Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.
Oh pit stains, those yellow blights on the landscape of our favorite white shirts, the source of so, so, so, so, so many sad emails in my inbox. I would suggest a group hug, but that would require that you lift up your arms and I don’t want to further traumatize anyone.
(Air kisses, maybe? Headbutts?? Towel snaps??? Towel snaps, totally.)
Before we get into the options and methods and incantations you can employ in pursuit of treating and preventing unsightly underarm stains, we’ll talk quickly about the science of why this is happening—WHY, GOD? WHY??—because (1) knowledge is power and (2) science is cool. But mostly because this isn’t my first rodeo, and so I know that there will be a million variations (rough count) on the question, “What the heck do I do about these freaking stains?” and I’m trying to spare myself, like, two or three of them.
It won’t work. But I am an eternal optimist so …
Part 1: Science
The science part of things is actually pretty simple, and likely stuff that you already know to some extent. Basically, it’s all the fault of our deodorant; or, more correctly, it’s the fault of our antiperspirant, which is such an insult, don’t you think?
The “why” behind the “WHY, GOD? WHY??” is that in most brands, the primary active ingredient in antiperspirants is aluminum. In deodorant it’s generally alcohol, though oftentimes deodorants that are not also antiperspirants contain aluminum. This will become important later, as will the fact that I’m making a distinction between deodorant and antiperspirant.
What happens is this: The aluminum has a reaction to sweat, which is a protein, that causes the vile underarm yellowing that we so dread. Oh also! Your cotton shirts are also made up of protein which makes me pretty sure that the white t-shirt manufacturing community has teamed up with the people at Old Speed Spice Stick Co. Inc. LTD to force you into a new set of undershirts every year.
Because of SCIENCE! I do need to tell you this part before we get into the triage and prevention portion of the proceedings—bleach is absolutely NOT what you want to use on any articles of clothing that are suffering from sweat/antiperspirant/deodorant stains. Bleach will only serve to render the discoloration more yellow, because bleach hates protein the way that Red Sox fans hate the Yankees, but without the benefit of being correct about the fact that protein sucks.
Part 2: Triage
There are a number of treatments that people swear by for pit stains, but let’s start with the one I swear by, since this is my column and all. It probably will come as no surprise by now that I’m going to tell you to go in deep with some OxiClean. What can I say? It’s not my fault that it’s the second coming of cleaning products!
But here’s the thing you need to know about Oxi: employing the correct OxiClean technique is crucial. When we’re talking about treating new pit stains, sprinkling some Oxi in the wash (hot water for whites is optimal here) will do you just fine. But when we talk about yellow marks that have been set in because you dried the item before the stain was removed, we have to get into more serious work. Which means that it’s time for soaking and frottage.
So! Fill up your (CLEAN!) kitchen sink or a bucket or any other receptacle that can hold a body of water. Put in some hot water. Add your Oxi (a scoop will do ya) and swirl things about until the powder has dissolved. Then add your soiled garments, let them soak for about 15 or 30 minutes, then go back in and hit them with some agitation. There are two ways of doing this: (1) by rubbing the fabric against itself (frottage, holla!) while the garment is submerged in the cleaning solution or—and this is what you’ll use on truly tough stains—(2) by employing a laundry brush.
If you find that Oxi doesn’t work for you, or you’re just looking for something a little less commercial, there are a few other options for you to consider.
Sunshine: Good old sunshine will bleach those stains right out. It’s not ideal for colored clothing that you don’t want to fade, though.
White vinegar: Make a solution of 1 tablespoon white vinegar to ½ cup of water; soak the soiled shirt in that solution for about a half hour before laundering as usual.
Hydrogen peroxide, two ways:
(1) Combine 1 part water, 1 part hydrogen peroxide and 1 part baking soda. Mix into a paste and apply to the stains (a spoon is good for this), then, using your fingers, rub the paste into the shirts. Allow the solution to sit for 30 or so minutes before laundering as usual.
(2) Fill a small bowl with hydrogen peroxide and soak the stained part of the shirt for 30 or so minutes before laundering as usual.
Aspirin: Crush up two to three aspirins in hot water, stir to dissolve and use as a stain pre-treatment. I know. It’s weird. But you never know when you’ll be in a pit pinch with only aspirin on hand.
Pre-treating: If you can commit to this level of discipline, the best thing you can do for the lifespan of your shirts is to spray the pits down before you toss ’em in the hamper using a stain pre-treatment product like Zout, or OxiClean—really anything that features an enzymatic element will do you right.
Rinsing: If you’re in a bind with nothing else on hand, go ahead and rinse the armpits of a shirt you’ve just sweated through and are taking off with cold running water. At the very least it will rinse away the perspiration and push out a lot of the build-up that can cause staining. This isn’t the best approach for day in, day out problem solving, but can be helpful to know about when you’re on the road and away from your usual arsenal of laundering products.
And finally, allow me to introduce you to one of my all time favorite cleaning products, bluing. BLUING! It turns things blue! (I’ll pause now to give you time to work through all the “I’m afraid I blew myself” jokes.) Which is an excellent thing to do with formerly white clothes that have taken on a yellow cast—the blue tint counteracts the yellowing, rendering the clothes bright white to the eye. We talked a bunch about bluing last week as part of our discussion on how to get dingy sheets looking crisp and white again, so if you’d like to learn more about this delightful product please step this way.
