Walk down the beauty aisle in Whole Foods, and you’ll see myriad natural antiperspirants touting their aluminum-free status. Browse your favorite beauty blogs, and you’re likely to find round-ups of the best aluminum-free deodorants. So what’s the big deal with aluminum in deodorant, anyway? We talked to scientists and chemists to get to the bottom of the concerns. Here, we’ll break down why aluminum is in deodorant to begin with and address the potential health concerns associated with aluminum.
What Purpose Does Aluminum Serve in Deodorants?
Before we even get into that, it’s important to note the difference between deodorants and antiperspirants. Though we tend to use the word “deodorant” to refer to anything we swipe on our underarms, that’s not actually accurate. Deodorant is simply made to curb body odor, and antiperspirant is meant to curb sweat (or perspiration). And when we talk about aluminum, we’re only talking about antiperspirants.
“Antiperspirants contain aluminum salts that help plug your pores so you don’t sweat as much,” Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and cofounder of The Beauty Brains, tells Teen Vogue. “These are over-the-counter drugs that are controlled by the FDA [in the U.S.]. Deodorants do not contain aluminum, and they don’t stop you from sweating. They only reduce body odor, by using fragrance or antibacterial compounds.”
The aluminum compounds found in antiperspirants, Schueller says, not only reduce wetness by blocking your underarm sweat ducts, but they also minimize body odor by inhibiting the bacteria that feed on your sweat and cause it. To make matters even more confusing, many products are combinations: as in deodorants and antiperspirants. Bottom line: if you want to know if there’s aluminum if your antiperspirant/deodorant, flip it over and look at the ingredient list. The active ingredient at the top could be listed as aluminum chloralhydrate or aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly.
What are the Concerns about Aluminum in Deodorant?
There are two main health issues usually cited when talking about aluminum in deodorant: Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer.
Aluminum Deodorant and Alzheimer’s Disease
“During the 1960s and 1970s, aluminum was identified as a possible suspect in Alzheimer’s (a degenerative brain disease),” Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association, explains. “This suspicion led to concern about exposure to aluminum through everyday sources such as pots and pans, beverage cans, antacids, and antiperspirants.”
Those concerns were amplified in 1985 with the release of another study, that examined the link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s. “Researchers found that Alzheimer’s patients had high levels of aluminum in their brains,” Schueller says. “There have been a number of studies since then; at least one, done in 1990, did suggest a link. Researchers tracked aluminum exposure of 130 Alzheimer’s patients — but the study has been discredited because it relied on other people to provide data for the patients. It just wasn’t reliable.”
Aluminum Deodorant and Breast Cancer
The concerns about risk of breast cancer largely have to do with the proximity of the underarms to the breasts. Some studies have claimed that a majority of breast cancers develop in the upper outer quadrant of the breast because that section is closest to the underarms, where antiperspirants — which theoretically get absorbed by the skin or enter through razor nicks — are applied, the thinking being that the aluminum then gets into the lymph nodes and then travels to the breasts. Going along with that are the fears that, because aluminum plugs the sweat ducts, the body can’t rid itself of any potentially cancerous substances absorbed during antiperspirant use.
And aside from the cancer factor, some people are simply concerned that aluminum (and antiperspirants in general) keeps the body from sweating out toxins that need to be released. “We believe sweating is a normal body function and essential to not only regulating the body temperature, but ridding the body of toxins and working to keep the body healthy,” Danielle Raynor, founder of Lavanila, a natural beauty brand (which offers aluminum-free deodorant), tells Teen Vogue.
What’s the Argument For Aluminum in Deodorant and Antiperspirant?
Here’s the thing: Just because there have been studies here and there indicating links between aluminum and certain diseases, doesn’t mean those links are accepted in the scientific and medical communities. As Schueller noted, that 1990 study indicating a causal link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s was discredited. And, he said, there have been more reliable studies indicating the opposite.
Fargo made the same point. “Since [those first studies in the ’60s and ’70s], studies have failed to confirm any role for aluminum in causing Alzheimer’s,” he says. “Experts today focus on other areas of research, and few believe that everyday sources of aluminum pose any threat.”
As for the talk of a potential link to breast cancer, experts — including the American Cancer Society — cite problems with the studies that have made that connection and the reasonings behind the various claims. “The long-standing myth around aluminum in antiperspirants operates under the belief that the aluminum present enters the body through your sweat glands,” Robert Korn, medical director of Northwell-GoHealth Urgent Care, tells Teen Vogue. “This is false, as skin acts as a barrier to your internal systems and blood streams, keeping the substance from getting through … Additionally, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a link between breast cancer and aluminum in antiperspirants.”
For its part, Secret, which sells antiperspirants containing aluminum, points to the many organizations that have denied any definite link between aluminum and cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. “An overview of the extensive research conducted on antiperspirant safety can be found on sweathelp.org, where there are quotes from the likes of the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, Alzheimer’s Association, and breastcancer.org,” Dr. Susan Biehle, a principal scientist at Procter & Gamble, which makes Secret, tells Teen Vogue. “All of these organizations report there is no scientific proof of a connection between the aluminum in antiperspirants and any of the respective diseases studied.”
And the whole “sweating out toxins” thing? Well, your body does release some toxins when you sweat, but it’s a fairly negligible amount. The real purpose of sweat is to regulate your body temperature and cool it down as needed. If you have toxins inside, those are filtered out by your liver and kidneys, and leave your body when you go to the bathroom.
Do I Need to Start Buying Aluminum-Free Deodorant?
Right now, the overwhelming scientific and medical opinion is that you don’t have anything to worry about. “The bottom line, despite all the fear-mongering you hear about aluminum in cosmetics products, [is that] the best evidence to date shows that there are no significant health concerns,” Schueller says. In terms of Alzheimer’s, specifically, although Dr. Fargo echoed Schueller’s earlier statement, he did also note that “the Alzheimer’s Association’s position is that we need more research about the actual causes of, and risk factors for, Alzheimer’s and other dementias.”
Ultimately, based on the evidence out there right now, you’re probably fine to use antiperspirants containing aluminum (which, both Dr. Biehle and Schueller note, is the only FDA-approved active ingredient for use curbing sweat in antiperspirants). But if you want to play it safe, you certainly won’t be alone.
“The movement toward cleaner, safer beauty products is part of a larger shift in consumer awareness in health and wellness that is growing every day,” Raynor says. “With increasing evidence that certain ingredients in the beauty industry are linked to health complications, customers are demanding better, more natural options.”
And options there are. Though, both Dr. Biehle and Schueller note, aluminum is the only FDA-approved active ingredient for use curbing sweat in antiperspirants, companies like Lavanila offer their own alternatives. “We developed a proprietary, all-natural technology powered by all-natural beta-glucan to absorb sweat molecules and provide superior odor protection,” Raynor says. “This allows the skin to breathe and the body to function normally.” That formula is used in Lavanila’s The Healthy Deodorant, as well as Raynor’s brand-new collection specifically for young girls and teens, Lavanila Girl, which, Raynor says, “is uniquely infused with skin-soothing ingredients perfect for delicate skin.”
Of course, there is no lack of natural deodorants available to consumers that may not have sweat-stopping ingredients that keep you smelling great, but they can do a solid job of keeping body odor at bay. But as you shop, remember: Just because a product is (or claims to be) natural, doesn’t mean it’s automatically safe — or effective. Schueller points out that crystal deodorants, a popular natural option, sometimes use alum crystals, which contain aluminum. As for effectiveness, deodorants (like all cosmetic products) work differently on different people, so you may just need to do a bit of trial and error before you find the one that works for you.