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 think the reason why there have been equal numbers of studies that found no link and ones that find a link is because there are other nutrients that affect the uptake and excretion of aluminum. Specifically Silicon is a little known essential element that,greatly reduces aluminum uptake. Malic and Citric acid increases excretion(but perhaps increase uptake). Aluminum is very much like Fluoride, added to water, neurotoxic, highly electronegative, and not an essential nutrient.

  2. My daughter and I have been using Primal Pit Paste since last summer. Suffering with hidredenitis suppurtaiva, we were in search of any and all lifestyle and dietary changes to reduce or eliminate flare ups. After having two surgeries, the last resulting in removal of axillary tissue that would not heal, we were told to avoid ‘antiperspirant’. We followed the recommendations. But it was not until we came across Primal Pit Paste’s natural ingredient deodorant, that she has seen a dramatic change in the very appearance of her armpit. The scarring is less red and she has had no flare ups since using it. We also found that following a “modified” Paleo diet ( have to have some occasional chocolate) has helped tremendously.
    We so appreciate the wonderful advice from Chris Kresser and the awesome products by Primal Pit Paste!!

    • Denise, that is so awesome and why we do what we do at Primal Products! I will share this testimony with our team as they are pumped knowing they are helping to change lives in a significant healthy way! Thanks so much for your loyalty and we appreciate you being apart of our GoPrimal Family!

  3. I recently purchased Ozone Layer. It is oxygen based with shea butter and lavender. It seems to work well and you can reapply it if need be. And it’s made in the USA 🙂

  4. If you grow your own vegetables you may want to pay attention to the PH of the soil. If you have acidic soil the plants uptake a lot more heavy metal, aluminum in particular. A great book to learn about this is by Steve Solomon “The Intelligent Gardener – Growing Nutrient Dense Vegetables”.

  5. Years ago a doctor introduced me to Hibiscrub which contains chlorhexidine gluconate. Doctors use it to scrub up for surgery. The active ingredient is also used in a mouth wash where it seems to have a residual effect. One milliliter scrubbed into armpits during morning shower usually controls odor for a day. I presume it kills odor causing bacteria. I have found stress seems to make it less effective.

  6. I tried making my own (coconut oil based) and more recently using Jungle Man (palm oil). I’m very active and I’d often smell like an ape house in August at the end of the day. My wife got me a powder based bar from Lush and it works perfectly. I’ve been unsure about the ingredients though…

    Sodium Bicarbonate , Cream of Tartar (Potassium bitartrate) , Apricot Kernel Oil (Prunus armeniaca) , BlueWax (Specerit Blue C) , Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) , Magnesium Carbonate , Lemon Oil (Citrus limonum) , Juniperberry Oil (Juniperus communis) , Lemongrass Oil (Cymbopogon citratus) , Fresh Green Grapes (Vitis vinifera) , Blue Cornflower Petals (Centaurea cyanus) , *Citral , *Eugenol , *Geraniol , *Citronellol , *Limonene , *Linalool , Fragrance

    • Jason, go to EWG to check out those ingredients. Your ingredients look pretty good until you get to the end. The word “fragrance” can mean any hundreds of synthetic chemicals. Always run from that word as these fragrance chemicals are un-regulated and not required to tell you what they are actually. Also, limone and linaool (possible immune system toxicants). In my humble opinion, it’s way better than store bought chemical junk.

  7. I tried several natural deodorants but didn’t like many until I found a roll-on from Miessence and Primal Pit Paste. But I am trying another one (Arborstead) now and so far am really pleased. Arborstead wants me to review their product on my blog (as I did for Primal) and I likely will. They have some lovely scents.

    • I started eating clean and haven’t worn deodorant in four years! It’s only a problem when I eat junk or get really nervous. 🙂

    • I have found that eating clean helps with odour too, but still need some kind of deodorant. Still haven’t found a suitable one yet in Australia. Will have to do more research.

      • In Australia the best organic deodorant ny far is by Black Chicken. Axcilla deodorant paste. Blackchickenremedies.com or from nourishedlife.com.au and next best is a roll on Fresca, fresca natural.com.au

        • I have never stunk in my life except when using Fresca. Even after showering Id still stink. Never happened with any other deodorant.

