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How Lume Whole Body Deodorant Was Inspired by a Genetic Disease

Among the barrage of drug ads for cancer, diabetes, weight loss and more are those for Lume, a “doctor-developed whole body deodorant.”

Lume (pronounced loom-ay) comes as a cream, lotion, stick, wipe, wash, and cleansing bar, to be smeared, rubbed, or wiped anywhere on the human epidermis. Invented to obliterate the distinctive odor of a human female’s private parts, Lume has since broadened into a “whole body deodorant.” For everyone.

Whatever the formulation, Lume lowers the skin’s pH (making it more acidic), which kills the bacteria behind the stink. The products infiltrate the many folds and crevices of a vast human skinscape.

A Compelling Need

I was delighted to discover that the inspiration for Lume is a rare, recessive genetic disease, trimethylaminuria (TMAU), aka “fish odor syndrome.”

Lume inventor and ob/gyn Shannon Klingman explains her inspiration, without offering the genetic details, on the product’s homepage:

“As an OB/GYN resident, I noticed time and time again women came to the doctor with complaints about odor below the belt. I watched women leave with a false diagnosis for the odor, along with often unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions!

I saw how body odor—whatever the source—was undermining the confidence and self worth of women everywhere. I realized that private part odor was—more often than not—an external problem and required an external solution. For the better part of 10 years, I worked on finding that solution …

The real culprit of most body odor is actually the bacteria on the skin digesting bodily fluids. The same reaction in our underarms happens EVERYWHERE on our body—pits, underboobs, tummy folds, thigh creases, vulvas, balls, butt cheeks, feet, and more.”

The Patent Trail

Rather than relying on social media, company websites, and testimonials, I consulted the Patent and Trademark database to reconstruct the story of invention.

The earliest patent I found was issued in late 2009, for “Products and Methods for Reducing Malodor from the Pudendum.” That last term refers to “the external genitalia and surrounding regions of the body, including the interlabial folds, the clitoral region, the perineum, the perianal region, the vulvar and perivulvar regions, and the intergluteal folds.” Lady parts.

A patent from October 2020 broadens coverage to “Products and Methods for Reducing Malodor,” dropping the female focus. Lume commercially debuted in August 2022.

“Pudendum” is a key word, for what Dr. Klingman’s inspiration was the common medical practice of assuming a woman with a smelly crotch has to be harboring a bacterial or fungal infection in her va-jay-jay. So sure are health care providers that they may prescribe antibiotics without testing for the responsible pathogen assumed to be lurking in the fleshy folds.

Many women can attest, though, that after antibiotics end, odor returns. That’s because it isn’t coming only from the vagina, but also from nearby skin folds (the perineum), and from the anus and rectum. Wafting odors arise from urine, feces, blood, cervical mucus, and most prominently, semen!

“In other words, the vagina is not the key factor when trying to solve the problem of transient fishy odor for most women,” explains the 2020 patent. And that’s why washing, wiping, douching, or perfuming masks odor fleetingly. Soap can worsen the stink.

Blame Bacteria

The culprits in body odor are ultimately the bacteria attracted to parts of the skin’s topography with increasing alkalinity (high pH). Specifically, the microbes aggregate and reproduce near “volatile amine (nitrogen-containing) compounds” that arise from the human having sex, urinating, menstruating, defecating, and merely oozing mucus.

The Lume website is more to the point: “Lume paralyzes bacteria and literally stops them from eating and farting.”

The Genetic Basis of Lume: An Enzyme Deficiency

The inventor’s spark of genius lay in the word “trimethylamine” (TMA).

Dr. Klingman, I presume, knew this chemical was produced in an infected vagina, but she found it also in the surrounding skin and around the anus. In addition to making fish smell like fish, TMA is the “volatile and malodorous” molecule behind trimethylaminuria (TMAU), a genetic condition in which too much of the stuff is in urine, saliva, breath, and sweat, “which take on the offensive odor of decaying fish,” according to one technical description.

Accumulation of TMA in the genetic condition encourages growth of anaerobic bacteria, which metabolize choline-rich foods into molecules that earn the nickname fish-odor syndrome. The foods richest in choline are red meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, but certain fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have some too. Eggs, liver, and legumes pack a lot of it.

Reports of people who smell like dead fish go as far back as 1400-1000 B.C, according to the genetics bible Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man. The first case report in the medical literature, from 1970, is of a 6-year-old girl who emitted an intermittent fishy aroma. Several other case reports followed.

An autosomal recessive mutation in the gene encoding the enzyme FMO3 lies behind the disorder. Each child of parents who are carriers has a 25 percent chance of inheriting the condition. And it is serious. Dealing with such strong body odor understandably causes depression, anxiety, and psychosocial problems. The title of this technical report calls TMAU a “socially distressing condition.”

Shakespeare is said to have referred to an enslaved person, Caliban, with it in The Tempest: “What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish; he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of not of the newest Poor John.”

A Clever Connection and Concoction

The active ingredient of Lume is mandelic acid, a gentler relative of glycolic acid. It’s an alpha-hydroxy acid derived from sugar cane that is commonly used to smooth fine lines and wrinkles, prevent acne, in skin peels and exfoliants. It’s also a precursor to many drugs. Mandelic acid lowers the pH, so in ad-speak the product line is “pH-optimized.”

Mandelic acid repels the anaerobic bacteria whose residence in human skin folds creates the stench of dead fish.

