Critically Reviewed by Laura Koniver, MD
You’ve probably witnessed the fray: arguments and accusations about the apparent dangers of antiperspirants. They line cosmetic aisles of major retailers, ready for you to slather your underarms daily in hopes perspiration won’t lead to palpitations.
Do aluminum-based antiperspirants deserve the rage? Or is aluminum-free yet another marketing gimmick that ostracizes something totally normal, something totally safe?
Is there any merit to its many claims? Don’t sweat, we’re about to dive in and look at both sides of the battle over your armpit’s real estate.
It’s 2020, and the antiperspirant + deodorant market is worth some $77.5 billion US dollars, so, yes, it’s a battleground of convincing information and, often, compelling scents over science.
Difference Between Deodorant & Antiperspirant
Deodorants don’t stop sweat, but aim instead for the armpit bacteria that cause odors when sweating does occur. Antiperspirants stop some or all sweating altogether, with an ingredient that physically blocks sweat glands from ever releasing it.
That ingredient is typically an aluminum compound—more specifically, all 18 of the FDA-authorized active ingredients in antiperspirants are an aluminum of some kind. Deodorants are technically cosmetics while antiperspirants are technically over-the-counter drugs, whose “standard effectiveness” is a 20 percent sweat reduction.
“Who’s to say the armpit odor we smell when we stop using antiperspirants isn’t simply the detoxification of years of accumulated antiperspirant toxins?”
How Antiperspirant (Drugs) are Labelled
The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, § 350.50 outlines rules for the “labeling of antiperspirant drug products.” Claims such as all-day protection and lasts 24 hours can be made if the antiperspirant demonstrated a “20 percent sweat reduction,” “over a 24-hour period.” Claims of extra effectiveness can be made for a “30 percent sweat reduction.” Claims of 24-hour extra effective protection can be made if, you guessed it, the antiperspirant demonstrated a “30 percent sweat reduction” “over a 24-hour period.”
If an antiperspirant is deemed “extra effective” when it eliminates less than a third of underarm sweating, are most antiperspirants simply fragrant chemical blocks giving healthy perspiration nowhere to run? Again, the science is evidently “conflicted,” but for safety’s sake, my instincts tell me to side with the many who say the body can actually sweat out toxins.
Why stop that natural process? In fact, how’s this for a thought-provoking premise: Who’s to say the armpit odor we smell when we stop using antiperspirants isn’t simply the detoxification of years of accumulated antiperspirant toxins? (Yes, each of those is a link to an article suggesting something to that effect.)
Big Business v. Small Family
Big business may have you believe the aluminum compounds in antiperspirants aren’t a risk factor for cancer or dementia, nor that they can enter the body in significant volume and that, despite commercial deodorants being 132-years-old and hundreds of millions of Americans using them daily, there simply “isn’t clear evidence” to support these claims. To do so, “additional research” would need to be conducted. It seems that some questions don’t want to be answered. But, unlike people, chemicals can be guilty until proven innocent.
Drugs and cosmetics aren’t safe simply by virtue. The FDA has no authority to force companies to assess ingredients or products for safety. Their cosmetic program receives less funding to regulate cosmetics for a full year than Walmart alone makes by selling cosmetics between breakfast and dinner, any day of the year.
“Transdermal absorption of aluminum can occur,” says Joseph A. Woelfel, Ph.D. and lead author of the February 2005, “FDA Warning for Aluminum-containing Antiperspirants.”
Noting opposing views even among nephrologists, he says elevated levels of aluminum can cause muscle tremor, involuntary jerking, dementia, slurred speech, and seizures. None of these are things a patient suddenly wakes up to, they are the eventual cumulative result of years
Further, the behemoth, 582-page “Textbook of Modern Toxicology,” tells us “Metals such as… aluminum are capable of inducing cell death in cultured astrocytes [a star-shaped cell of the central nervous system] and endothelial cells [the tissue of cells lining various organs and cavities of the body, particularly the blood vessels, heart, and lymphatic vessels].”
As far as chemical absorption rates, variation in body area causes “appreciable differences” in toxic penetration, the armpits being the third most absorptive area. And why not? They can be an often musky, airless, and damp pocket of bacteria and body emissions. “The rate of penetration is in the following order: “Scrotal > Forehead > Axilla [the armpit] >= Scalp > Back = Abdomen > Palm and plantar,” the Textbook tells us.
I have in front of me Amazon’s #1 bestseller in “Deodorants and Antiperspirants.” Its ingredients indicate too few consumers place importance on what they will use on their bodies indefinitely to avoid an occasional wayward smell: “Aluminum Zirconium Tetrachlorohydrex Gly (15.2%) Cyclopentasiloxane, Stearyl Alcohol, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, PPG-14 Butyl Ether, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Fragrance (Parfum), Dimethicone, Polyethylene, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Steareth-100, BHT, Tocopheryl Acetate.” You’ll find almost none of these in a health-conscious product line but will find many of them on “Dirty Dozen” and “Suspicious 6™” lists of harmful, toxic and even carcinogenic additives.
