Can common antiperspirants and deodorants cause cancer? What about Alzheimer’s, or other health problems?
These are concerns that have persisted over the last decade or so, ever since researchers found traces of aluminum in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Recent research has not been able to confirm an aluminum/Alzheimer’s connection, but neither have they been able to dismiss it.
As for cancer? The National Cancer Institute says we don’t have conclusive evidence linking the use of antiperspirants or deodorant to breast cancer, but that hasn’t stopped people from being concerned. Aluminum-based compounds are used as active ingredients in antiperspirants, and some studies have suggested that these compounds, which are usually applied on the skin near the breast, may cause estrogen-like effects, which could increase risk of breast cancer.
The problem is, many natural alternatives just don’t work that well. Some people try them to get away from the potentially toxic ingredients in conventional deodorants, but then end up going back when the more natural alternatives fail to keep them dry or sweet-smelling.
What’s an ingredient-conscious person to do?
Deodorant or Antiperspirant?
First, a quick look at the difference between antiperspirants and deodorants:
- Antiperspirants work by actually blocking perspiration.
- Deodorants allow perspiration, but block odor by killing the bacteria that cause the odor.
Now, let’s look at a few ingredients in standard antiperspirants and deodorants that have the potential to cause health problems.
Potentially Toxic Ingredients in Antiperspirants and Deodorants
1. Aluminum-based compounds
These are used as the active ingredient in antiperspirants, because they stop you from sweating. The compounds form a temporary plug within the sweat duct so the sweat can’t get to the skin’s surface.
In addition to the concerns about the skin absorbing these compounds, there is also the concern that they can disrupt the natural hormonal system, mimicking estrogen and potentially promoting the growth of cancer cells. As mentioned above, we still don’t have any evidence confirming that aluminum in antiperspirants cause cancer growth, but we have some individual studies that suggest they may not be entirely benign.
In 2007, for example, the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry reported that, after testing 17 tissue samples collected from breast cancer patients, “the aluminum content was higher in the outer regions of the breast, in close proximity to the area where there would be the highest density of antiperspirant.”
There’s also the worry that plugging up the sweat ducts may result in a buildup of toxins (in the sweat) right where the lymph nodes are.
Should you be concerned? Most health experts say no, but others aren’t convinced.
Most deodorants and antiperspirants contain fragrances, which are made up of an unknown number of chemicals. Manufacturers don’t have to list them on the label because fragrances are protected as trade secrets.
Fragrances are among the top most sensitizing ingredients, which means they are likely to cause allergic reactions over time. They also frequently contain phthalates, which are hormone-altering chemicals connected to infertility, diabetes, asthma, allergies, and some cancers.
These are preservatives found in many products, but they’ve also been found in a couple studies to be concentrated in breast tumors. The discovery was first made in 2004, when scientists studied tissue from 20 cancer sufferers, and found that the level of parabens that had been absorbed in four of the tumors was so high it could have had a damaging effect on healthy cells.
The connection was found again in 2012, when scientists looked at breast tissue from 40 mastectomies. They found one or more parabens in 99 percent of the samples, and in 60 percent of those, they found all five different types of parabens.
Researchers couldn’t say where the chemicals had come from-in fact, 7 of the participants had never used deodorant-but they noted the ingredients were found in areas of the breast often attacked by tumors.
Some deodorants and antiperspirants contain this antimicrobial chemical because it kills bacteria, fungus, and other bugs. Triclosan is an endocrine-disruptor, however, messing with the natural hormones in our bodies, and is also suspected of contributing to our current rise of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics.
In September 2016, the FDA announced that personal care companies will no longer be able to market antibacterial washes with triclosan and other antibacterial ingredients in them. Many manufacturers have already started to remove these ingredients, but do read your labels.
5. Propylene Glycol
This ingredient is most often found in spray deodorants, and is a chemical produced as a side effect of petroleum refining. It keeps products constant at various temperatures, and also helps ingredients dissolve smoothly together.
Unfortunately, this ingredient can contribute to skin dryness and irritation, and it is known to enhance the penetration of other ingredients (like aluminum!).
How You Can Reduce Your Exposure to Toxins
Most of us want to look and smell nice, and usually deodorant is an indispensable tool in our arsenals of hygiene products.
But you can take a number of steps to help reduce your exposure to potential chemicals. Try these:
- Limit your use of antiperspirants: There are some days when you probably don’t dare go without, such as when you’re making a big business presentation or meeting the in-laws for the first time. But on the days when a little sweat isn’t a big deal-like the weekends, or low-stress days-choose a natural deodorant instead and skip the aluminum.
- Try crystal deodorant stones: These are made with mineral salts, and contain no aluminum. There are several organic varieties.
- Try other natural deodorants: Yes, some won’t work as well as you’d like them to, but it’s worth it to keep trying. Some options include Green Tidings, Real Purity, and Organic Fields.
- Take it with you: A few re-applications may be all you need to feel fresh all day long.
- Watch where you shop: You’re not likely to find natural alternatives at your corner grocery store. Look at health food stores or online for organic and natural alternatives.
- Watch your diet: Things like garlic and onions may cause your friends to turn up their noses, but you can eat other foods that actually help make you smell good! Some options include citrus fruits, yogurt, water with lemon, herbal tea, fenugreek seeds, and spices like cinnamon and peppermint.
- Make your own: Yes, you can make your own deodorant! Typical recipes include ingredients like coconut oil, corn starch, baking soda, and essential oils. Check out Sew Green for some recipe options, or Google “DIY deodorant.”
Have you tried natural deodorants?
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