Is Using Deodorant With Aluminum Actually Bad for You? Here's What Experts Have to Say

Learn whether or not the metal actually causes cancer or Alzheimer's disease.

is aluminum deodorant bad for you
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On "wellness" websites and in gossip between friends, a strange trend has taken hold: something as banal and every day as swiping on antiperspirant has become as taboo as smoking a pack of cigarettes or lying in a tanning bed. The reason? Aluminum. "Natural" and "aluminum-free" deodorants have begun cropping up everywhere, even in mainstay antiperspirant brands like Secret and Dove. Below, find out what aluminum is, why the ingredient has become so controversial, and whether or not you should swap out your normal deodorant for a natural one.

What is aluminum, and why is it in deodorants?

Aluminum is a metal that's used in antiperspirants — which are different from deodorant. "Antiperspirants are products designed to reduce wetness on the skin, while deodorants neutralize odor," says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, Associate Professor of Dermatology and Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Deodorants don't help block sweat like antiperspirants do — they just help mask odor.

"Antiperspirants contain aluminum base salts that form a plug within the sweat gland, physically blocking sweat from reaching the surface of the skin," says Dr. Zeichner. The aluminum doesn't actually make you produce less sweat, but it makes sure your underarms don't get wet. Aluminum in deodorant typically comes in the form of aluminum chlorohydrate.

Is aluminum in antiperspirants harmful?

When it comes to being worried about aluminum in deodorant, the two main concerns are breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

  • Alzheimer's disease: "There have been studies that show increased aluminum deposits in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's, but that doesn't mean that the aluminum is necessarily coming from deodorant or antiperspirant use," says Dr. Elizabeth Comen, M.D., medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
  • Breast cancer: There is a retrospective study that shows there is an earlier age for breast cancer diagnosis with patients who use aluminum-based antiperspirants more frequently, but since the study was retrospective, it has been deemed inconclusive. Other studies look at the incidence of breast cancer in the upper quadrant of the breast near the underarm, and whether that correlates to antiperspirant use.

    Can aluminum-based antiperspirant cause breast cancer or Alzheimer's?

    "Despite much media attention, there’s no data showing a causal relationship between the use of aluminum containing anti-perspirant and harmful effects to your skin," says Dr. Zeichner.

    According to Dr. Comen, many of the studies that have come out surrounding concerns about breast cancer or Alzheimer's disease are flawed — either because they're retrospective, which always risks recall bias, or they assume that correlation implies causation. "There's simply no evidence that aluminum causes breast cancer or [that] it causes Alzheimer's," she agrees.

    If you're worried about your body absorbing aluminum through your underarms, you can take comfort in knowing that it's highly unlikely your body is absorbing any significant degree of aluminum through the skin, especially if you only use antiperspirant in a small area and on unbroken skin, according to Dr. Zeichner. In fact, one study found that only 0.012 percent of the aluminum in deodorant is absorbed through underarms — which is significantly less than you would absorb from eating aluminum-rich food (think fish, vegetables and roots).

    Should I switch to natural deodorant?

    At this point, both Dr. Zeichner and Dr. Comen say that it isn't necessary to switch to natural deodorant. It all depends on your personal concerns and what you'll feel comfortable with. "If wetness is an issue, then I do recommend aluminum-based antiperspirants," says Dr. Zeichner. "If body odor is your main concern, then an aluminum-free deodorant may be the right option."

    This it true even if you have the BRCA gene or are actively being treated for breast cancer — though in the case of the former, make sure you speak to your doctor, as your skin might be extra sensitive to many ingredients, including aluminum.

    Of course, there's no harm in switching to a natural deodorant if you're worried. "If people are really concerned, even despite the evidence against specific evidence linking aluminum to breast cancer, people can make the choice to use deodorants without aluminum," says Dr. Comen. You can also choose to switch off, and only use aluminum-containing deodorant on occasions where you may sweat more (like running a race or going to a workout class).

    What other ways can I prevent cancer and disease?

    Often, fears surrounding deodorant are tied to legitimate fears of getting a scary diagnosis. There are plenty of ways to try to maintain your health, like eating a healthy diet, exercising and reducing your alcohol consumption. "The same woman that may be obsessing about her deodorant might be having three glasses of wine at night, not knowing that wine is a proven carcinogen," says Dr. Comen. It's also helpful to know your family history, and talk to your doctor about how to make healthy choices based on your personal risk factors.

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