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Real Talk: Do I Need to Exfoliate My Armpits?

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Pit care is the new self-care.

By:Michelle Rostamian

Fact: Most of us are at least somewhat guilty of neglecting the skin on every part of ourselves except our faces. And while in some cases this is understandable (maskne is still alive and well, folks), there’s a little-talked-about area that’s just as deserving of our TLC: our underarms. Sure, armpits aren’t nearly as exciting to talk about as, say, a new acne-busting face mask or a trendy serum, but it remains undisputed that taking care of the underarm area is essential, given the fact that our armpits are prone to bacteria and yeast buildup, which can lead to odor, ingrown hairs, and even pustules (yikes).

So what exactly can we do besides slapping on some deodorant to keep this oft-forgotten area healthy? Exfoliate. Seriously! Dermatologists agree that the underarms shouldn’t be skipped when it comes to your dead-skin-sloughing routine. We tapped the pros to learn exactly why we should care about our underarms, what products we should use, and how we can adopt an effective routine for our pits.

Why Pit Care?

According to Dr. Corey Hartman, an Alabama-based, board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology, armpits (or axillae) are areas of specialized skin meant to achieve a specific purpose (ahem, sweat). “The skin there is thinner, full of sweat glands, and prone to irritation and bacterial overgrowth,” he says. “The fact that it’s an area where ‘skin touches skin’ also requires special consideration.” And with the rise of consumer awareness comes the desire for cleaner formulas (or at least options that don’t contain pore-clogging aluminum) among both beauty and non-beauty enthusiasts—just take a look at the organic deodorant market, which is estimated to be worth nearly $159 million by 2025.

If you’re prone to breakouts or excessive sweating, developing a proper pit-care routine can help alleviate some of the frustrations that come with these issues, as bacteria can lead to infection and an increase in body odor, according to board-certified dermatologist and laser surgeon Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali of Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery.

Do You Need to Exfoliate Your Armpits?

Dr. Hartman explains that armpits are hair-bearing areas of skin, and wherever hair grows on the skin, there is also the possibility of a buildup of dead skin cells, debris, and bacteria. “Regular exfoliation of the area is important to prevent ingrown hairs, folliculitis, and discoloration,” he says. “If armpit skin is not exfoliated regularly through washing, dead skin cells can accumulate, leading to an increased number of bacteria, development of painful pustules, and scarring.”

The fact that armpit hair tends to be coarser and curlier than the hair on the scalp also means your pits are more prone to ingrown hairs. Says Dr. Hartman, “Curly, coarse hairs are more likely to become ingrown as they re-enter the skin, as the skin sees the hair shaft as something foreign that needs to be removed. The resulting effect is increased inflammation, redness, pain, and pustule formation as the skin sets up a reaction to try to get rid of the ‘invading’ hair shaft. Exfoliation keeps the pores free of unwanted debris that can obstruct the path of the hair, and encourages the hair to grow out freely.”

Finally, regularly exfoliating your armpits can help get rid of odor-causing bacteria buildup. “Regular exfoliation helps to keep bacterial numbers in check by getting rid of dead skin cells, which can harbor extra bacteria that interact with sweat to cause malodor on the surface of the skin,” notes Dr. Hartman. You can even use a deodorant that harnesses the power of chemical exfoliants, like AHAs or BHAs, to eliminate body odor.

Bottom line: An accumulation of dead skin cells not only provides the perfect environment for ingrowns, but it can be the source of body odor, too. It’s recommended to add armpit exfoliation to your routine if these are some current issues you’re facing.

How to Care for Your Armpits

So what type of exfoliator works for the underarms? Look for ones that contain alpha, beta, and poly hydroxy acids (think salicylic acid, lactic acid, and glycolic acid). Dr. Hartman says that most of these are well tolerated in the sensitive skin of the underarms, so long as the concentration of the active ingredients is on the lower end of the spectrum (2 percent is ideal). “I would recommend thoroughly cleansing the area daily with a mesh sponge or cleansing massager, and then adding a chemical exfoliating agent one to two times per week,” he says. “If there is no irritation and the area is flaring with folliculitis, the frequency of the active ingredient may be carefully increased.”

Besides exfoliation, Dr. Bhanusali recommends removing your deodorant each night with a light wipe of a damp cloth, especially if you’re prone to breakouts in this area. He also says that if you’re a heavy sweater, opt for loose-fitting fabrics (like cotton or linen) to help the moisture evaporate quicker. “If antiperspirants (products designed to reduce odor and decrease sweating) don’t help, see a board-certified dermatologist to discuss prescription options such as medicated wipes, oral medications, or Botox,” he says.

Finally, if you’re an underarm shaver, consider your razor maintenance. “Most razors are meant to last between five to seven shavings, so if you’re shaving every day, you should change the razor about once a week,” says Dr. Hartman. “Razors get dull after repeated use and thus can provide a less effective shave, and can increase the risk of cuts. It is also important to change razors frequently because they harbor lots of bacteria and can promote infection.”