The other ingredients make Lume pleasant to apply and prevent irritation. They include a dab of soap, some alcohol, vitamin E, a bit of floral fragrance if requested, and items that satisfy consumer demand for “organic” and “natural.” These include castor oil, sandalwood extract, caffeine, maranta, coconut oil, arundinacea root powder, tapioca starch, aloe, cocoa, and “seed butter.”

Common moisturizers, preservatives, and cleansers are in Lume too, but the label highlights what’s not included — aluminum, baking soda, phthalates, sulfates, parabens, and talc.

A highly-tauted quality of Lume is that the effect lasts 72 hours, although a class action lawsuit filed May 2023 challenges that claim, key to the advertising.

Like any cosmetic, Lume products also include delivery material, such as a fatty coat and final formulation as cream, spray, bioadhesive, wipe, or pad. The Lume Shop online offers an array of products, such as deodorant for “Pits, Privates & Beyond,” and provides mix-and-match trios, like buying air fresheners at Bath and Body Works. A 3-ounce tube is about $20, but if it lasts three days, that’s pretty cheap.

Fishy Regulations

Lume falls under the cosmetic category at FDA and so needn’t have undergone clinical trials, because it doesn’t treat an illness or condition. Perhaps that’s why the recipe doesn’t include an antiperspirant, which would place it in the drug category. If each ingredient is recognized as safe, then manufacturing complies with FDA regulations. So the oft-elicited “clinically proven” is meaningless.

Just as Lume came on the market, FDA released the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MoCRa), “the most significant expansion of FDA’s authority to regulate cosmetics since the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938. This new law will help ensure the safety of cosmetic products many consumers use daily.” But, tellingly, “Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients.”

Manufacturers can use existing safety data on each ingredient and on similar products. Toxicity testing might be a good idea, but no animal testing is required – let alone a placebo-controlled, double-blind trial that would go beyond gushing testimonials on Instagram. An objective assessment of odor would be nice.

Adding to the confusion, searching for Lume at turns up ten entries for LUME, a cancer chemotherapy combo! The chemo trial preceded Lume by more than a decade, so you’d think the product name would have been better researched.

So how did the company compare people using Lume and not? What’s the stink test? I couldn’t find such studies. The language is that of the advertising world, throwing around “clinically tested” (untrue because human BO isn’t an illness) and “scientifically proven” (untrue because in science we show evidence, we don’t prove anything). Reads the recent lawsuit, “Consumers expect a ‘clinically proven’ claim to mean a significant degree of scientific consensus and/or that the relied upon study was subject to peer-review, even though neither exists here.”

The Whole Body Deodorant Market is Blooming

Lume isn’t alone in the whole body deodorant space. Even old deodorants like Secret have rebranded to embrace the world beyond armpits.

As soon as I started researching Lume, my social media and even TV blew up with ads for these products, as if I have suddenly begun to stink. Ads for Native Whole Body Deodorant were especially aggressive. It debuted in January 2024, but the company has been around since 2015. The “pits to toes” product line is what’s new.

Native’s products are made without “aluminum salts, parabens, baking soda, dye, phthalates, or talc.” Formulated by a Native man, with names like coconut caramel and peanut butter, the products are less expensive than and offer the same 72-hour protection claim as Lume. But I’m not sure I’d want to rub cucumber mint into my privates.

At least eight other companies offer whole body deodorant, all clinically-proven of course. The recipes all lower pH, and aren’t anti-perspirants. Oprah Daily offers helpful product comparisons. Some even use mandelic acid, like Paula’s Choice, which combines it with lactic acid. In case you’re wondering why a simple vinegar (acetic acid) douche is ineffective, it’s smaller than lactic acid, which is smaller than mandelic acid. Size matters.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether the whole body deodorants bear any resemblance, chemically speaking, to Pooph, a pricey new spray used to eliminate all sorts of pet odors. But Pooph is a surfactant, breaking down stinky molecules rather than altering pH to repel bacteria.

But Should We Leave Some Parts of Our Anatomy Alone?

Accolades for Lume are everywhere. But when I google or google-scholar “Lume and skin microbiome,” nothing comes up. Our microbiomes are the populations of microorganisms that occupy the nooks and crannies of our bodies, inside and out.

What will be the long-term effects, if any, of altering the skin microbiome every three days? Which bacteria will take up residence in our buttcracks and armpits, underboobs and belly overhangs, if the resident microbes are driven out by caramel coconut-laced lactic, glycolic, or mandelic acid?

I’m wary of unanticipated long-term effects of messing with our skin microbiome. Even the most meticulously controlled human clinical trials cannot model the passage of time. Remember the statins? The adverse effect of these cardiovascular drugs on muscles didn’t emerge until more than a million people had taken them. That’s why FDA requires post-marketing follow-up data.

Will continually obliterating the skin’s bacterial communities have unanticipated consequences, perhaps years after use? Will frequent users wake up one day with reptilian scales or a new skin tone or peeling? It seems unwise to smear on something that can instantly obliterate a microbial community that has evolved over millennia, providing our natural odor.

Yes, the ingredients of whole body deodorants have been used in many products, but what will be long-term effects of lowering skin pH? Even with something as innocuous as lactic acid?

We don’t know. We can’t know, yet.

That’s why I think it might be healthier, in the long run, to leave our epidermis the way nature, and evolution, made it.

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