Underarm Deodorant Safety

As part of our daily routine, most of us reach for some form of antiperspirant or deodorant in an attempt to either control or eliminate the unpleasant body odors that can arise when we sweat. This need, like so many of the ones that dictate our personal hygiene habits, probably stems from early advertising campaigns designed to sell a related product. So effective were these campaigns in establishing our cultural distaste for body odor, that every day 95% of Americans over the age of 12 reach for a deodorant or antiperspirant to help address their insecurities about the way they smell. In 2006, U.S. sales for this category of product reached a staggering $2.5 billion!

Just when you thought you had this issue sewn up tight, comes the speculation and growing concern as to whether deodorants and antiperspirants are harmful or even a possible cause of cancer. These concerns arise mainly from the use of antiperspirants which all contain an aluminum-based compound as their main ingredient. The most commonly used of these active ingredients are aluminum chloride, aluminum zirconium tricholorohydrex glycine, aluminum chlorohydrate and aluminum hydroxybromide –sometimes referred to as aluminum salts.

The link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s Disease aside, the aluminum found in antiperspirants has been shown to cause DNA mutation –a pre-cursor for uncontrolled growth of cells, and hence cancer. It has also been found to have estrogen-like effects when frequently placed on and absorbed into the skin. The latter finding has led some scientists to believe that using antiperspirants may be linked to breast cancer.

Equally alarming is the finding that aluminum can be fatal in large enough doses to people with impaired kidney function, causing some antiperspirant manufacturers to place warnings on their product labels.

Up until now none of these research findings have been conclusive, but questions still remain about the safety of underarm products. This has given rise to new, healthier alternatives, but its not clear if these products are entirely safe either. So how do you know what product is the best product for your needs?

The basic difference between antiperspirants and deodorants is that the former keep you from sweating, while the latter cut down on what makes you stink when you sweat. Understanding the difference between the two, and the pros and cons of each is the key to identifying the safest and most effective options out there.

Survival Instinct: Sweating Does a Body Good

It helps to understand why and how we sweat in the first place. Sweating is your body’s natural way of cooling itself off –whether that extra heat comes from hardworking muscles (the result of exercise or over-exertion), from over stimulated nerves (being nervous), or from the burning of food via the body’s metabolic processes. When sweat evaporates from the surface of your skin, it removes excess heat and cools you. So even though sweating can sometimes be embarrassing, it’s a natural bodily function that regulates and maintains the body’s normal temperature, which is crucial to our survival.

The average person has 2.6 million sweat glands in their skin. There are two different types of sweat glands in our underarms, apocrine and eccrine. The eccrine glands are by far the most numerous and produce most of the sweat in our underarms, as well as other areas, including the forehead, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet.

For the most part, human perspiration has no smell until fermented by bacteria, which thrive in hot, humid and acid pH environments like your armpits. The apocrine glands are responsible for making you stink. That’s because the sweat they produce contains fats and proteins from within your body that are carried to the exterior surface of your skin where they react with bacteria that live under your arms –creating odors.

Antiperspirants vs. Deodorants: What’s the Difference?

Deodorants target the bacteria that hang around your armpits by making the skin there too salty or acidic (low pH) for bacteria to live in. No bacteria, means no smell. Most deodorants use alcohol to accomplish this and many use synthetic fragrances (which have their own inherent safety issues) to mask whatever smell is not fully eliminated by the other active ingredients.

Antiperspirants do the job using the exact opposite principle: they actually keep you from sweating by plugging the ducts that carry sweat from the glands to the skin’s surface. Without any sweat, the bacteria in your underarms don’t have anything to feast upon. Most antiperspirants have some of the same ingredients found in deodorants that kill bacteria as a failsafe. Their main function, however, is to keep you from perspiring, and alas, this only works for a short time before you have to re-apply it.

Ironically, antiperspirants are designed to decrease the production of eccrine sweat, which has no odor and therefore no substances for bacteria to thrive on. And neither antiperspirants nor deodorants can decrease apocrine sweat. This begs the question of which product is safer? While both types of products can be seen as interfering with our body’s naturally occurring processes, antiperspirants are clearly more disruptive as they are intended to stop you from sweating altogether and sweating is necessary for regulating body temperature. If body odor is your main concern, then deodorants are a more appropriate choice.

Safer, Natural Alternatives to Help You Stay Fresh and Dry

Knowing that the primary action of a deodorant is to either kill the bacteria in your armpits or turn the armpits into a hostile environment for bacteria, you can focus your efforts on finding or making a natural deodorant with ingredients that will do the job without posing the risk of harm.

The good news is there are plant-based and natural ingredients that can produce both deodorizing and (to a limited extent) antiperspirant effects. Some of these include:

Tea Tree essential oil (antibacterial)
Sage essential oil, sage tea or other form of sage extract (astringent –helps inhibit sweat production)
Witch Hazel extract (astringent and antibacterial)
Goldenseal extract (astringent and antibacterial)
Baking Soda (adsorbent and antibacterial)
Cornstarch (adsorbent)
Arrowroot powder (adsorbent)
Kaolin or Bentonite Clay powder (adsorbent)
Apple Cider Vinegar (antibacterial -lowers pH of the skin)
Other ingredients that are safe to use as fillers or binders include aloe vera and vegetable glycerin (for roll-ons), coconut oil, shea butter, and beeswax (for solids), and additional essential oils for fragrance. If you’re making your own deodorant powder you can grind fragrant herbs like lavender buds, lemon verbena, or rose petals in a coffee grinder and mix them in with your other powders. Stay away from any form of Talc or Talcum Powder as this can be toxic to your lungs when inhaled!

Last but not least are natural deodorants made from potassium alum or ammonium alum. Not to be confused with metal aluminum this alum is a compound found in alum salts and used to make solid crystal deodorants -a popular natural alternative. Crystal deodorants leave a layer of natural crystal salts on the surface of the skin producing a hostile environment for bacteria, and have been used as a deodorant throughout history in Thailand, the Far East, Mexico and several other countries.

Using mass-market antiperspirants and deodorants may seem like a simple and innocuous thing to do to assuage your fears about the way you smell. But knowing the facts will help you identify the safest and most effective options to meet your needs. Choose wisely …


Donya Fahmy Contributor
Owner , Formulator Dropwise Essentials
Donya Fahmy is the owner, founder and formulator of Dropwise Essentials, a San Francisco-based company.
Donya Fahmy Contributor
Owner , Formulator Dropwise Essentials
Donya Fahmy is the owner, founder and formulator of Dropwise Essentials, a San Francisco-based company.
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