You're used to seeing your body change before your very eyes, especially during the childbearing years. From wider feet to fine lines, you never know what's in store, and sometimes you don't know what's behind the change. Like suddenly dark underarms. What does it mean if you have dark armpits, and will you have them forever? These eight reasons you could have dark underarms might surprise you.
While there are some potential health risks associated with dark underarms, many people experience discoloration in that area of the body with no ill effects. A 2014 study by the Indian Dermatology Online Journal found that up to 74% of people suffer from dark armpits at some point in their life, and that risk factor increases depending on your age, weight, and race. Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a dermatologist based in New York, says this problem is usually just an inconvenience rather than a medical issue. She explained to Romper via email that it's important to remember that "darkening of the armpits alone is a simple cosmetic issue," but "if the texture is changing, becoming thicker or more velvety, then you should bring it to the attention of your dermatologist... It is important to remember that generally this condition is benign, and can even be hereditary." It's usually a combination of factors that indicate something more serious is going on.
But if you are just experiencing the discoloration and nothing else, you'll most likely be able to address the issue quickly. "Those who simply have darkening in the skin, but no other changes, can typically improve the skin by avoiding any trauma, using gentler shaving habits, and using lightening cream such as those that contain Kojic acid, licorice root extract, or even using gentle exfoliative agents that contain low concentrations of glycolic acid," says Nazarian.
Regardless, it's best to check with a doctor if you notice any sudden changes to your body before you self-treat, even if your underarms changing colors is your only symptom. Read on for the surprising things your body could be trying to tell you with darker pits.
You could be shaving wrong
Shaving your armpits is an everyday occurrence for many women, so you might not have realized the habit is most likely the cause of your skin discoloration. "The most common cause [of underarm discoloration] is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from irritation — generally caused by shaving, rubbing, or scratching," Dr. Nazarian says. Your razor could be irritating your skin, or it could be your hair itself making your skin appear darker. Shaving only removes surface level hair, so if your hair color is darker than your skin tone, "your skin can appear to have a dark stain, but it’s really just subsurface hair," Women's Health explains.
To prevent the discoloration, you can try using an epilator or waxing instead of shaving to remove your hair, as both of those options pull hair from the root instead of just the surface level. Alternatively, you can just stop shaving and embrace your body hair. It's really up to you. To get rid of discoloration that's already there, you could talk to your doctor about laser treatment, which studies have found to be a generally safe and effective option.
You may have Acanthosis nigricans
Acanthosis nigricans (AN) is "a skin condition that causes one or more areas of skin to darken and thicken," and sometimes the affected skin will have a velvety feel, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. This darkening can happen in the underarms, but it can discolor other areas of the body as well, such as the back of the neck, your elbows and knees, or even underneath your breasts. It's most commonly associated with obesity, as the discoloration happens as a result of increased sugar in the body.
While the condition itself isn't contagious or dangerous, AN can be an early indicator of potentially life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes or even cancer in extreme cases. Mayo Clinic recommends seeing a doc if you notice your skin darkening in any of these areas, "especially if the changes appear suddenly." Dr. Nazarian confirms, particularly if the discoloration comes with "other changes, such as weight gain, changes in your period regularity, new hair growth, or other things that may indicate an endocrine abnormality."
You might be insulin resistant
AN is a common early indicator of Type 2 diabetes, in which the body doesn't process insulin as it should, according to the American Diabetes Association. The ADA explains that as someone with Type 2 tries to process insulin, their body could produce more pigment, leading to the darker skin. Contact your doc ASAP if discoloration happens quickly, especially if you have any other early symptoms of insulin resistance.
Your underarms probably won't be the first place your skin darkens if you do have diabetes, though. "The neck is a more common location in the setting of diabetes," says Friedman. "It can actually be the presenting sign of diabetes, and will improve as blood sugar control is maintained." Track changes to your body overall to ensure you're keeping tabs on anything suspicious.
You might have cancer
As I previously mentioned, some people develop AN when they have cancer, though these cases are extremely rare. In these patients, the skin darkens as a result of a malignant tumor that is growing in the stomach, liver, or other internal organ. This condition is called malignant acanthosis nigricans as Medical News Today reported, and it's one of the easiest external symptoms that can be a flag that something is amiss internally. The discoloration would stop once the malignant tumors are removed from the body.
The risk of malignant AN is one of the many reasons you should contact your healthcare provider ASAP if you notice a sudden change in the pigmentation of your underarms. And remember to stay in touch with your body: "I think a general rule of thumb is to do self exams monthly or every other month in general for skin cancer surveillance, and checking one's armpits is part of that," says Friedman. You may be experiencing the change because of something harmless like your deodorant or shaving, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
"Efficacy of Low-Fluence Nd:YAG 1064 nm Laser for the Treatment of Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation in the Axillary Area," Sahar Ghannam, Fatemah K Al Otabi, Konstantin Frank, Sebastian Cotofana, J Drugs Dermatol, 2017 Nov 1;1
Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a dermatologist based in New York
Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, professor of dermatology
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