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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Antiperspirants and Deodorants

Updated: Jun 20

What’s the difference between antiperspirants and deodorants? Are they safe?

 

We use deodorants and antiperspirants because of moisture and odor. Sweat is the body’s cooling mechanism, and our armpits have a higher density of sweat glands than do other areas of the body. Sweat itself doesn’t have a strong odor, but it is broken down by bacteria, which then produce an odor. The moist warmth of the armpit is an ideal environment for bacteria.

 

Antiperspirants and deodorants work in different ways to reduce body odor. Deodorants work to eliminate armpit odor, but not sweat. Antiperspirants reduce sweat. Deodorants are typically alcohol-based, and increase skin acidity, which makes the skin less attractive to bacteria. They also contain perfume to mask odor. The Food and Drug Administration considers deodorants to be a cosmetic product, while antiperspirants are treated as a drug.

 

Antiperspirants usually include aluminum-based compounds that reduce the amount of perspiration by temporarily blocking sweat pores. Are there risks associated with using them?

  • A few studies have theorized that if the skin absorbs these aluminum-based compounds, the estrogen receptors of breast cells might be affected, leading to an increased risk of breast cancer. It has been noted that most breast cancers develop in the upper outer portion of the breast, which is the area closest to the armpit, where antiperspirant is applied. However, multiple studies have found that cancer tissue in those who use antiperspirants does not appear to have a higher concentration of aluminum, and at this time, the American Cancer Society has found no link between cancer and the aluminum in antiperspirants.

  • Studies from the 1960’s found high levels of aluminum in the brains of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That research called into question the safety of everyday household items such as aluminum cans, antacids…and antiperspirants. Subsequent studies did not support those concerns, and any connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease has since been disproved.

  • An FDA warning appears on antiperspirant labels, which states: “Ask a doctor before use if you have kidney disease.” Experts believe that it is almost impossible to absorb enough aluminum through the skin to harm the kidneys. However, because a poorly functioning kidney is not able to remove aluminum, those with chronic kidney disease should indeed avoid antiperspirants.

 

What about deodorant? (Note, by the way, that most antiperspirants also contain deodorant.) Deodorants do indeed contain chemicals which show up in fat cells.

  • Parabens are a group of chemicals used as preservatives. Although it’s possible that these chemicals may interfere with the way the body produces and regulates estrogens, the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute say that there is no conclusive evidence linking them to any significant problems.

  • Triclosan prevents bacterial contamination and kills bacteria on the skin. While some research points to a potential problem among amphibians and fish, there is no evidence that triclosan poses any problem in humans.

  • Phthalates help deodorant and other cosmetics stick to the skin. While it is possible that they may have an effect on the way the body produces and uses testosterone, there is no significant evidence of harm seen in studies to date.

  • There are possible issues with fragrances. Fragrances are formulated from a wide variety of chemicals, and certain individuals might react to any one of these chemicals. The specific ingredients in fragrances are not regulated.

 

My conclusions? While the major scientific professional organizations we rely on state that no harmful effects have been shown, we all can decide for ourselves. The only sure strategy to avoiding any potential harm is to stop using these products, choosing only natural products that are free of phthalate, paraben, triclosan, and fragrance. Personally, these issues do not unduly concern me.

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