We tend to spend a decent amount of time on our underarms, whether that’s shaving, scrubbing with body wash or putting on deodorant to keep us from getting too smelly.
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But what does it mean if you notice the skin under your arms becoming dark or discolored? While it could just be your genetics or the products you use, dark underarms can also be a sign that something else is going on with your health.
Dermatologist Alok Vij, MD, explains what causes dark underarms, why it’s important to get a diagnosis and what you can do at home to help lighten your skin.
Why are my armpits dark?
“The most important thing to know about dark underarms is it can sometimes be related to diabetes,” says Dr. Vij. “That can be the first symptom in a patient who previously may be asymptomatic or may otherwise be undiagnosed.”
Acanthosis nigricans, a skin pigmentation disorder that’s associated with diabetes, is when your underarm skin becomes thick and velvety.
But dark underarms can happen for several reasons, says Dr. Vij. Those may include:
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
- Allergic contact dermatitis or a rash.
- Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
- Excessive sweating.
- Irritation from shaving.
- Friction from wearing tight clothes.
- Fragrances, dyes and preservatives in deodorant, shaving creams and other products.
If you’re concerned about your dark underarms, Dr. Vij stresses the importance of talking to a doctor to get a diagnosis.
“Once you’ve gotten a diagnosis and you’re getting the right treatment, then skin-directed therapies like creams or laser therapy can be used to help lighten underarms,” he continues.
How to lighten dark armpits
While there are plenty of “at-home remedies” online that claim to help with your dark underarms, Dr. Vij says it’s best to start with the following.
Use fewer products
Your dark armpits could be caused by irritation from the products you use. So, cut down on what you apply to the area to see if that helps.
You also want to reconsider what type of products you’re using.
“Look for products marketed for sensitive skin,” advises Dr. Vij. “You’re looking for fragrance-free, dye-free and preservative-free products.”
Aluminum fluoride, the ingredient that’s in many over-the-counter deodorants and antiperspirants, is safe. And when it comes to products that claim to be “natural,” don’t be fooled.
“Natural products may still have fragrances, dyes and preservatives that are just derived from an organic source rather than synthetically derived,” explains Dr. Vij. “So, they may not be better. You really want to look for products that are marketed for sensitive skin.”
Try natural at-home remedies … with caution
The internet is full of at-home “natural remedies” to treat dark underarms like using the juice from a grated squeezed potato, applying egg yolk oil or even trying an armpit detox. While Dr. Vij isn’t convinced that these dark underarm treatments work, he does co-sign using lemons to help lighten the underarm area.
“Lemon has citric acid in it. Citric acid is going to help to dissolve away the outer layer of skin,” he says. “It’s very similar to using a glycolic acid face wash to thin out the skin on your face.”
You can rub lemon slices under your arms. Wait 10 minutes and then rinse the area with cool water and let dry. Another method involves mixing lemon juice with turmeric to make a paste for your underarms. Apply to your underarms and wait 30 minutes before washing off with cold water.
As with any home remedy, it’s best to talk to a doctor first. And be careful not to use these methods too often, as over-exfoliation can cause irritation.
Talk to a doctor about other options
If changing products and at-home treatments aren’t lightening your underarms, your doctor may prescribe a lotion or cream that contains ingredients like niacinamide, retinol, kojic acid or hydroquinone.
“Some creams have urea or ammonium lactate that help dissolve an abnormally thick outer layer of skin,” Dr. Vij adds.
Other in-office options may include chemical peels, dermabrasion or microdermabrasion.
While laser therapy can be used to help remove pigment, Dr. Vij says this isn’t a common treatment for dark underarms.
When to see a doctor
If you notice a rash or irritation, Dr. Vij recommends changing your deodorant to see if that helps first.
“But if you still have symptoms and your skin is inflamed and itchy, it’s time to see your doctor,” he says.
If you notice hyperpigmentation along with other symptoms like irregular menstrual cycles, abnormal hair growth and weight gain, Dr. Vij advises seeing a doctor about a possible PCOS diagnosis.
And if you’ve gained weight, have a family history of diabetes and notice hyperpigmentation in your underarms, your doctor will want to make sure you don’t have prediabetes or diabetes.
“This can happen in like kids as young as 8 years old or adults into their 30s or 40s,” he says.
And while you may think dark underarms are just a cosmetic issue, it can be linked to a more serious health concern, so Dr. Vij stresses the importance of seeing a doctor and getting a diagnosis.
“We want to make sure we rule out or set up treatment for potential health problems first,” says Dr. Vij. “Then if your dark underarms are slow to improve, we can address that.”