Aluminum Antiperspirants & The Kidney Connection
On March 2, 2020, the Washington Post reported that after a seven-year consecutive increase in organ transplants, 2019 had, yet again, been a “record-setting year” and that of the 39,717 organ transplants, kidney transplants comprised 23,401, or 60%, of total U.S. organ transplants in 2019.
The study, “Effect of Heavy Metals on, and Handling by, the Kidney” tells us “The kidney is the first target organ of heavy metal toxicity.”
The aforementioned code (§ 350.50 ) orders that a statement be put on all antiperspirants: “Ask a doctor before use if you have kidney disease.” Why? The aluminum compounds are or can be a problem for persons whose kidneys aren’t functioning well. They can’t handle the absorbed metal. Yes, this notice is legally required on every antiperspirant, not that we all read micro typefaces. By classifying antiperspirants as drugs, the FDA is evidently telling consumers that, unlike cosmetics, which “cleanse or beautify,” antiperspirants potentially “affect the structure or function of the body….”
So why is aluminum even in antiperspirants? Aluminum forms a temporary plug within your armpit’s sweat ducts to reduce or cut off the flow of sweat. The problem is that an aluminum can be, has been proven to be, absorbed by the skin. Some claim absorption increases the chances of breast cancer and Alzheimer’s; others disagree. For a product we’ll use daily for the rest of our lives, perhaps it’s best we steer clear of it, especially given that there are options without aluminum that work just as well.
In a statement oddly denying causation, the National Kidney Foundation tells us that for a group of dialysis patients given a drug called aluminum hydroxide, “their kidneys weren’t functioning properly, their bodies couldn’t remove the aluminum fast enough, and it began accumulating.” And, that “Scientists noticed that dialysis patients who had these high aluminum levels were more likely to develop dementia. Aluminum accumulation in the body and blood also produced a type of bone disease known as adynamic bone disease.” Yet they go on to allege that, “In reality, it’s almost impossible to absorb enough aluminum through the skin to harm the kidneys.” As if antiperspirants are the only aluminum we consume. It’s also in cans, kegs, foils, kitchen utensils, pots and frying pans, antacids, dyes, cake mix, processed cheese, vaccines, shampoo, lotions, and soy-based baby formulas to name a handful.
“If in 8 days the skin’s barrier is so greatly weakened, what happens in 30 days? In 365? Over the course of our lives?”
Yet we have an October 1984 Review of Dermal Absorption study by the US EPA’s Office of Health and Environmental Assessment, stating that in certain scenarios, “exposure via the dermal route is the most critical exposure pathway” and that “For most penetrants, absorption through the general skin surface is the preferred route….” The study assigned the arms a “penetration rate” of “1” and the genitals a penetration rate of “40,” though the underarms weren’t specifically tested.
Referencing a 1980 study, the paper’s authors note, “The absorption on the 8th day of application of the same penetrant dose was found to be significantly higher than on the first day. The authors suggest that the initial applications of penetrant altered the barrier function of the stratum corneum [the outer protective layer of the skin], resulting in increased absorption for subsequent applications (Wester et al., 1980b).”
If in 8 days the skin’s barrier is so greatly weakened, what happens in 30 days? In 365? Over the course of our lives?
According to a June 2018 peer-reviewed study titled, Is Aluminum Exposure a Risk Factor for Neurological Disorders?, “It is well established that Al [aluminum] is a neurotoxic agent.” It is the relation or link of aluminum to the “etiology of various serious neurological disorders” such as Alzheimer’s that “remains still unclear.” The study’s authors conclude by suggesting Aluminum exposure—from one’s diet, aluminum cookware, and occupational exposure — “should be kept to a minimum since the potential effects on human health” are “not fully understood.”
“In spite of this uncertainty, a number of epidemiological reports concerning Al exposure and the risks of neurological disorders are available in the scientific literature.”
One such report published in the Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics journal of April 2014, states, “The case for aluminum the neurotoxin is proven and incontrovertible. The case for aluminum a neurotoxin and a risk to human health will require further examination.” (The June 2018 study cited earlier helps us understand: “An important reason for this uncertainty is the ethical concerns of tests conducted in humans.”) The opening line of its abstract is even more poignant: “Aluminium is neurotoxic.”
“What is currently unknown,” writes the study’s author, English chemist and Professor of Bioinorganic Chemistry, Christopher Exley, “is how our burgeoning exposure to aluminum in everyday life is contributing toward toxic thresholds in individuals and in populations.”
Are we humans who use aluminum-based products daily unknowingly conducting our own trial of sorts—on ourselves? Based on available science and acknowledged uncertainties, I argue we very well maybe.
