Twenty-four-year-old Isla remembers the first time she tried a chemical peel on her underarms. "I was scrolling on TikTok and I started seeing this trend where women were using glycolic acid on their underarms to brighten them," she says. "All the comments I saw hailed it as life-changing for hyperpigmentation [darker areas of skin] so I was intrigued and thought it would be fun, and that I'd put it to the test." Isla's DIY beauty treatment was far from enjoyable. "I woke up the next day with redness in both underarm areas and realised my skin had broken out in a blistering rash."
If you've fallen down the skincare rabbit hole on Instagram or TikTok, you might've noticed an emerging skincare trend: the pursuit of 'flawless' underarm skin. From armpit facials and detoxes to Botox injections, DIY kitchen remedies and so-called whitening kits, social media is awash with tutorials posted by beauty enthusiasts (and even respected dermatologists). They show viewers how to achieve seamless underarm skin and the methods are the inspiration behind hundreds of tried-and-tested videos.
Typing the word 'underarm' into TikTok's search bar serves up tens of popular inquiries, with 'underarm whitening', 'underarm lightening' and 'underarm hyperpigmentation' appearing as top requests. The latter is a common condition whereby certain parts of the skin appear darker as a result of accelerated production of a pigment produced in our skin cells called melanin. Hyperpigmentation can affect everyone but women of colour (who naturally produce more melanin pigment) are more prone to experiencing it. Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, skin expert and medical director and founder of Adonia Medical Clinic, says that repeated shaving (which can cause damage or irritation) and ingrown hairs may also lead to hyperpigmentation in this high-friction area. "In lighter skin types, there can be redness in the area. In darker skin types, this persistent irritation can lead to pigmented skin." Dr Ejikeme hits home that it is totally normal for melanated skin to have slightly darker underarms, knees, elbows, knuckles and thighs.
Like fashion, beauty standards are ever evolving. However, clear, smooth and even-toned underarm skin has quietly retained its position as a key qualifier in achieving an idealised female body. From ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire, hairless underarm skin signified femininity as well as social class. Fast-forward to 2022 and although our views have changed somewhat – over-the-counter skin lightening creams containing dangerous ingredients are illegal in the UK, and research has found that more young women than ever are embracing their body hair – the aforementioned markers of beauty are still an integral part of women's routines. Social media especially has supercharged the rise of an aspirational new aesthetic, with underarms airbrushed of any imperfections firmly at the forefront.
"Like a glazed doughnut, that's how I would describe it," says Isla of the look she wanted to achieve for her underarm skin. "Baby smooth, blemish-free and even-toned. Not a pore or hair follicle in sight. The Instagram-perfect armpit, if you will." Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, confirms that the desire to achieve a certain look for underarm skin is not uncommon. "There is no doubt that the scrutiny on all areas of skin has significantly increased in the past few years," she says. "In part, I think this may well be due to filtered images on the internet and social media." With a few taps and swipes, photo-editing apps and beauty filters have granted users the prowess of seasoned photo editors. It isn't just facial skin. Underarms everywhere are undergoing tweaks, too. Enlisting the right adjustments, angles and lighting, human skin can be made to look flawless and this has boosted airbrushed bodies as the new, coveted (though impossible to achieve) aesthetic target.
Isla isn't alone in wanting to change the appearance of her underarms. According to Google Trends, 'how to get rid of dark armpits' is the number one most popular underarm-related query in England. In July 2019 a survey revealed that nine in 10 women feel self-conscious about their armpits and this is highlighted in research by Dove, which found that beauty ideals have resulted in many women feeling increased pressure to 'improve' the appearance of their underarms. The bombardment of images of clear, bump-free skin from influencers and celebrities posting January gym selfies and holiday snaps is enough to make anyone disillusioned with what 'real' underarms look like.
Dr Ejikeme wants people to know that texture and pigmentation in the underarm area is entirely normal. "Everyone has slightly darker underarms," she says, "and as long as there is no pain or swelling, then there is no need to be concerned about it." Dr Wedgeworth adds: "It is normal to see some variation in pigment across the body — particularly areas of thicker skin — and the darker your skin, the more marked this may be." It goes without saying that whether you decide to treat your underarms (with the guidance of a qualified doctor) or leave them alone is entirely up to you. But pigmentation is not something that needs to be changed.
