Sweating, body odor, armpit stains, public embarrassment: the situations your trusty sticks and spray bottles of deodorant help you to eliminate. Despite all of the apparent upsides for this seemingly mundane category of hygiene products, decades of anecdotal evidence and now concrete medical research have revealed that there may in fact be cause for greater concern when determining your deodorant preferences.
Will your deodorant kill you? No. If used as recommended, your deodorant will not kill you. Unless you develop a regular habit of eating the contents of your Old Spice bottle or injecting yourself with a syringe full of Secret powder fresh aerosol liquid, you should be fine. The context of the possible health issues related to using commercially available deodorants are not drastic or sudden in nature but instead are long-term and cumulative in scope.
Enter the world of deodorant chemicals. If you’ve ever flipped your deodorant bottle around, in this case Degree Intense Sport stick, to read its label on the back, you were probably greeted by a list of gibberish such as the following: Dipropylene Glycol, Water (Aqua), Propylene Glycol, Sodium Stearate, Poloxamine 1307, Fragrance (Parfum), Aminomethyl Propanol, Disodium EDTA, BHT, Simethicone, Green 3 (CI 42053). Which means what? Most people cannot name one ingredient listed in the formulas of their deodorants of choice, a fact that both New York Times best-selling authors and naturopathic doctors Andrew Weil and Joseph Mercola have said they find very unsettling. This lack of information is not the fault of American consumers but of the companies marketing these products to the public without educating them about their contents. That said, just because these ingredients are synthetic doesn’t automatically make them all bad, if bad at all, for your organism as a whole. It is important to note that most of them are unnatural, and that they are chemicals with which most regular people have little to no working knowledge about.
According to Natural Cosmetic News, the most problematic and potentially toxic chemicals commonly contained in regular deodorants and antiperspirants are “aluminum chlorohydrate, parabens, propylene glycol, triclosan, TEA, DEA, FD&C colors and talc.” In quick summary, aluminum chlorohydrate is what causes antiperspirants to stop you from sweating; parabens are chemical preservatives; propylene glycol is a humectant (keeps the formula wet); triclosan is an antimicrobial and antibacterial agent; TEA and DEA are pH adjusters; FD&C colors are synthetic coloring dyes; and talc is a color additive and absorbent. Of these chemicals, the most potentially dangerous ones are aluminum chlorohydrate, parabens and triclosan.
The reason that aluminum chlorohydrate, parabens and triclosan are all currently considered to be the villains of the deodorant and cosmetic industries is because they all pose the highest potential carcinogenic, hormonal disruption, and body chemistry disturbance risks to our health. To begin, aluminum chlorohydrate works as an antiperspirant by seeping through the skin and clogging the sweat glands in your armpits at the subdermal level. This prevents any sweat from being released by your glands, which in turn backs up your lymph nodes and starves the odor, causing bacteria that reside in your underarms from breaking down the amino acids and lipids in your sweat that cause body odor. According to EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, aluminum chlorohydrate is completely banned from cosmetics usage in Canada, and high exposure to the chemical has been associated with moderate non-reproductive organ system toxicity. In addition to this, a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Electrochemical Science linked heightened aluminum exposure to Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis, stating, “aluminum foil used in cooking provides an easy channel for the metal to enter the human body… It is also possible that excessive consumption of food baked with aluminum foil may carry a serious health risk.”
Parabens top the list of the worst chemicals often found in deodorants because of the potential role they may play in the development of breast cancer. On the official website of the American Cancer Society, literature states that the “intake of parabens is a possible concern because studies have shown that parabens have weak estrogen-like properties. Estrogen is a female hormone known to cause breast cells (both normal and cancerous) to grow and divide. And some conditions that increase the body’s exposure to estrogen (like not having children, late menopause, obesity, etc.) have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.” Though parabens only have weak estrogenic activity, their impact is still significant because practically every consumer product ranging from acne medications to deep hair conditioners contains these substances, meaning that we get exposed to a consistently low-level dosage of estrogen every day (which could be causing underlying health problems to fester under the radar). While parabens pose the most significant threat to women due to the elevated breast cancer risk, exposure is also not good for men as the estrogenic activity can contribute to lower testosterone levels over time.
Lastly, triclosan completes the list, ranking as one of the three worst chemicals that you can apply to your skin because of the many negative actions it immediately causes upon contact with the dermis. Triclosan is a harsh antimicrobial chemical that was first introduced to the public in the 1950s in the form of Dial Gold Antibacterial Bar Soap. Triclosan causes contact dermatitis in many people who use it, which is a rash resulting from allergic skin reactions in people who are either allergic to triclosan or have moderate to severe sensitive skin. According to Natural Cosmetic News, “The American Medical Association recommends that triclosan and other “antibacterial” products not be used in the home, as they may encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics that can allow resistant strains to flourish.”
Lisaimy Mallo, a fourth-year sociology and pre-medical student, stated that she had been previously unaware about the apparent health risks now associated with deodorants and antiperspirants and said, “I’m very open to trying whichever deodorant really.It’s not a big deal. My main concern is how my skin reacts to it and if it gets the job done; if it prevents me from sweating excessively throughout the day and prevents me from having any body odor.”
When asked if she was willing to put up with the potential cancer and Alzheimer’s risk as a result of using commercial deodorant, Mallo said, “I am. We take those risks every single day. For multiple things that we do, [including] things that we eat every single day.”
Mallo ended by stating that she felt positive about the research that was currently being done in the field and said, “The trend is definitely toward a more knowledgeable community, with all [of us] being more informed and more worried about these issues. I feel like 20 years ago these questions wouldn’t have come up.”
Conversely, third-year political science major Cassandra Allen held opinions that were strongly opposed to those of Mallo’s. Allen said that she was deeply disturbed by the epidemic of synthetic chemicals and fragrances found in most deodorants. Allen has combination skin, a condition that causes different parts of her skin to get dry and flaky while others get oily, making her skin very sensitive. Allen eventually became so fed-up with the skin irritation she developed as a result of using synthetic cosmetics that she attempted, and failed, at crafting a homemade moisturizer in a move she hoped would at least minutely soothe her skin. Allen ended by stating that both regular and “natural” deodorants had never really worked to her satisfaction and said, “I would love to find one (deodorant) that would be very effective and natural. If I could choose all of my products to be as natural as possible, I would, but I just haven’t found that they’ve been as effective as more conventional drug store products.”
The efficacy and safety of readily available commercial deodorants is a controversial issue that is being more hotly debated now than it ever has been before. On one hand you have piles of clinical research clearly linking modern deodorants and antiperspirants to cancer and disrupted hormones. On the other hand, you have just as much research and just as many doctors saying that those studies do not have enough proof or that using these potentially dangerous chemicals is just part of the price we have to pay in order for these mass-produced deodorants to be affordable for the general public. The bottom line is that many more studies need to be completed before we can definitively answer whether or not our deodorants are slowly killing us. In the meanwhile, one must understand that he or she may be taking a risk if he or she decides to use said products.