Is Deodorant Harmful?

#EcoAdvice from our expert

Dear Dr. Donley,

I’ve heard that things like aluminum that are in my deodorant can be harmful to my health. Is aluminum really that bad, and are there any other ingredients I should stay away from?

Signed,

Sweatin’ the Small Stuff

Dear Speed Stick Skeptic,

As is often the case with these things, the answer isn’t entirely clear. There are some studies that find associations with aluminum exposure and certain diseases like breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, but there are also many that don’t. Most regulatory agencies and associations have concluded that “there is no definitive evidence that exposure to aluminum causes disease, but more research is needed,” which is a very confident, authoritative way to say that we still don’t really know.

But there are other things in that pit rub that worry me more than aluminum. Parabens, phthalates and antimicrobials like triclosan have chemical properties that make them a potential risk to your health. How much of these chemicals actually get absorbed through your skin is still largely unknown, but here are a few things to consider: 1) If you shave your armpits, keep in mind you are also scraping away the top layer of your skin and causing inflammation that can reduce the effectiveness of your epidermis in preventing absorption; and 2) toxins absorbed through the skin make their way into your bloodstream before being metabolized by the liver, which sometimes can cause short-term exposure spikes compared to toxins encountered in your diet.

Where the focus should really be, when it comes to anti-perspirants and deodorants, is on their clear and definitive impacts to the environment. Those thousands upon thousands of single-use plastic containers slowly get crushed into tiny fragments, where they accumulate in our natural environment and make their way into the food chain.

That aluminum in your pore plugger comes from strip-mining bauxite ore, which is converted into aluminum using a very energy-, water- and chemical-intensive process. Though the aluminum in your antiperspirant is a drop in the bucket of the total aluminum we use, unlike common items — like cans and foil — it can’t be recycled.

And the deodorant you apply doesn’t just vanish into thin air. Some of the chemicals will get absorbed through your skin and excreted, and the rest will simply be washed off during showering. Either way it’s going down the drain, where much of it will bypass water treatment and end up in our rivers and streams. Aluminum, parabens and triclosan can all impact aquatic life.

Instead of worrying about whether deodorant or anti-perspirant affects your health, I challenge you to question your use of these products in the first place. I’m not saying you need to turn into that guy at the coffee shop whose awful mix of B.O. and Nag Champa makes you throw up a little in your mouth whenever he walks past.

But ask yourself if you use these products on a daily basis out of convention or habit or because you actually need to mask the offensiveness of your natural odor every day. Most people fall into the former category, and simply carrying around some diluted essential oils or natural deodorant and applying only when you get a bit too ripe can really reduce your use of these products and the massive amounts of plastic and metal waste that accompany them. And it’ll save you money, too.

Stay wild,

Dr. Donley

Dr. Nathan Donley is a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who answers questions about how environmental toxins affect people, wildlife and the environment. Send him your questions at AskDrDonley@biologicaldiversity.org

Read the previous Ask Dr. Donley installment “Is Roundup Safer Than Table Salt?

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