​​​Miriam E.Tucker

Seeking Underarm Identity
(Written in 2002)

I stared in disbelief at the “discontinued item” sign. Normally reserved for dusty grocery store items that I’d never buy anyway, this tag had been placed under a product I purchased routinely and used daily: My trusted Almay roll-on antiperspirant. Soon, it had vanished from all my local grocery stores. What was going on? 

I did eventually find it at a drugstore, tucked in the corner on a low shelf. But a quick glance upward gave me a start: Where had all the roll-ons gone? For years, I’d just been grabbing my brand, oblivious to the emergence of sticks, soft solids, and gels. When I mentioned my discovery to a friend, she said “You’re still using a roll-on? Why?” I might as well have told her I still use a typewriter or a rotary phone. 

This was highly disconcerting. I consider myself pretty hip to current trends…Was I a deodorant dinosaur? 

Evidently, yes. “Roll-ons are dying…In a mature market, something has to give,” according to industry expert Philip B. Klepak, director of technical services worldwide for New Jersey-based Reheis, Inc., the leading manufacturer of aluminum compounds used to make antiperspirants. 

Since ancient times, humans have applied various substances to their armpits in attempts to stop odor and perspiration. The first commercial underarm deodorants, mostly in cream form, appeared in pharmacies around the turn of the century. But it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the first patent was awarded for aluminum chlorohydrate as an anti-wetness ingredient. “That’s what revolutionized the industry,” Klepak says. 

Antiperspirants work by creating a superficial plug in the sweat gland, preventing perspiration from escaping. Deodorants fight odor with a combination of bacteria-killers and masking fragrances. About 85% of underarm products in the U.S. are combination antiperspirant/deodorants, while 15% are deodorant-only. Interestingly, the latter are only made for men. Odor, it seems, is unacceptable to both genders, while some men like to see themselves sweat. 

In all, about 91% of American men and 95% of women use some type of underarm product, to the tune of about $1.9 billion a year. “It’s a huge retail category,” Klepak says. 

The technology has progressed steadily over the years. Roll-ons first hit the market around 1953, followed by dry aerosols in the early 1960’s. Sticks came along in the late 1970’s, just as the aerosol was falling from favor due to ozone concerns. Over the last decade, clear gels, invisible solids, and soft solids, or “hydro solids” have slowly been taking over. 

“Clear gels didn’t exist 5 or 6 years ago, and now they’re the #2 form,” Klepak notes. “It’s a very dynamic industry…There are a lot of patents.” 

I’ll never forget my own first antiperspirant experience, in the mid-1970’s. I had hit puberty, and my mother noticed that I was becoming a bit…ripe. So she bought me an aerosol spray antiperspirant. I lifted my right arm, and she blasted my pit. I let out a shriek and jumped several feet in the air. Eventually, I settled on a roll-on that went on so wet I had to flap my arms like a chicken for 10 minutes before I could put my shirt on. But at least I wasn’t scared out of my wits. 

Thankfully, dry roll-ons came out a few years later, and that’s where I stayed…till now. What I missed in all those intervening years is the result of a highly competitive drive to make products that are more effective and more user-friendly. 

“Consumers want dryer armpits, but they also want aesthetics. They don’t want residue or white flaky stuff. That’s where the innovation is,” Klepak says. 

And of course, with all that innovation comes marketing. Lately, I’ve been perusing the shelves. I love the sleek, silver container of Right Guard’s Xtreme Sport line—It reminds me of those neato widgets you never knew you needed till you spotted one at the Sharper Image. 

A Gillette press release explains, “Right Guard Xtreme Sport…capitaliz[es] on the trend toward extreme or alternative sports that are individualistic, free-spirited, and high adrenaline” and “provides the ultimate in odor and wetness protection for men who need an anti-perspirant to keep performing even as they push their limits.” 

Whew. Forget the Marlboro Man—I want Right Guard Guy. 

No such sports-themed products are targeted toward women. And even the great outdoors is apparently a much tamer place for the fairer sex: While men are subjected to the fearsome fragrant forces of Speed Stick’s “Avalanche” and “Cyclone,” women can chill in Lady Speed Stick’s “Caribbean Cool” or simply slip into “Summer Bliss.” 

And then there’s Secret’s line of fragrances called “Optimism,” “Ambition,” and “Genuine.” But how is a girl to choose among these equally admirable and desirable traits? Personally, I’d like to see one called “Chutzpah.” Oh well—My sensitive skin restricts me to unscented products anyway. 

So, after two failed attempts with big-name sticks—one quit by day’s end, the other left nasty white crumblies all over my clothes and furniture—I finally turned to the clear gel made by my old hypoallergenic friend Almay. Carefully, I turned the dial at the bottom of the container. Jelly-like blobs oozed out each of three slits along the top. Kinda cool. I lifted my arm and stroked it on. The stuff glided so smoothly and satisfyingly that I was instantly hooked. Since then, I’ve actually looked forward to putting on my deodorant every morning. 

At the dawn of the new millennium, I’m proud that my underarms are trendy and up-to-date. No longer a roll-on wimp, I am now cool, confident Clear Gel Woman. Hear me roar. ###