What's So Eco-Unfriendly About Antiperspirant?

Athletic people running on treadmills during sports training in a health club.
skynesher / Getty Images

Q: I caught your advice to Lou “the reluctant green gym bunny” the other week on finding eco-friendly houses o’ fitness. All the talk of physical activity got me thinking that even though I’m not exactly a gym type of guy, I’m a big sweater. And I don’t mean the knit clothing item that you wear in winter. I may be treading into TMI territory when I say this, but you should see my pit stains after a brainstorm session in the office ... you’d think I just ran the New York City Marathon.

Now that I gotten my embarrassing personal disclosures out of the way, here’s my question. I understand the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant — one fights and masks underarm odor and the other one prevents it — and I use the latter to really nip my problem in the bud.

However, I hear that antiperspirants are worse for human health and the environment than deodorants are. Why is this? Is there such a thing as a “natural” antiperspirant?

Sweaty and trying to be sustainable,

— Derek, Detroit, Mich.

A: No worries about the TMI thing. You should see me after emerging from a New York City subway station in the middle of August ... not a pretty sight or smell, for that matter. Some people sweat more than others for various reasons. That said, if it’s really bad and you think something might be up, see your doctor. Excessive sweating could just be a normal, hereditary thing, but it could be the underlying cause of something more serious. So please, before you worry about saving the planet, worry about if all that sweating is your body trying to tell you something.

And, yep, you heard right. Antiperspirants aren’t the most green item to have in your medicine cabinet or gym bag (in your case, briefcase) because they contain aluminum compounds, the key ingredients that block your sweat glands and prevent moisture. As you might know, aluminum mining is destructive, resource-intensive and polluting so not rubbing aluminum-based chemical compounds in your pits is an earth-friendly decision.

Environmental damage aside, perhaps the most controversial aspect of antiperspirant use is its rumored link to breast cancer and other diseases. Even though hearsay about the correlation between the two continue to swirl, the National Cancer Institute claims that evidence linking breast cancer and the neurotoxins found in antiperspirants is inconclusive.

If you were sweatin’ back in the 1980s, you may recall similar myths about Alzheimer’s disease and aluminum. However, the Food and Drug Administration has made it mandatory for antiperspirants to carry a warning label recommending that consumers with existing kidney disease consult with a doctor before using the product.

I must make it clear again that it hasn’t been proven that aluminum — an ubiquitous substance in the environment that everyone, antiperspirant wearers and not, is exposed to every day — is directly responsible for health issues like breast cancer and kidney disease. Yet because of the scary but indeterminate health risks and the proven environmental hazards of aluminum-based antiperspirants, many folks opt not to use it.

So do these folks use “natural” antiperspirant? Not exactly, since as far as I know, there isn’t such a thing as aluminum-free, “natural” antiperspirant. Deodorant, however, (unless combined with antiperspirant) is always aluminum-free and can be found in “natural” varieties meaning that these products don’t enlist chemicals like parabens, formaldehyde and triclosan to help combat underarm bacteria. You may be familiar with “crystal” rock deodorants that rely exclusively on the stink-busting power of natural mineral crystals. I’ve given crystal deodorant a try in the past and it didn’t do justice to my picky pits ... I could certainly “smell what the rock was cookin.” However, I’ve heard it works like a charm for others.

So my recommendation, Derek? Even though I realize that the sweat, not the stink, is your primary concern, give natural deodorant a shot. First, check out the amazing Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database to see how different brands stack up and see if that helps at all. You might be surprised. If deodorant doesn’t do the trick and your sweating remains an issue, drink lots of water, maintain a healthy diet, buy a jumbo-sized bucket of OxiClean for pit stains and see an MD. He or she may send you back to the aluminum-tinged embrace of antiperspirants, but it’s worth looking into. If that ends up being the case, don’t, ahem, sweat it ... concentrate on giving other lotions and potions (shaving cream, soap, shampoo, etc.) that you use on a daily basis a natural makeover.

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

View Article Sources
  1. "Hyperhidrosis." U.S. National Library of Medicine.

  2. Abdullah, Noor Hisham, et al. “Potential Health Impacts of Bauxite Mining in Kuantan.” The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences: MJMS, vol. 23, no. 3, May 2016, pp. 1–8.

  3. "Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer." National Cancer Institute.

  4. "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21." U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

  5. "Can antiperspirants cause kidney disease?." National Kidney Foundation.