“Research has shown for the first time that an individual who was exposed to aluminum at work and died of Alzheimer’s disease had high levels of aluminum in the brain. While aluminum is a known neurotoxin and occupational exposure to aluminum has been implicated in neurological disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, this finding is believed to be the first record of a direct link between Alzheimer’s disease and elevated brain aluminum following occupational exposure to the metal.” – ScienceDaily, February 12, 2014
“Interpretation: Frequent use of UCPs [underarm cosmetic products] may lead to an accumulation of aluminum in breast tissue. More than daily use of UCPs at younger ages may increase the risk of BC [breast cancer].” – Research Paper, “Use of Underarm Cosmetic Products in Relation to Risk of Breast Cancer: A Case-Control Study,” published June 2017 in EBioMedicine.
I don’t for a moment suggest that all kidney transplants are required due to aluminum or other metals in foods, beverages, cosmetics, and over-the-counter drugs, however, much like the American Cancer Society recommending meat-based dishes despite The China Study, one wonders whether the Foundation should broaden its perspective and consider the possibilities.
As far as aluminum in beverages, the apparent consensus is that “drinks packaged in aluminum cans do not present a significant risk to people with healthy kidneys.” So how many drinks and doses does it take to break down, affect, or destroy healthy kidneys? A years’ worth? A decades’ worth?
And how might that process be being exacerbated by the cola or diet soda actually in those aluminum cans, factors that may on their own be causing double-digit reductions in kidney health and function over time?
Aluminum-Free Deodorants that Actually Work
While big money may infinitely tell its consumers that more studies are needed, it would be small families who suffer the slow-build but staggering consequences. Protecting ourselves and our families, adding years to our youthfulness, health and happiness start with taking a new and closer look at our daily diet, habits, and choices. I believe deodorant is an easy and important start point and that years from now we’ll wonder why we ever did as we now do.
Thankfully, this isn’t the first time that health-conscious consumers have questioned the effects. And a long line of effective products without aluminum have entered the market, are just about as effective, and have none of the metals that antiperspirants have. Here are some of the best of them: aluminum-free deodorants that actually work.
Tom’s of Maine Long Lasting Natural Deodorant: This best-selling aluminum-free deodorant uses a mixture of organic compounds that include botanicals, sage, and lemongrass. Tom’s uses naturally sourced and naturally derived ingredients, donates 10% of profits to charities benefiting children — and the product boasts the same proven 24-hour protection.
Crystal Mineral Deodorant Stick: Meet the only cruelty-free and aluminum-free deodorant that lasts 24 hours, leaves no white marks on clothing, has zero parabens, and has received the Clean Label Project’s Purity Award across its entire product line.
Weleda Sage Deodorant: This dermatologically-tested, safe-for-all-skin-types deodorant (not an antiperspirant), is certified as natural and works to balance your skin’s innate detox process. Weleda is free from all things toxic including aluminum, synthetic preservatives, and fragrances. Unlike most other aluminum-free deodorants on our list, this one is not returnable after purchase, though we think you’ll fall in love with it just fine. For men, Weleda provides a licorice root and witch hazel option that’s about as masculine as it gets.
Erbaviva Lemon Sage Organic Deodorant: Beyond the cool bottle, this deodorant contains over 95% organic ingredients and is a smooth, rich blend of pure organic essential oils in a base of organic grain alcohol, with natural jasmine and grapefruit scents.
Ditching Deodorant: Replace Aluminum Antiperspirants with Natural Remedies
Armpit odor is a natural occurrence easily treatable with home remedies. Chronic armpit odor, known as bromhidrosis can be tackled with antibacterial soap while avoiding spicy food and caffeine. Try out these ingenious ways of eliminating armpit odor altogether without even using deodorant.
Witch Hazel: After showering, dab a cotton ball with witch hazel and rub it against your armpits. Witch Hazel is a natural astringent that helps contract your skin tissue and reduce the production of sweat. Most of the witch hazel extracts include rubbing alcohol which can also help fight odor-causing bacteria that accumulate in your armpits. Applying witch hazel to your armpits after a bath could be one of the best remedies to tackle smelly pits.
Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar has significant antibacterial and antifungal properties for fighting off a wide range of infections and odors. Dabbing apple cider vinegar on your armpits twice daily should help neutralize the smells by destroying bacteria that might be thriving there. It is very effective and can help maintain good armpit hygiene.
Lemon Juice & Water: Lemon juice has acidic compounds with antibacterial properties. It can be a natural remedy for treating armpit odor by increasing the pH of your skin, making it harder for bacteria to stay. Take half a lemon and rub it directly on your armpits daily until you notice improvements. If you have sensitive skin, dilute the lemon juice with half a cup of water.
Consider Shaving Your Armpits: Armpit hair tends to trap moisture from sweat and creates a breeding ground for bacteria. Shaving your armpits might just keep that bacteria at bay.
Better Yet, Wax Your Pits… Possibly Permanently? Because bacteria harbor in the bulbs of our hair shafts, removing the hair entirely with waxing rather than shaving will significantly reduce armpit odor. And while waxing will effectively stave off many smells for two to four weeks, there is also a permanent alternative in armpit hair removal: Electrolysis is the only FDA-cleared method of permanent hair removal and most skin clinics and medspas make the treatment very affordable.