Is Aluminum In Deodorant *Really* That Bad For You?
The great debate, explained.
Deodorant, as unsexy and unglamorous as it may be, is a certain right of passage. That middle-school surge in hormones brings about a host of changes in the body, underarm stench looming large alongside newfound body hair and other less desirable outcomes of puberty. That first swipe is a proclamation of sorts: I am, or at least my body is, an adult.
While you often see deodorant and antiperspirant used interchangeably (or, more often, both referred to as deodorant), they are, in fact, two separate products. Both reduce body odor, but antiperspirants also inhibit the formation of sweat (and minimize underarm wetness) via aluminum salts and are therefore classified as over-the-counter drugs regulated by the FDA. In other words, deodorants use fragrance to mask odor, while antiperspirants use aluminum-based compounds to plug sweat glands. And while antiperspirants may also be scented, they’re not fragrance-based.
With that in mind, what exactly you should use in your pits — or more specifically, what not to use — has been a hot button issue for years. These days, it seems like “aluminum-free” and “all natural” is a badge of honor deodorants don like a gold star. Meanwhile, claims of toxicity and supposed links to breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, alongside heaps of misinformation and “natural is better” marketing, have made antiperspirants all the less desirable in the armpit arena. So much so that these products, aluminum and all, have become bad actors of sorts.
But is aluminum-free really better? What’s the problem with aluminum anyway? We took our questions straight to the experts, and the answers aren’t so simple. Read on for everything you need to know about the great deodorant debate.
Where Does The Belief That Aluminum-Free Deodorants Are Better Come From?
Experts aren’t totally sure where the idea that aluminum-free deodorant is better than classic iterations stems from. After all, the ingredient is a fairly ubiquitous element we encounter naturally every single day.
According to Dr. Teresa Song, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical in New York City, many believe that aluminum blocks natural toxin excretion and thus raises the concern for overheating — though this has been debunked on multiple levels.
She also points to some non-human studies that have reported aluminum may potentially affect hormone levels because it can mimic estrogen. In those results, there’s a direct (though completely unproven) link to the concern that aluminum may pose increased risk to estrogen-responsive breast cancers.
There’s also the fear that aluminum can cause toxicity if absorbed into the body, says Dr. Jennifer Mackinnon, M.D., a primary care provider and director of the executive health program at the Medical College of Wisconsin. However, we know that the actual concentrations needed for this to happen are much higher than what is absorbed via antiperspirant application over a lifetime.
Of course, there’s the age-old farce of avoiding chemicals. But that can be quickly debunked. “Chemicals are part of our everyday life,” Dr. Mackinnon explains. “And aluminum is pervasive in food additives, cooking utensils, our water supply, even personal hygiene products like such antiperspirants.”
There are also some animal studies linking Alzheimer’s disease to metals including aluminum chloride to consider. Paired with the potential link to breast cancer, the two were strong forces in the takedown of aluminum-based antiperspirants.
And, believe it or not, a flawed chain email from nearly 40 years ago is to (partially) blame — at least partially. According to Cambridge, M.A.-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch M.D., the urban legend went something akin to viral, and companies trying to sell natural alternatives have done little since to quash the misinformation.
And Dr. Hirsch points out a rather disheartening reality: If you look online, you can find claims to support virtually anything, but that does not make it true.
So, Are Aluminum-Free Deodorants Really Safer Than Antiperspirants?
Despite all the marketing and confusion that says otherwise, all three of our experts give a resounding no.
Especially given the fact that there hasn’t been any studies showing direct causation between Alzeihemer’s or breast cancer and aluminum-containing antiperspirants — remember, correlation and causation are very different things. While causation implies that one thing causes another, correlation simply refers to a relationship where two things relate to each other. And though there have been studies showing a possible correlation between Alzheimer’s or breast cancer and aluminum-containing antiperspirants, one doesn’t cause the other, rather another factor is at play that causes both.
And it’s not just that these causation studies don’t exist because they haven’t been done — per Dr. Song, various large-scale human studies have not found any associations between regular aluminum exposure (like the kind you’d get from an antiperspirant) and health concerns such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
As for those animal studies, it’s important to remember that, oftentimes, we cannot extrapolate their findings to real-life human applications.
And there are actually some potential problems when it comes to more “natural” formulas. “Aluminum-free, natural deodorants are not necessarily safer for you,” Dr. Song says, “especially when natural ingredients are not regulated and can vary among different formulations.”
Which Formula Is Better At Masking Odor?
It’s generally accepted that aluminum-based antiperspirants are more effective at curbing odor, even at the lowest percentage, than natural formulations.
One reason, according to Dr. Mackinnon, is its antiperspirant ability. Armpit stench is usually secondary to a multitude of factors including excessive sweating, overgrowth of microorganisms in the area due to moisture and darkness, and various hormonal influences, Dr. Song says. Aluminum-containing antiperspirants decrease sweating in a way natural formulas simply cannot, preventing a moist breeding environment for bacteria and fungus to grow and thus potentially lessening the odor.
For medically concerning levels of armpit odor, there are even prescription-strength formulas available with higher contents of aluminum (think around the 20% range).
Who Should Use Aluminum-Free Deodorant Over Antiperspirant?
It’s worth noting that natural, aluminum-free deodorant formulas aren’t bad. Quite the contrary actually, given their rise over the last several decades. Today’s options are more adept at minimizing odor than ever before.
Per Dr. Song, if a patient has decreased kidney function, it may lead to a decreased clearance of aluminum in the blood and subsequently higher exposure levels, in which case a natural, aluminum-free formula would be beneficial.
Medical ailments aside, Dr. Mackinnon says if someone does not perspire a great deal, and is not particularly stinky, aluminum-free formulas can be preferable. After all, exposure to various chemicals, like aluminum, over time very well may be toxic to your health, and while the amount absorbed via antiperspirants isn’t nearly enough to reach those toxic levels, an aluminum-free deodorant certainly doesn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, for Dr. Song, it isn’t necessarily that simple. “It’s tricky to pinpoint when aluminum-free deodorant would be a truly better option,” Dr. Song says. “It can contain a multitude of natural ingredients that are not regulated along with fragrance and essential oils that may contribute to irritation. At the same time, although aluminum is safe to use in affected areas, it can also cause irritation.”
Like most things in life, it’s complicated. Except, perhaps, for Dr. Hirsch, who, when asked this exact question, simply replied, “If they prefer it.” Fair enough.