Are your skincare products toxic? Deodorant and Antiperspirant

Are Your Skincare Products Toxic? Deodorant and Antiperspirant.

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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 love using pure sandalwood essential oil on my armpits (it has a natural affinity with the armpit area).
    Living Libations make really really great deodorants. They are called Poetic Pits and I use the Radiant Earth on a daily basis and I’m very very happy with it.
    You can also make your own deodorant by mixing coconut oil with baking soda and your favorite essential oils (grapefruit goes well with sandalwood and vanilla I find).
    I have, however, noticed that the homemade deodorant with baking soda tends to stain my clothes. So now I only use the Poetic Pits by Living Libations.

  2. Perfect timing… this week I switched my potassium alum deodorant purchased at the health food store and am instead using a totally plant-based one from Wilderness Family Naturals.

    I’ve also found that optimizing my magnesium levels reduces the need for deodorant.

    • I stopped using regular antiperspirants/deodorants over a year ago and started out using Primal Pit Paste in the sensitive variety – actually bought a large batch, because I was so pleased with it – worked really well. However after about 6 months I found I was reacting badly to the baking soda and was at a loss as to what to do! I started researching and saw that some people used just coconut oil. I tried this and while it worked to an extent, it wasn’t as good as I hoped for. However I persevered and also changed to the AIP. THAT made the difference. On the AIP I can just use coconut oil and be completely stink free all day! LOVE it!

  3. I have started using Lavilin deodorant in the last few months. I have had no problems like rashes etc. The roll on is far easier to use than the cream but both last up to 72 hours and don’t leave residue on my clothes. They even sell a roll on for your feet which I also use and have had a good experience with as well.

  4. Over in Europe, deodorant and antiperspirant are foreign concepts, and don’t exist–they put dabs of perfume under their arms. They sell roll-on stick perfume applicators that fit in a purse or pocket, and they re-apply as needed.

    • I’m not sure why you would say that. I spend time on both sides of the Atlantic and there are just as many deodorants and antiperspirants in Europe as there are in the USA!

  5. By trimming Hubby’s armpit hair, we’ve been able to reduce his need for anti-perspirants to just deodorants. As for me, I no longer sweat like a pig since menopause occurred, and go for days without anythting under my arms except the occasional coconut oil application. Night sweats don’t happen, since I keep my blood sugar under good control.

  6. I log this topic! I tried and tried and tried an amount of different natal deodorants, from crystal type, toms, welleda, do it yourself, lemon, cheap, expensive, etc…I gave up since they would work of a while and then stop working, my armpits were smelly and sweaty. I went back to using secret until a fiend recommended me this bbd that after 6 months I’ve been using I’m still very happy with there results. Is called Alvera all natural roll on deodorant. I like the aloe and almond scent. You can find it at sprouts.

    • Alvera has the ingredient alcloxa, which contains aluminum. Unfortunatly. “all natural” can mean anything these days.

  7. Another idea that seems to work very well is to use Milk of Magnesia (magnesium hydroxide). This works MUCH better for me than magnesium oil (Mg chloride), and unlike magnesium oil it is completely non-irritating. Rub on some milk of mag with just a touch of something like Indigo Wild Eau de Zum Frankincense and Myrrh, and you have a nice smelling deodorant that lasts all day.

      • If the sodium hypochlorite is a concern, there are brands that don’t have it. I’ve used both and it works with and without the sodium hypochlorite.

  8. This one will surprise you. Phillips Milk of Magnesia! As a deodorant it works great. I recently heard that rubbing coconut oil first adds to it as antibacterial. When I am going out I even add a drop of essential oil.

  9. I currently use Tom’s natural deodorant. I recently bought natural deodorant from Bumble & Bee. Has anyone tried the Primal Pit Paste, I’ve heard good things about that one?

    • I’ve tried a ton of different brands. Tom’s actually made me smell worse somehow. Primal pit paste is awesome! And no, I don’t get paid for saying that or anything. I liked it so much I bought trial sizes for all my friends for Christmas

    • I just ordered some Primal Pit paste and am waiting to get it. I have been using Dr Mist spray. It’s great but I wanted to try something new.

  10. For the longest time I’ve been wanting to switch out my “aluminum full” deo to a more natural one. I’ve tried off and on to switch but I always still stunk bad with the natural deo. I did a test and tried nothing for a month, during the winter. I reaked the whole time and avoided hugging others. 🙂 But it worked, by the end of the month, even though I still stunk, something had changed. I think the biology of my armpits changed and now I’m able to use the natural deoderant and it works! I don’t smell! 🙂 I know this is all TMI, but wanted to encourage those who are leary or who have excessively stinky underarm bacteria like me. Try a deoderant fast first to change what lives under your arms.

    • Thanks for this!! I’ve had the same issues, and just can’t the smell. I will try this next winter.

    • I have experienced similar, even if I’m not smell free now it’s much better. Healthier diet could be one reason of course or maybe the body needed time to adjust to function normally again.

  11. The “crystal” types burn my skin. I’ve been using plain coconut oil for a few years now and it works for me. I don’t play football or work in the sun all day, but it has anti-bacterial properties and can be refreshed as needed. It’s so simple.

  12. Some “natural” deodorants contain the ingredient Alcloxa, which has aluminum in it.

    I have yet to find a single non-toxic deodorant (even homemade) that works for me without giving a rash after a while. However, I stay odor- and rash-free if I rotate my safe deodorants every week.

    I have also tried the armpit detox mentioned above. It worked well, but gave me very itchy armpits after several weeks of once-a-week 5-10 minute applications. My search continues…

    • Hi Erin,

      I maybe able to assist you with your search… I have some great info I’d be happy to share with you !!!
      Being a cancer survivor I’ve needed to be very aware of my toxic load … Which by the way is so low now … It’s fantastic and am really very healthy …. Touch base if you’d like… Am happy to share … CC

    • Just wanted to update… I finally found a safe deodorant that controls my odor and doesn’t irritate my ultra-sensitive skin!! It was recommended by my naturopath. It’s called Body Brew by Zir Yab’s and it’s available on Etsy. Worth every penny and more.

  13. I have always been a sweaty person and was a total holdout on switching away from antiperspirant. I finally decided I’d try Wellness Mama’s recipe 1 http://wellnessmama.com/1523/natural-deodorant/. It works great! I haven’t had any major sweating problems, and it doesn’t tend to rub off horribly on clothes (probably less than regular deoderant).