Part 3: Prevention
Before I leave you with your OxiClean and laundry brush to slough away the sad evidence of your failure to achieve unrealistic standards of dryness, it’s worth sharing some more information I’ve picked up at the aforementioned previous rodeos. Yee haw!
Fair warning: some of these are tips I’ve gotten from my female readers and so they may offend your terribly masculine sensibilities. On the other hand, you all are particularly modern fellows and it would be gender essentialist of me not to include them. Also: Hey ladies! (I’ve got something just for you.)
As we discussed upcolumn, the damned deodorant is the one causing all of the problems—or, more correctly, the antiperspirant is causing all of the problems. Which may incentivise you to make a change in your stink balm product choices. If you do feel that a switch might be in order, here are some things to consider.
Brut: A friend told me recently that he switched to Brut, which offers a deodorant-sans-antiperspirant and that the change ended his lifelong battle with the dreaded yellow stains. He also mentioned that, oddly, he felt like he sweated through his shirts less after moving away from antiperspirant. Which seems insane but he had no reason to fib about it, so.
Crystal: Another friend moved into Crystal, which is also a deodorant-sans-antiperspirant but without what some feel is the cloying scent of Brut. He also reported feeling drier after giving up on antiperspirants and I once lived with this person so I can assure you that he is a capital S capital M Sweat Monster. His armpits once ate through a thick terrycloth bathrobe, no joke.
Boots: Quoth evangelists: “It’s far less pit-stain-inducing than any of the brands I was using before, but I can’t find it in the US, so now I buy it in bulk whenever I go through Heathrow. To their credit, the cashiers don’t even blink at the American buying 5 things of deodorant for a plane ride.” I left that last part in for those of you who are terrified of a British side-eye.
Certain Dri: This was described to me as “life-changing” which is a hell of an endorsement! On the flip side, “It stings a little after application.”
Drysol: This is a prescription thing that gets rolled on at night and washed off in the morning. It can sting and its formula is such that you should sleep in an old tee you don’t care about because it’s made entirely of terrifying chemicals that will get on your old tee that you don’t care about. But! After a few months, you will find that you need to use it less and it apparently ENTIRELY DESTROYS YOUR SWEAT GLANDS. Cool.
Soapwalla Deodorant Cream: People freaking LOVE this deodorant. It’s actually pretty much insane how much they love it. It’s made with lavender, though those who use it assure me that the smell is not very girly and “def. unisex.” Plus, if being lavender-scented worked for Frank Sinatra, surely you can make it work for you.
And for my fellow Glorious Ladies Of Deadspin (see how I told you I had something just for you?!?): a goodly number of the womanfolk have told me that they’ve had excellent results by switching to man deodorant brands. Generally, they go with the unscented offerings but if you would like to smell like juniper berries and MMA by all means go for a scented version.
The thing is though … our bodies are all unique temples, and formulas vary from brand to brand, and those differences mean that there’s no single solution that will work for everyone. Which may mean you’re in for a little experimenting, but that’s OK! Over the years, I’ve certainly ended up in new brands of deodorant that after a few days of wear I’m like, “Yeah no. This makes me feel sticky and I do not at all care for feeling sticky. Back to the old brand!”
If you find yourself truly striking out on switching deodorant brands, here are a few alternatives to consider in pursuit of a less sweaty existence:
Botox: I’m not about to go around telling people to shoot themselves up with botulism, but also I would be negligent in my duties if I didn’t give you an overview of what Botox might offer to those of you who suffer from overactive sweat glands. So here are the basics you need to know, from people who have been there/done that.
It’s temporary, but how temporary varies wildly from person to person. One person reported that it lasted only 3 months and that her body just excreted sweat elsewhere. Others said that it lasted anywhere from 6 months to 4 years (!!) for them, and that they didn’t experience any displaced sweating issues. Out of pocket costs will run you somewhere in the $1000-1500 range, though insurance will often cover it. You’ll need to see a dermatologist for that, and you’ll still be on the hook for whatever co-pay your provider requires.
Supplements: I have to say this even though I know you know already—check with your doctor before you begin any new course of vitamins or supplements. With that out of the way, here are some things that have worked for people that you might want to check out.
Detox supplements like Daily Detox by Wellements will make you sweat less and also might make it smell less when you do sweat! Amazing, right? Who knew that milk thistle and clover could work such magic? (I did. But I am also a Light Wiccan, so.) Fenugreek supplements are also a great choice in terms of helping to reduce perspiration, and which also will make you smell entirely of maple. Maple, it should be noted, is the most wonderful smell in all of the lands and all of the seas.
Acupuncture: Oh fer sure! Acupuncture can absolutely target overactive sweat glands. Talk to your acupuncturist about it.
Garment shields: These are an older fashioned product that have largely fallen out of favor, but then again canning was an older fashioned thing to do and now Brooklyn can’t get enough of it. So! If you’re in Brooklyn, put yourself ahead of the next old-timey trend and get into a set of garment shields! You can often find them in the notions sections of fabric stores and the more traditional department stores, but Kleinerts is the best source for them—they offer disposable and washable shields, as well as all manner of sweat-proof and wicking garments. Related: Are you experiencing issues with tush sweat?
OK so! Wow. That was … a lot. Here’s the great thing about this topic though—you’ll have more to share with me about what solutions you’ve found work for you in terms of both curbing sweating, staving off yellowing and treating staining. Which means I’ll have more to learn on this, The Most Important of Cleaning Topics. So now it’s your turn: Whatcha got for me?
Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.
Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.