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5 Possible Reasons You Have Dark Armpits

Dark armpits aren’t just unsightly – they could be a sign of illness. Learn about possible causes and some remedies to consider.

Front-view of the upper right torso of a woman wearing a grey sleeveless shirt with darkened skin in her armpit area

Dark armpits can chip away your confidence as they may appear unsightly or dirty. The dark hue could be caused by insufficient cleanliness and exfoliation. If you find that the discolouration remains despite using special scrubs and soaps, it could also be a sign of illness.

Here are some causes and how alternative healing frameworks like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) explain and treat dark armpits.

5 Possible Causes of Dark Armpits 

Hands of salon worker applying pink-coloured wax to armpit for hair removal
Waxing can inflame the skin, leading to hyperpigmentation as it heals, causing dark patches on your armpits.

Here are 5 possible causes of dark armpits. 

1. Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation  

The most common cause of dark armpits is Post-inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH). This condition refers to an increase in melanin in response to inflammation.

Things that can injure and inflame the skin are usually the culprit. For example, shaving, waxing, or plucking your armpit hair can be quite abrasive. 

Certain ingredients in your deodorant or antiperspirant can also irritate your armpits. Even wearing tight clothing, which causes friction on your armpits, can lead to this type of hyperpigmentation.

2. Melasma  

Another form of hyperpigmentation that could be causing dark armpits is melasma. In this case, ultraviolet radiation, infrared radiation, or a hormonal imbalance can trigger an increase in melanin. Melasma affects pregnant women more than anyone else.

Although melasma on the armpits is not common, it can appear on any part of your skin. Sunbathing with your arms raised, for example, exposes your armpits to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Hormonal imbalance, another common cause of melasma, can happen during pregnancy or as a side effect of contraceptive pills

3. Acanthosis nigricans 

Dark patches of velvety skin on your armpits could be a symptom of a rare disease called Acanthosis nigricans. Darkened skin in areas such as the armpits, neck, groin, and under the breasts is a characteristic of this disease.

Unlike PIH or melasma, which are usually painless and odourless, Acanthosis nigricans patches are itchy and foul-smelling. Although not always the case, type 2 diabetes, hormone syndrome (such as polycystic ovary syndrome, Cushing syndrome, hypothyroidism) and obesity are risk factors for developing this skin condition. Insulin resistance in diabetes compromises your blood, making it easier to injure your skin. 

4. Erythrasma  

Another possible cause of dark armpits is Erythrasma, which is a bacterial infection caused by bacteria called Corynebacterium minutissimum. This condition is common in hot and humid climates. Those living in communal or dormitories are also at higher risk of this infection. 

Infected patches of skin are usually dark red, scaly, cracked and wrinkled, with different degrees of itching. The most common site of infection is between the toes, followed by the groin. Erythrasma on the armpits is also possible. 

5. Addison’s Disease 

Addison’s Disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the adrenal glands. The immune system, for some reason, attacks these glands, resulting in interruptions in body systems.

Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps, decreased appetite, and weight loss. A characteristic of this disease is hyperpigmentation in high-friction areas, such as the knuckles, palm creases, elbows, and armpits.

Treatment Options for Dark Armpits

A glass of camu-camu or Myrciaria dubia juice, surrounded by a few loose camu-camu fruits and two blue straws on a bamboo placemat
Camu-camu is a fruit high in vitamin C that can help brighten skin.

The first line of treatment for your dark armpits will depend on the cause diagnosed by your healthcare practitioner. Depending on the specific cause, the dark patches of armpit skin could take a while to reduce in appearance. 

Skin creams that contain brightening and renewing ingredients such as retinoids, hydroquinone, azelaic acid, and vitamin C can help. Dermabrasion is another option. Treating dark armpits stemming from an underlying condition such as diabetes and obesity will also require treatment of those conditions.

A type of berry called camucamu, or Myrciaria dubia, has been shown to act positively on human skin cells. A recent 2021 study of an ethanol extract of camucamu showed that it down-regulates inflammatory reactions to oxidative stress in human keratinocytes (a type of skin cell). 

How TCM Treats Dark Armpits 

“From the TCM point of view, dark armpit skin is primarily related to Lung and Kidney Deficiencies combined. It may also imply Blood Stagnation,” shares TCM physician Lim Sock Ling. “As the vital qi (vital energy) of an individual is weakened, prolonged exposure to external pathogens such as Wind, Cold, Heat, Dampness, and Dryness can invade the skin and eventually cause dark armpits.” 

