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Are Antiperspirants Bad for Me?

Applying deodorant every morning is as standard as eating breakfast. Some of us have been blocking sweat since our junior high health teachers first advised. But what’s the truth about antiperspirant, and can it be harmful in the long run?
Are Antiperspirants Bad for Me?
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Hey you guys, there’s actually a huge difference between deodorant and antiperspirant! Most of us just stick to saying deodorant, but we’re often buying an antiperspirant in gel, solid, or spray form. While deodorant tackles body odor, antiperspirant prevents sweat by blocking the ducts that release it with the antiperspirant powerhouse, aluminum. (Disclaimer: We do not advise wrapping your pits up like they’re leftovers.)

So if antiperspirant prohibits a natural process — and turns your T-shirt a darker shade of grey in the process — could it actually be dangerous? 

Sweat Baby, Sweat — Why It Matters
 

We all use some sort of deodorant every day (or at least, we hope everyone does to avoid a very uncomfortable day at the office). And it’s pretty standard for those anti-stink sticks to include an antiperspirant to keep things dry and smell-free. While some turn to natural remedies for underarm hygiene, it’s important to know that even natural deodorants and antiperspirants contain some of the hard to pronounce stuff. So what does it all mean? Here’s the key stuff to look for:

 

Aluminum: Not the foil kind. It’s usually the first ingredient on the tube in antiperspirants. Aluminum can enter the body not only through cosmetic products, but also from what we eat. Over the counter antiperspirants contain between 10 and 25 percent of their “active ingredient,” which is usually an aluminum-based compound.

Penetration Enhancers (aka accelerants): These guys penetrate skin to reversibly decrease barrier resistance. (That means they alter the top layer of our skin.) Propylene glycol is a common one to look for. Penetration enhancers don’t pose much harm themselves, but they allow for other chemicals to be more easily absorbed [1].

Fragrance: The term fragrance is pretty vague (eau de what?!?!). Many deodorants, antiperspirant or not, contain unspecified ingredients to make skin smell nice (or attempt to, anyway). In one large study on cosmetic allergies, deodorant was the leading cause of dermatitis (in men), an allergy-related condition when skin becomes red, sore, or inflamed [2]. Researchers believe it's the chemical composition of fragrance used in deodorants that magnifies this reaction.

Triclosan: This stuff kills bacteria housed in those pits (bacteria likes dark, moist environments). Fun fact: It’s not the sweat itself that smells, it's the bacteria. Triclosan shows up in a lot of personal care products because it’s considered pretty safe. Allergies and sensitivities to the chemical aren’t common, but several cases of skin irritation have been reported [3] [4].

So if we all use it, it can't be thaaaat bad, right?

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff — The Answer/Debate
 

As the main ingredient in antiperspirants, aluminum stands out as the most debated as far as risk factors go. The chemical element is the most widely distributed metal in the environment. There are plenty of studies explaining what happens when we ingest it, but there’s less research about what it does when we put it on our bodies [5].

One study showed that antiperspirants with aluminum are safe when applied to healthy skin for a limited amount of time [6]. Some people believe antiperspirants could lead to breast cancer because the underarms are so close to breast tissue. But while the jury’s still out on whether or not daily under-arm exposure to the stuff puts us at higher risk for breast cancer, a recent study says it’s likely not cause for concern [7] [8]. There’s also some concern there’s a possible link between aluminum and Parkinson’s Disease [9].

Since aluminum is in our food, water, some medications, and the air we breathe, it may not be time to chuck that BO-stick out the window and get all hippy-dippy on us. The FDA gives us the go-ahead to use antiperspirants and considers them safe and effective. But they also require that all antiperspirant products containing aluminum include a warning to advise people with kidney disease to check with a doctor before using (because kidneys help remove excess stores of aluminum from the body).

Because it’s foreign to our bodies, aluminum may pose a threat over time. But even though there are theoretical concerns about our de-stink sticks, there really isn’t any data that confirms harm. If you do chose to nix the sweat blockers, many popular brands carry deodorants without antiperspirants — just check the label. If crazy ingredient lists on your deodorant tube are concerning, try one sans-antiperspirant or concoct DIY deod with baking soda. 

Here’s a quick label comparison of what you might find in typical pit protectors, both natural and conventional:

Antiperspirant Aluminum Zirconium Trichlorohydrex GLY 19% (anhydrous) Cyclopentasiloxane, Dimethicone, Tribehenin, Fragrance, C18 36 Acid Triglyceride

Natural Antiperspirant Aluminum Cholorohydrate, Palm Kernel Oil, Natural Fragrance, Stearyl Alcohol, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Talc, Dicaprylyl Ether, Olive Leaf Extract, Maltodextrin

Deodorant Dipropylene Glycol , Water , Propylene Glycol , Sodium Stearate , Fragrance , PPG-3 Myristyl Ether , Tetrasodium EDTA , Violet 2 , Green 6

Natural Deodorant Propylene Glycol, Sodium Stearate, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Cymbopogon Flexuosus Oil, Hellianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Glyceryl Laurate, Natural Fragrance, Humulus Lupulus (Hops) [CO2] Extract, Ascorbic Acid

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

How do you like to de-stink — conventionally, or au naturale? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Works Cited +

  1. Penetration Enhancers. Williams, A.C., Barry, B.W. Drug Delivery Group, School of Pharmacy, University of Bradford, Richmond Road, Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK. Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 2004 Mar 27;56(5):603-18.
  2. Deodorants are the leading cause of allergic contact dermatitis to fragrance ingredients. Heisterberg, M.V., Menne, T., Anderson, K.E., et al. Department of Dermato-allergology, National Allergy Research Centre, Gentofte Hospital, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The Journal of Contact Dermatitis, 2011 May;64(5):258-64.
  3. Triclosan: applications and safety. Bhargava, H.N., Leonard, P.A. Division of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences, Boston 02115, USA. American Journal of Infectious Control, 1996 Jun;24(3):209-18.
  4. Triclosan. Campbell, L., Zirwas, M.J. Department of Dermatology, University of Pittsburgh, PA. Journal of Dermatitis, 2006 Dec;17(4):204-7.
  5. Aluminum: impacts and disease. Nayak, P. Department of Physiology, Sikkim Manipal Institute of Medical Sciences, Sikkim, India. Journal of Environmental Research, 2002 Jun;89(2):101-15.
  6. In vitro study of percutaneous absorption of aluminum from antiperspirants through human skin in the Franz™ diffusion cell. Pineau, A., Guillard, O., Fauconneau, B., et al. Université Nantes, Faculté de Pharmacie, Laboratoire de Toxicologie Nantes, France. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, 2012 May;110:21-6.
  7. Aluminum and human breast diseases. Darbre, P.D., Pugazhendhi, D., Mannello, F. Biomedical Sciences Section, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, UK. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, 2011 Nov;105(11):1484-8.
  8. The use of deodorants/antiperspirants does not constitute a risk factor for breast cancer. Namer, M., Luporsi, E., Gilgorov, J., et al. Centre Antoine-Lacassagne, Nice, France. Bulletin du Cancer, 2008 Sep;95(9):871-80.
  9. Metallomic profiling and linkage map analysis of early Parkinson's Disease: a new insight to aluminum marker for the possible diagnosis. Ahmed, S.S., Santosh, W. Department of Biotechnology, School of Bioengineering, SRM University, Kattankulathur, Tamil Nadu, India. Plos One, 2010; 5(6).

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