Is there any risk in using antiperspirants or deodorants?

Just looking at the list of ingredients on an antiperspirant or deodorant makes some people sweat. That’s because they’ve heard about how some of the components have been linked with breast cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s no need to sweat, the allegations are baseless. The accusers usually are even confused about what antiperspirants and deodorants are, and lump them together as if these were identical products. They are not. Antiperspirants are drugs, deodorants are cosmetics. What’s the difference? Drugs are products that are intended for treating or preventing disease, or for affecting the structure or function of the body. Antiperspirants fall into this category because they actually prevent sweating, which is obviously a body function. The most common ingredient is aluminum chlorhydrate which can effectively block the secretion of sweat from sweat glands. Just how it does this is not absolutely clear. Aluminum forms complexes with proteins, which may deposit in the ducts of sweat glands and impair the flow of sweat but aluminum compounds have also been found to cause minor inflammation, and some researchers believe that the swelling associated with this inflammation is what affects the sweat glands. The only documented problems with aluminum chlorhydrate have been skin irritation and the discoloring of some fabrics. But accusations have been made about the aluminum in these products causing Alzheimer’s disease. While it is true that aluminum concentrations are increased in the amyloid plaques, those deposits in the brain that characterize Alzheimer’s, researchers believe that the buildup of aluminum is a consequence and not a cause of the disease. In any case the amount of aluminum that enters the body from antiperspirants is trivial.

Deodorants are functionally different from antiperspirants. These are cosmetics, which are defined as products that cleanse, beautify, promote attractiveness or alter the appearance, without affecting the body’s structure or function. Fresh sweat has virtually no odour. It is mostly water, which by evaporating cools the body. It does contain a variety of ions, such as sodium, potassium and chloride, commonly referred to as electrolytes, along with small amounts of metabolic byproducts such as ammonia, lactic acid, amino acids and fatty acids. There are also trace amounts of numerous organic compounds such as glucose, various hormones, and even residues from medication. But contrary to popular belief, sweating does not provide a mechanism for removing toxins from the body in any significant amount. Sweat glands are not filter systems, that job is left to the liver and kidneys. So if fresh sweat doesn’t smell, what causes the odour? The action of bacteria which are always present on the skin! When bacteria metabolize some of the components of sweat, mostly fatty acids, they produce smelly compounds such as propionic and butanoic acids. Deodorants inhibit this process by incorporating antibacterial compounds such as alcohol, triclosan or various plant extracts. Often they will have sodium bicarbonate to neutralize the fragrant acids that are produced. The usual charge against deodorants is that they contain parabens as preservatives, and that these can cause breast cancer. There is no evidence for this. So there is really no need to sweat about the ingredients in deodorants or antiperspirants. But listening to the nonsense so often said about these products is enough to make one hot under the collar. And sweat!


Joe Schwarcz

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