Are your skincare products toxic? Deodorant and Antiperspirant

Are Your Skincare Products Toxic? Deodorant and Antiperspirant.

by Chris Kresser

Last updated on

The aluminum found in many deodorants could contribute to diseases such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. Find out what you should use instead.

is deodorant toxic
Deodorant is a necessary part of life but it also contains ingredients that can be toxic to your skin. CandyBoxImages/istock/Thinkstock

In the first two articles of this series, I talked about chemicals you might want to avoid in your soap, shampoo, lotion, and makeup. In this article, I’ll focus on deodorants and antiperspirants. These products are cocktails of many different chemicals, including several I’ve already covered, such as parabens, phthalates, and triclosan. But the most concerning (and most researched) ingredient in deodorant is aluminum, which is what I’ll focus on here.

Aluminum is the active ingredient in most antiperspirants, and it functions by forming a precipitate that physically blocks sweat glands. (1)

Much has been made of the potential link between aluminum and breast cancer, although the limited epidemiological evidence that exists on breast cancer and use of antiperspirants is equivocal. One study found that people with breast cancer who use more antiperspirants were diagnosed at an earlier age, while another study found no relationship between antiperspirant use and breast cancer. (2)

Can Aluminum in Deodorant Be Absorbed?

Before we consider the health effects of aluminum in deodorant, we need to know whether it can even be absorbed through the skin. There isn’t consensus on this point, but most evidence indicates that it can be. One 2001 study found that aluminum from a single application of antiperspirant was absorbed, but only to a small extent, especially relative to the amount of aluminum absorbed in the gut from food. (3)

However, a case study of a woman who had used an aluminum-containing antiperspirant for 4 years had toxic blood levels of aluminum, which resolved 8 months after discontinuing use of the antiperspirant. (4) Her symptoms of severe bone pain and fatigue also ceased.

Is there aluminum in your deodorant? Here’s why you should check:

A more recent study using an in vitro model shows that aluminum can be absorbed through human skin, and that stripped skin (such as freshly-shaved underarm skin) is significantly more permeable to aluminum than intact skin. (5) Aluminum is also regularly detected in both normal and cancerous breast tissue. (6) This suggests that aluminum indeed can be absorbed by the skin as well as into the breast tissue.

Can Aluminum Contribute to Breast Cancer?

What about the link with breast cancer? We know that estrogen plays a key role in the development of breast cancer, and one study demonstrated that aluminum can interact with estrogen receptors on human breast cancer cells. (7) Additional preliminary research indicates that aluminum might promote breast cancer growth in other ways as well, though more research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn. (8,9)

Human mammary epithelial cells grown in media with aluminum concentrations around 100-300µm (which is around 100,000 times lower than aluminum concentrations in antiperspirants, and comparable to aluminum concentrations found in breast tissue), resulted in DNA double strand breaks and loss of contact inhibition, two occurrences that often precede cancer. (10) Aluminum might also contribute to oxidative damage in breast tissue and increase breast cancer cells’ invasive and migratory tendencies. (11)

There is also speculation that the blockage of sweat glands caused by aluminum-based antiperspirants could lead to the dermal absorption of abnormal levels of sex hormones and pheromones, which could contribute to cancer development. (12)

Aluminum and Alzheimer’s Disease

We can’t discuss the potential health dangers of aluminum without mentioning Alzheimer’s disease. Like breast cancer, the link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s has been a popular topic in the media. But does this link have merit?

A review conducted in 2011 says “yes.” (13) The author points to evidence that aluminum tends to accumulate in brain tissue and is capable of producing Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, and that only small amounts of aluminum are necessary to have a neurotoxic effect. If aluminum from deodorant does indeed make it into systemic circulation, this evidence indicates that it could accumulate in brain tissue over time and possibly contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.

Nontoxic Alternatives to Deodorant

Conventional deodorant isn’t always the easiest thing to replace, but at the very least, try to find a brand that doesn’t contain aluminum. This means avoiding anything that is an “antiperspirant.” For completely non-toxic deodorants that don’t contain aluminum, parabens, or any other questionable chemicals, you can try Primal Pit Paste or Primal Life Organics.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous (or want to save some money), you can try one of the many recipes online for homemade deodorant. The most popular formulation is based on baking soda, like this recipe from Mommypotamus. Other recipes use diatomaceous earth, bentonite clay, or magnesium oil as the active ingredient, and some people find that simply applying magnesium oil as deodorant eliminates odor. (Plus, you get an extra dose of magnesium – something you actually want your skin to absorb!) Wellness Mama also suggests that using bentonite clay to “detox” your armpits can reduce odor and make deodorant less necessary.

“Crystal” deodorants are another popular choice, although I have mixed feelings about them. These deodorant stones are made of alum, which is a compound made up of aluminum sulfate bonded to either potassium or ammonium (plus a bunch of water molecules). On the one hand, this compound is larger than the aluminum compounds found in conventional deodorant, and is therefore unlikely to be absorbed through the skin, but I haven’t been able to find any actual data on dermal absorption of alum. So while crystal deodorants are a better choice than conventional deodorants, you might be better off forgoing aluminum altogether and trying a baking soda or clay-based deodorant.

What about you? Have you made the switch to a more natural deodorant? Share your favorite product or recipe in the comments!

138 Comments

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  1. I now use Schmidt’s Deodorant’s. Nice scents using essential oils. Works for me.

  2. It’s one of the first things I got rid of in my chemical detox, but one of the hardest things to replace! Herbal deodorants just don’t work! The best thing I found is Bicarbonate of Soda in a mini spray bottle with water. If you don’t spray it on, but smear it on your pits, it can cause skin irritation. So spraying is the way to go… But I’ve gone through several soray bottles as the Bicarbonates blocks up the nozzle!

  3. Healthier alternative to antiperspirant and deodorant:

    1. Use a bath brush & soap to clean your underarms. I use gentle soap & brush all over, as well, including my oily face.

    2. Wear shirts that breath, like linen and cotton, even in winter. If you feel cold sweat running inside your shirt, it does not breathe.

    3. Use no cologne, deodorant, antiperspirant. Ever.

    4. Throw out old shirts with locked in odors. Deodorants and antiperspirants cause this.

    5. Spray a little OxiClean laundry spray into the pits of shirts you have sweated in, before washing. This is indispensable as well for blood, wine and tomato sauce stains and OK for sweat stains at the neck and cuffs of your shirt that would not be there if you scrubbed your skin well enough in the shower to begin with.

  4. I have been using MOM deodorant (basically milk of magnesia) (you can make your own or get it in a roll on from Peoples Pharmacy) and a spritz of Calgon body mist. The alcohol kills the bacteria that causes odor and the MOM does the same. Works for me. I have had reactions to all, and I mean ALL deodorants and antiperspirants I have ever used. This works for me.

  5. I’ve been using “Crystal” deodorant now for about three years. Although the label says it will last for at least one year, I’m still on my first one.
    The only problem I found is that it should be applied very well, or rather more than just a swipe as with normal deodorants.
    In winter the water to keep it wet is not nice!

  6. Stay away from those toxic chemicals! I absolutely love Lavilin and could not imagine using any other brand!

  7. I have tried alum salt deodorant and homemade deodorants neither have worked. I keep going back to Lavilin’s, either paste that you use once a week or their new lavender scented roll-on that you apply every 72 hours. This product works best for my husband and I and is easy to use. It can be purchased on LuckyVitamin.com or Amazon.