation,” says Dr. Anna Karp, D.O., a dermatologist based in New York. “Some people’s skin is too sensitive to use a regular deodorant on other areas of their body.”

Others physicians are less convinced, like Dr. Stephanie Hack, M.D., an OB-GYN and the founder of Lady Parts Doctor women’s health platform. After learning about full-body deodorant, her first thought was “This is another product being marketed to women that teaches them to be self-conscious of their bodies and natural scent.”

Dr. Karen Tang, M.D., is also in this camp. “There’s no known medical need for deodorants of the genitals for any gender, but the fact that marketing has been very directed specifically to females and to women — it’s in the same vein of feminine hygiene products, which from a gynecologic perspective aren’t actually necessary and can be potentially irritating,” says the Pennsylvania gynecologist and author of It’s Not Hysteria: Everything You Need to Know About Your Reproductive Health (But Were Never Told). “Vulvar skin is also very sensitive, so it is particularly sensitive to irritants, fragrance, like chemical irritants. That’s part of the reason that as gynecologists, we tend to tell people to avoid any of the deodorizers, like douches, because it can actually cause irritation, itching, burning.”

It seems that what Lume founder Klingman thought of as liberating and empowering strikes other experts as symptomatic of further oppression. (Representatives for Lume declined an on-the-record interview.)

Advertisement for Mum Deodorant Cream, circa 1927.Fotosearch/Getty Images
A photo shoot to promote antiperspirant, 1973.M. McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Perhaps now is when I’m supposed to reveal my personal experience testing a series of full-body deodorants. I hope I’m not disappointing anyone to reveal I did no such thing, both because my body is freakishly sensitive and generally unwell, and because I’m either under-affected by vaginal smells or underconcerned about them. Full-body deodorant isn’t for me.

But who am I to judge those who are enticed by its sweet-smelling promises? I’ve worn my Secret antiperspirant religiously since age 15.

Not all that long ago, slathering this aluminum-powered goop on my armpits would have seemed bizarre; the first deodorant didn’t hit the market until 1888, and antiperspirant came even later, in 1903. At first, business was slow — people thought sweat was natural! It was only when advertising helpfully outlined the potential social repercussions of body odor that it began catching on. One day, 20th century women were minding their business, thinking perspiration was perfectly fine; the next, they were enlightened.