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Can exfoliating cause dark underarms?

Many people struggle with dark or discolored underarms. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including shaving, frequent use of antiperspirants and deodorants, friction from skin rubbing together, dead skin buildup, and genetics. Some people turn to exfoliation as a solution, hoping that regularly scrubbing the underarms will slough off dead skin cells and reveal brighter, more even-toned skin underneath. However, experts are divided on whether exfoliating is an effective treatment for dark underarms. Here’s a closer look at what causes dark underarms and whether exfoliating can help or potentially even make the problem worse.

What causes dark underarms?

There are a few primary causes of dark or discolored underarms:


Frequent shaving can lead to ingrown hairs and irritation that darkens the skin over time. The underarm area is delicate and easily prone to inflammation from the sharp blades of razors. Darkened pores and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can develop from chronic irritation.

Antiperspirants and deodorants

The aluminum compounds commonly found in antiperspirants and deodorants can react with sweat and dead skin cells leading to darkened pores in some people. The metal salts cause proteins in sweat to form plugs that block pores. With repeated antiperspirant use, chronic inflammation and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can occur.


The skin of the underarms is thin and friction prone. Rubbing from arm movements can darken the area over time, especially if irritation is present from shaving or antiperspirants. The friction leads to increased melanin production.

Dead skin buildup

A buildup of dead skin cells, oils, and sweat can cause the appearance of darkened pores and uneven texture in the underarms. Excessive keratinization and the oxidation of trapped dead skin both increase darkness.


Some people are genetically prone to hyperpigmentation and will naturally have darker underarms no matter what. Higher levels of melanin lead to darker skin in areas like the underarms and groin.

Can frequent exfoliation help lighten dark underarms?

Many people turn to frequent exfoliation in an attempt to lighten dark underarms. The logic is that regularly scrubbing away dead skin cells may help remove some of the dark, irritated skin. Gentle exfoliation can help, but over-exfoliating can actually worsen discoloration for some people. Here’s a look at the pros and cons:

Potential benefits of exfoliation

  • Removes dead skin buildup that can oxidize and cause darkness
  • Sloughs away some darkened, irritated skin
  • Opens up clogged pores by clearing out debris
  • Allows any brightening creams to better penetrate the skin

Gentle, occasional exfoliation with a soft scrub may provide mild improvements in skin tone for some people with dark underarms. Removing excess dead skin and clearing pores allows brightening ingredients to work better. However, exfoliation alone is not enough to lighten underarms for most.

Risks of over-exfoliation

  • Leads to irritation and inflammation
  • Causes microscopic tears in the skin that appear darkened
  • Triggers increased melanin production
  • Worsens post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

Exfoliating too harshly or too often can damage the delicate underarm area. This kickstarts the skin’s natural healing process, which leads to a temporary increase in melanin that can leave the underarms looking darker than before exfoliation. Plus, inflammation is a key factor in underarm darkening to begin with, so exacerbating irritation with excessive exfoliation is counterproductive.

How often should you exfoliate underarms?

Most dermatologists recommend exfoliating your underarms no more than 2-3 times per week. Use a very gentle, natural scrub to avoid irritation and inflammation. Look for exfoliants like jojoba beads, coffee grounds, or soft chemical exfoliants like lactic acid. Never dry scrub the underarms, always use a hydrating cleanser or oil as the base. And avoid harsh brushes or tools – use your fingertips to apply gentle pressure and massage the exfoliant.

What ingredients help lighten dark underarms?

While exfoliation alone won’t sufficiently lighten most dark underarms, combining it with proven brightening ingredients provides better results. Look for products containing:

Vitamin C

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) inhibits melanin production and helps block the enzymatic reaction that leads to discoloration. It works best when applied topically and is quite unstable, so look for a freshly formulated product. Use vitamin C serum on clean underarms after exfoliating.

Alpha arbutin

Made from the bearberry plant, this natural ingredient is a safer and more stable alternative to the controversial ingredient hydroquinone. It works by blocking tyrosinase, which is an enzyme involved in melanin production.


Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide minimizes skin darkening and blotchiness by decreasing melanosome transfer when applied topically. It treats discoloration without the risks of ingredients like hydroquinone.

Kojic acid

Kojic acid comes from fungal fermentation and prevents tyrosinase activity. Studies show it performs comparably to hydroquinone for improving melasma and uneven pigmentation. It can cause irritation in some people, so test a small area before widespread use.

Licorice extract

Licorice root extract contains glabridin, a compound that inhibits melanin synthesis and provides anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it effective for fading post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Azelaic acid

Occurring naturally in wheat and barley, azelaic acid is an alternative to hydroquinone that inhibits melanin production. It also kills acne-causing bacteria to prevent inflamed breakouts that can lead to PIH. Azelaic acid works well for melasma and uneven skin tone.

Other tips for lightening dark underarms

In addition to occasionally exfoliating and using brightening ingredients, there are some other tips for minimizing the appearance of dark underarms:

  • Avoid irritants like fragranced deodorants
  • Switch to a gentle, aluminum-free deodorant
  • Shave less frequently or try hair removal creams
  • Apply a soothing lotion containing licochalcone after shaving
  • Wear loose clothing to minimize friction
  • Use a mild body wash instead of soap
  • Apply sunscreen daily to prevent UV damage
  • Consider professional procedures like chemical peels or laser therapy

Being gentle with your underarms and avoiding sources of inflammation and irritation can go a long way in preventing darkness. But for stubborn discoloration, medical treatments are the most effective approach. See a dermatologist to discuss your options.

The takeaway

Here is a summary of key points on whether exfoliating can cause or worsen dark underarms:

  • Exfoliating gently 2-3 times per week may provide mild improvements by removing dead skin and opening clogged pores.
  • However, over-exfoliating can worsen dark underarms by causing irritation and increased melanin production.
  • Always use a gentle scrub and avoid excessive pressure when exfoliating delicate underarms.
  • For best results, combine exfoliation with proven lightening ingredients like vitamin C, alpha arbutin, niacinamide, kojic acid, licorice extract, and azelaic acid.
  • Avoiding shaving and antiperspirant irritation and wearing loose clothing can also minimize darkness.
  • For moderate to severe underarm discoloration, professional treatments offer the most dramatic improvements.

While exfoliating alone will not sufficiently lighten most people’s dark underarms, it can help when done properly and paired with other brightening strategies. But take a gentle approach – overdoing it can worsen the issue. For stubborn discoloration, see a dermatologist about medical treatment options.