Quirky Questions: Are deodorants and antiperspirants unhealthy?

Deodorant Antiperspirant

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If you’re concerned about certain ingredients in deodorants and antiperspirants causing disease, you’re not alone—these concerns have circulated for years. In particular, parabens and aluminum, which are found in some deodorants and antiperspirants, have been implicated in breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. But are these associations valid or are these fears unfounded?

Parabens are preservatives often used in commercial products, including deodorants and antiperspirants–although, according to the FDA, most major brands of deodorants and antiperspirants don’t contain parabens. Aluminum is the active ingredient found in most antiperspirants. Unlike deodorants, which simply mask odor, antiperspirants temporarily obstruct the production of sweat by blocking sweat glands. (Interestingly, antiperspirants are considered drugs and are regulated by the FDA by virtue of this ability to alter normal bodily function.)

How did the concerns over a possible link to these personal care products and Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer begin in the first place? In the 1960s, some studies suggested that levels of aluminum seemed to be higher in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Subsequent research suggested that aluminum and parabens, when applied to underarm skin, could be absorbed into the body, causing estrogen-like effects that might promote the growth of breast cancer cells. And a widely cited 2004 study demonstrated that parabens were found in measurable amounts in breast cancer tissue.

So does the presence of these elements in the human body necessarily implicate them in disease causation? Not exactly. Although parabens and aluminum may interact with the endocrine (hormonal) system as studied in the laboratory, there is no definitive evidence linking the use of personal care products with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. This is the official stance of the National Cancer Institute and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Despite this good news, some people choose to avoid deodorants and antiperspirants that contain parabens and aluminum “just to be safe.” While the evidence shows that using these products in everyday amounts is perfectly safe, if you want to avoid aluminum and parabens, they’re very easy to spot on product labels—just look for the word “aluminum” or words ending in “paraben.” If you’re uncertain about the safety of the constituents in a particular product, the National Institutes of Health’s Household Products Database can be very helpful.


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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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