TCM can treat dark armpits through herbal medicine and acupuncture. 

Herbal medicine 

Herbal formulations such as precious jade syrup (Qiong Yu Gao, 琼玉膏) can inhibit tyrosinase. This enzyme is present in the body’s tissues and is a catalyst for melanin production. Qiong Yu Gao is a paste made with ginseng (ren shen, 人参), Rehmannia glutinosa (sheng di huang, 生地黄), white poria (fu ling, 茯苓) and honey and is best consumed on an empty stomach. A qualified TCM physician will prescribe this if it suits your body constitution. 

Physician Lim also recommends topical cream or paste formulations containing herbs like mulberries (sang shen, 桑椹), turmeric (jiang huang, 姜黄), and pearl powder (zhen zhu fen, 珠粉) to help brighten the skin.

Additionally, you can also consume the formulation san bai tang (三白汤), made of white peony root (bai shao, 白芍), Atractylodes rhizome (bai zhu, 白术), white poria, and liquorice (gan cao, 甘草). It promotes skin whitening and can be boiled and drunk at home.

Other herbs such goji berries (gou ji zi, 枸杞子), panax ginseng (ren shen, 人参), and Ganoderma lucidum (ling zhi, 灵芝) can be taken too. These herbs have been used in TCM for a long time to help with skin conditions, including brightening. 

Acupuncture 

Acupuncture is another treatment approach because it helps reset the system imbalance that can lead to dark armpits.

A few acupoints that Physician Lim proposes to help with pigmentation issues are: 

  • Da zhui (GV14, 大椎): Regulates sweat pores, promotes blood circulation and clears Wind 
  • Zu san li (ST36, 足三里) and qu chi (LI11, 曲池): Invigorates qi and nourishes blood, regulates sweat pores 
  • Xue hai (SP10, 血海) and san yin jiao (SP06, 三阴交): Nourishes yin and skin 
  • Xing jian (LR02, 行间): Commonly used by TCM physicians for pigmentation issues 

Acupuncture is also effective in reducing melasma. In 2018, Xiamen University Affiliated Hospital researchers concluded that acupuncture had an efficacy rate nearly 20% higher than a common melasma drug. 

This treatment also effectively treats root conditions that could lead to dark armpits, such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. The body of research demonstrating the efficacy of acupuncture on these conditions continues to grow. 

Dark armpits may take a long time to improve in appearance, depending on the exact cause. Knowing the specific health condition causing it is an important first step to remedying the situation. The good news is you have treatment options, both Western and Chinese medicine.

References

  1. DermNet. 2015. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. [online] Available at: <https://dermnetnz.org/topics/postinflammatory-hyperpigmentation> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  2. Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Melasma. [online] Available at: <https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21454-melasma> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Acanthosis Nigricans. [online] Available at: <https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12168-acanthosis-nigricans> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  4. Stat Pearls. 2021. Erythrasma. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513352/> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  5. MedlinePlus.gov. 2020. Autoimmune Addison disease. [online] Available at: <https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/autoimmune-addison-disease/> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  6. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2018. Are Natural Ingredients Effective in the Management of Hyperpigmentation? A Systematic Review. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5843359/> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  7. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2020. Traditional Asian Herbs in Skin Whitening: The Current Development and Limitations. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7358643/> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  8. Multi-Disciplinary Publishing Institute (MDPI) – Molecules. 2021. Camu-Camu Fruit Extract Inhibits Oxidative Stress and Inflammatory Responses by Regulating NFAT and Nrf2 Signaling Pathways in High Glucose-Induced Human Keratinocytes. [online] Available at: <https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/26/11/3174/htm> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  9. Healthcare Medicine Institute. 2018. Acupuncture Beats Drug For Melasma Treatment. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthcmi.com/Acupuncture-Continuing-Education-News/1869-acupuncture-beats-drug-for-melasma-treatment> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  10. BMJ Open Gastroenterology. 2015. The effects of auricular acupuncture on weight reduction and feeding-related cytokines: a pilot study. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4599151/> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  11. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2018. Acupuncture on Obesity: Clinical Evidence and Possible Neuroendocrine Mechanisms. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6022277/> [Accessed 8 October 2022]
  12. Acupuncture in Medicine. 2016. Treatment of insulin resistance by acupuncture: a review of human and animal studies. [online] Available at: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27256547/> [Accessed 8 October 2022]

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