  8. I tried a homemade deodorant containing baking soda, but after a couple of weeks my armpits became very irritated. Next I tried milk of magnesia, it works but often flaked off leaving bits on my hips and in my pockets. Currently, I am making a magnesium oil/coconut oil/shea butter lotion.http://wellnessmama.com/8586/magnesium-body-butter/ It works with milk of magnesia or other brands of magnesium. It can be used in armpits as well as other areas on skin. It washes out of cotton and natural fiber clothing…shows a little on polyester articles. When I get hot, yes there is some smell, but pleasant, not gross.

    • My armpits got irritated too. But if you wait it out it goes away. You can also do the armpit detox ala Wellnessmama and that will make it stop. I promise you it will work.

  9. I have been using the recipe from Mommypotamus and I love it.
    My husband loves it and his friend begs me for it. I have been using her basic recipe for deodorant and have had occasional irritation so I tried the sensitive recipe but I did not like it as much so I now stick with the original. It works great just sometimes have to play around with how much coconut oil to use.

  10. My fav deodorant is Alvera deodorant. It’s a roll on and it’s main ingredients is aloe and almonds. I’ve been using it for almost a year now and it has survived the hot humid weather in Florida. I can apply it in the morning and be stink free all day. It does not stop sweating but I am okay with that because I believe that sweating is good for you. It’s only 3 to 4 dollars at vita cost.com

    • Alcloxa, which contains aluminum, is an ingredient in Alvera deodorant. “Fragance” is also on the list of ingredients, which means it can contain any number of unregulated synthetic chemicals (as another commenter already pointed out).

    • I almost bought some but then I found out that this brand contains aluminum. Too bad. It sounded promising.

  11. I’ve tried most of the things people are suggesting and they don’t work for me. I can’t even get away with using normal strength products! I had to start using the “clinical strength” stuff but then, thankfully, only need to apply every 2-3 days.

    Spent a lot of money on those crystals too, but they ended up in the trash.

  12. So glad I read this. I have recently been dealing with breakouts in my armpits and have been using the same deodorant for years. I guess my body is trying to tell me something! I’m going to try something different now for sure!

  13. Natural deodorants don’t work at all for me! I recently switched to Lavin and though it doesn’t work the full 4 or 5 days it claims to, it does actually work a full day and a half or so. I am a little leary about the ingredients (I have a bad whey intolerance and it contains milk enzymes). Any thoughts?

  14. My daughter has switched to Schimdt’s Deoderant. http://www.schmidtsdeodorant.com/‎
    She is a high school freshman and a 3 sport athlete, who is still very much a girl. It is working for her.
    I use AlbaBotanica Clear Enzyme Deoderant Stick, it works for me and had a good rating at EWG, but I am still a bit suspect. I haven’t switched to Schimdt’s simply because it has arrowroot powder in it and I have celiac and tapioca is a known cross reactor for me (are they the same plant?) It also has Vitamin E in it and I do not know its source…

  15. I’ve been using Primal Pit Paste for over a year. It’s a great product and works through the sweatiest of workouts. It doesn’t stain clothes and I’ve been very happy with it. I’ve heard some people will get redness, and a couple times I’ve experienced a little redness but it usually goes away in a day or two.

  16. Chris, have you ever looked into a liquid chlorophyll supplement to reduce b.o.? I’m deLing with some rather significant adrenal fatigue, MTHFR mutations among others, 3 kids with special needs, and hormone fluctuations due to pre-menopause and I need something that WORKS but isn’t time-consuming or harmful to my health. I’ve tried armpit detox, natural deodorants like Primal Pit Paste and others as well as making my own, and I eat really, really clean but I still totally stink!

  17. I have been using the Primal Pit Paste for about a year now, and I couldn’t be happier, it really works. Having tried various “natural” brands like Tom’s, Jason’s without success, I was skeptical, but I really wanted to find an alternative to the Mitchum Smartsolid Clinical stuff I was using – it worked well but ingredients were scaring me.

    The Primal Pit Paste works better! I could use it every other day if I wanted to. I think the coconut oil breaks down the cells of the bacteria, and the other ingredients make it into a nice paste. Highly recommended.