Despite this, there are plenty of people using harsh skin lighteners, high-strength exfoliating acids and bleaching creams on their underarm skin in a bid to even out its tone and texture. Some of these products contain dangerous substances such as hydroquinone and mercury (banned in over-the-counter products in the UK), though it seems this hasn't put people off. According to Statista, the global skin whitening industry is forecast to reach $8.9 billion by 2027. Dermatologists warn of the harmful, long-term impact of bleaching products on underarm skin. "There are a number of lightening creams sold illegally which contain strong steroids," says Dr Wedgeworth. "These can damage the delicate skin of the underarm, causing thinning and potentially stretch marks." Some toxic lightening products are also reported to cause damage to organs.
High-strength acid toners – widely used in skincare – are also popular on TikTok, including potent glycolic acid. Countless beauty enthusiasts have gone viral for encouraging those with 'dark' or 'bumpy' underarms to swipe on the ingredient (often found in leave-on products like toners, serums and creams) daily — sometimes after shaving, which can cause painful stinging and redness. One popular product mentioned in the comments of videos on TikTok contains a potent mix of three acids at an eye-watering 30% strength. There are reports of irritation and reactions when used incorrectly. Dr Wedgeworth concurs: "Applying active creams such as acids in the fold of the underarm area always risks irritation, because the skin gets a double dose of the creams." The product sits there for a lot longer than it might do on the face, for example, which may exacerbate inflamed, sore skin.
When tutorials titled "How To Lighten Your Armpits!" began appearing on Nikita's social media feed, it dug up the feeling of insecurity that she had struggled with previously. "As a South Asian woman, I am all too well acquainted with the societal and cultural pressure of 'lightening up' any part of my body that, god forbid, appeared darker," she says. "When I started noticing this trend, it was most certainly triggering — but I can't say I was surprised. Before I was even a teenager my aunty had already handed me a 'special cream' to apply on my underarms, knees and elbows. I was put on a hamster wheel with my creams and waxing strips and tweezers, chasing the idea that the closer my body was to Eurocentric standards, then the more desirable I would be."
The 'armpit facial' is currently highly viewed on TikTok (367.4 million pairs of eyes to be exact). It may seem like a fun trend, helping to minimise pigmentation and ingrown hairs, but it can be argued that the connotations of changing one's skin colour are rather sinister. Now in her mid 20s, Nikita realises how Eurocentric beauty standards negatively impacted the relationship she had with her body while growing up. "This is especially true for my underarms," she says. "Quite honestly, I'm still working to dismantle the standards of beauty that caused me so much insecurity. I'm trying to stop internalising things that are completely natural in my appearance. They are not undesirable if I don't manipulate them." Nikita continues: "The saddest part about the 'How To Get The Perfect such-and-such' trends is that there will be young desi girls out there watching those videos, and they will soon be jumping on that same hamster wheel that I did." It's clear there is lots of social pressure in regard to attaining the blemish-free skin we see on social media. "This type of skin, of course, only exists on our screens," concludes Nikita.
Interestingly however, the countless beauty videos showing women how to 'improve' their underarm skin are facing backlash. Responding to a viral video which has amassed 1.2 million views and counting, some commenters aren't so keen on covering up pigmentation. "This is nice but it upsets me that this is something women are made to feel insecure about… like idc y’all can enjoy my dark pit," wrote one user. Another commented: "Having discoloured underarms is such a natural part of having melanated skin! We should be encouraging each other to embrace them." Underarm health is important but Dr Wedgeworth recommends keeping it simple, particularly if you have sensitive skin. She suggests ditching harsh ingredients that ravage delicate underarm skin and opting instead for gentle washes and roll-on, unfragranced deodorants. If you are concerned about your armpit skin, says Dr Wedgeworth, visit a doctor to rule out a skin condition.
Our collective obsession with underarm appearance is yet another beauty standard that society — especially social media — holds us to. It's exhausting but TikTokers and skin experts are confident that encouraging people to embrace (rather than conceal or even potentially burn or disfigure) their underarms will help to dismantle these ideals in time. "The concept of 'flawless' skin in the armpit area is, in my opinion, an unrealistic goal," agrees Dr Wedgeworth. "Skin is an organ with a physiological function and so the appearance will reflect this. I'm keen to ensure the focus is on healthy skin, rather than trying to attain the unachievable."