Make the Switch to a Natural Deodorant

Crystal deodorant on shelf in a white bathroom with soap and salts.

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So let's talk armpits. Specifically, let's talk about something you probably put on your armpits every morning: deodorants and antiperspirants. These B.O. blasters come in almost every scent imaginable, in forms from roll-ons to clear gels. Your supermarket aisle probably stocks two dozen varieties.

Almost every one will have something in common: aluminum chlorohdrate or aluminum zirconium. And that could be a problem.

Concern about Aluminum

A man applies deodorant to his armpits in a mirror.

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Natural health groups have been pressing government and regulatory agencies for years to take a hard look at the long-term safety of aluminum in cosmetic products. Aluminum is what gives antiperspirants their wetness-fighting ability, and they're highly effective. Commercial deodorants can contain up to 25 percent aluminum salts by weight.

The problem is this: nobody really knows what aluminum does in the human body. In the case of deodorants, you’re applying aluminum directly to the skin and leaving it there. With women, in particular, that skin might be broken from shaving.

You'll notice most antiperspirants contain a warning to discontinue use if you experience irritation from its use, and quite a few people are sensitive to the aluminum salts, parabens and triclosan common in over-the-counter products. But what really worries some health experts is aluminum's possible connection to breast cancer.

The Cancer Question

A brunette woman sprays deodorant under her armpits.

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Before we go any further, let's be clear: despite the flackery you'll find on the internet, there are no definitive studies that link the use of antiperspirants to an increased risk of cancer. These concerns have been floating around for at least a decade, and groups such as the American Cancer Society still consider commercial deodorants to be safe.

That hasn't stopped some researchers from fretting. Take Dr. Philippa Darby of the U.K.'s University of Reading. She's recently published a paper in the Journal of Applied Toxicology showing that aluminum salts increase estrogen-related gene expression in cultured human breast cancer cells. In other words, the aluminum appears to mimic estrogen under lab conditions. Elevated estrogen levels are tied to a higher risk of breast cancer.

More study is in order, but Darby's research raises new questions for investigators.

Safer Deodorants

Crystal deodorant being held by a white woman.

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Maybe you're concerned about the possible risk factors of commercial deodorants, or you're someone with skin sensitivities. Perhaps you're just looking to reduce the chemical exposure in your life. The good news is there are effective deodorants which don't use aluminum chlorohydrate or aluminium zirconium — and they're cheap!

We all want to smell good and feel clean. Those not-so-fresh moments are caused by bacteria which thrive in warm, moist places. Armpits are the Monte Carlo of the single-cell jet set. But you can deport them with an inexpensive deodorant stone.

These stones — sometimes called by one of their trade names, Thai Sticks — are large, smooth crystals of potassium alum (potassium aluminum sulfate). Potassium alum is a naturally occurring form of aluminum salt. The difference between potassium alum and aluminum chlorohydrate is that potassium alum is a much larger molecule, not thought to be absorbable through human skin. Wet the stone and apply it like a conventional roll on. Rinse and set it aside to dry. That's it.

There are no perfumes or additives, and you probably won't need any. A deodorant stone doesn't stain, and it works all day. If you want something fancier, there are spray and roll-on versions with additives such as aloe and essential oils. Jason, Alba, Thai Stick and Kiss My Face are among those you'll find online or at your local natural health store.

A plain stone will cost you $5 or $6, and could last up to a year.

If you're looking to completely eliminate aluminum from your deodorant and your medicine cabinet, there are other options. Tom's of Maine makes a well-regarded line of non-aluminum products featuring zinc ricinoleate and natural ingredients. Zinc ricinoleate is also the basis of Dr. Hauschka Deodorant Fresh in scented and floral formulas. Burt's Bees Herbal Deodorant uses oil of sage for its active ingredient, and Trader Joe's sells a natural deodorant which relies on a cotton product to approximate the antiperspirant action of aluminum zirconium. Surprisingly, mainline manufacturer Adidas also makes a non-aluminum deodorant: Adidas 24-Hr Control. It's not expensive, and the sort of thing you'd find in a conventional drugstore.