Antiperspirant, Deodorant Health Risks: Real or Myth

Deodorant or antiperspirant is a very personal product. Just about everyone needs it and whether you want to control odor under your arms, for foot odor or feminine hygiene, there are other facts to consider. The store shelves offer you deodorant sprays, gels, sticks, roll-ons or powders. Then there's the issue of aluminum in antiperspirants/deodorants with the Internet buzzing with information concerning it causing cancer and other health risks. For years we've been warned about the risk of aluminum in deodorants. So what's the real story, and can we separate fact from myth? This article will help you do both. You'll either keep using commercial ones or you'll opt for an aluminum-free, natural deodorant. Read on about potential aluminum in deodorant health risks and side effects of deodorant and antiperspirant.

What is Antiperspirant?

Although most people refer to antiperspirants and deodorants interchangeably, there is a difference between them.

  • Antiperspirants control both sweat and body odor. They prevent sweat with aluminum salts dissolving on the surface of the armpit, creating a plug near the top of the sweat glands. Spray and roll-on products usually contain aluminum chlorohydrate for sweat control, while gels and stick antiperspirants use aluminum zirconium.

  • Generic, store brand deodorants mostly contain antimicrobial agents to prevent only body odor, but not flow of sweat. The main antimicrobial chemicals used are either triclosan or polyhexamethylene biguanide. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns that frequent use of antimicrobials may lead to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. 

Breast Cancer Risk with Antiperspirants/Deodorants

The active aluminum-based ingredient in antiperspirants/deodorants temporarily plugs the sweat glands and that's how it prevents you from perspiring. A few studies reported in suggest that these aluminum-based chemicals are absorbed into the skin, especially if there is a nick from shaving. They propose that the harmful ingredients may increase the risk of breast cancer, since they are applied to the armpit and therefore, absorbed into an area next to the breast.

The studies further suggeest that aluminum-based compounds that are applied and absorbed near the breast can cause estrogen-like effects. Since the hormone estrogen has the ability to promote the growth of breast cancer cells, it's therefore, possible that these aluminum-based chemicals in antiperspirants/deodorants may contribute to breast cancer.

In 2002, one study tested increased risk of breast cancer in women who reported using antiperspirants/deodorants. Having interviewed 813 women with breast cancer and 793 women with no history of breast cancer, they concluded no increased breast cancer risk for women who shaved their underarm and used antiperspirants or deodorants.

However, in 2003, a study with 437 breast cancer survivors suggested underarm shaving followed by applying antiperspirants/deodorants does have a relationship with breast cancer. This study found a higher level of breast cancer in women who began shaving and using an antiperspirant/deodorant at an earlier age in life and more frequently used these types of products.

The studies have continued to be conflicting, and they all conclude there is a need for more research while taking into account other factors, such as age of person, how long they used antiperspirants/deodorants, and frequency of use. 

Alzheimer's Disease Risk with Antiperspirants

The controversy about Alzheimer's disease and aluminum started back in the 1960s. Most commercial antiperspirants contain aluminum. For years the discussions about risk of aluminum centered around Alzheimer's, which is a degenerative form of dementia mostly affecting persons over 65 years of age.

Some studies found there are higher than normal concentrations of aluminum in the Alzheimer's brain cells. Other studies have either not been able to conclude this or are still questioning the results. However, it is known that large amounts of aluminum can contribute to nerve toxicity and possibly Alzheimer's disease.

It's easy to see how we can accumulate aluminum in our bodies, since deodorants are not the only products that contain it. It's also found in ant-acids, aluminum tubes used with some brands of toothpaste, baking soda, nondairy creamers, table salt, drinking water, and processed cheese. Aluminum cookware, of course, is also a consideration.

Antiperspirants with Aluminum and Kidney Disease

The connection with kidney disease and antiperspirants began several years ago when dialysis patients were given a drug to help control phosphorus levels in their blood, called aluminum hydroxide. Unfortunately, it was discovered the patients couldn't get rid of the aluminum fast enough from their body and were more likely to develop dementia.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) now mandates that antiperspirant labels with aluminum chloride contain a warning that reads: "Ask a doctore before using if you have kidney disease."

Parabens in Antiperspirants

There are other questionable ingredients in antiperspirants/deodorants that may cause allergies or have been reported as a breast cancer risk. One such chemical group is parabens that have been reported to increase the risk of breast cancer. These studies have not been proven, as other scientists question the link, since the report did not establish if the aluminum found in breast tissue caused the cancer, or if it was from deodorants or other products that had accumulated in breast tissue.

Aluminum-Based Versus Natural Antiperspirants/Deodorants

antiperspirant vs aluminum free deodorant

Most commercial antiperspirants/deodorants rely on aluminum or antimicrobials to help control sweat and odor. Many also contain parabens as a preservative and some form of a carrier chemical to make it easier to apply to the skin. These can be silicones, such as cyclomethicone, PEG-8 distearate, hydrogenated caster oil and others.

Natural deodorants mostly do not control sweat, but do control odor with safer, non-aluminum-based ingredients. Typically, mineral salts are the main odor-controlling ingredient in natural deodorants. Mineral salts or potassium alum, occur naturally and work by forming a temporary layer on the skin, rather than plugging up the pores of the skin. This layer prevents the growth of bacteria that makes you smell. Mineral salts may not stop you from sweating, but they will help stop the odor. Mineral salts do not irritate the skin and are considered safe as a natural deodorant.

Although there are no studies to this date that conclusively point to aluminum as a major cause for breast cancer and Alzheimer's, the results are not all in yet. it makes sense that small exposures on a daily bases could result in accumulation in tissues over many years. Our bodies do not require aluminum. We also know what we rub on our bodies, we do absorb into the body and bloodstream.

If you are not a gambling person, you may want to choose your personal care products very carefully to avoid aluminum. Remember, cigarettes used to not be considered unhealthy. Today we know better.

Selected References

Jones J. Can rumors cause cancer? Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2000; 92(18):1469-1471.

Darbre PD. Underarm cosmetics and breast cancer. Journal of Applied Toxicology 2003; 23(2):89-95.

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1 comment

Are ALL your deoderants/antiperspirants gauranteed salycitate free, including the Rollon?

Sheila September 15, 2021

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