No Sweat - About Aluminium and Antiperspirants

Welcome to the 6th in this mini-deodorant series. It's been a while since the last posting (ok, it's been ages, but I've been totally super busy with tons of different things that I promise to tell you about soon). If you want to catch up on the previous armpit-related posts, there are links below.

Today we're looking at an active ingredient that has been associated with frightening side effects such as Alzheimers disease and breast cancer, yet is commonly found in commercial antiperspirants. We know it as aluminum (even though it's spelled as both aluminum and aluminium, it's the same substance).

It's Everywhere!

Aluminum is the third most naturally abundant element in the environment (after oxygen and silica). It is present almost everywhere – in food and water as well as all kinds of consumer products. Aluminum is mined from bauxite ore. We can thank the French geologist from Les Baux – Pierre Berthier – for discovering that aluminum was predominant in this ore in 1821 (and I know you've already guessed why the ore is named bauxite). Bauxite is fairly easily mined because it is almost always found near the surface of the terrain.

No Sweat - Really.

Aluminium salts are effective antiperspirants and work in 2 ways. The first is by reacting with the electrolytes in sweat. This forms a gel-like substance that literally plugs the duct of the sweat gland. The plug prevents the gland from excreting sweat until the natural sloughing off of skin cells under the arms removes it. The second way aluminum salts work is by interacting with the keratin fibrils (read: very fine fibers) in the sweat ducts – again forming a plug that prevents sweat from reaching the surface of the skin.

The most commonly found aluminum-based active ingredients in commercial antiperspirants are Aluminium chlorohydrate and Aluminium zirconium tetrachlorohydrate gly. (and yes, I can pronounce the last one, but only after careful deliberation).

Aluminum and Skin?

I'll admit my knee-jerk reaction to pairing metal and skin is negative – unless of course we are talking about jewelry.

I dropped commercial deodorants ages ago – not because I didn't want to be exposed to aluminum salts – but because I couldn't find a non-irritating deodorant that was the right combination of scent, feel and deodorizing action for me.

So, How Dangerous is Aluminum?

Here's a fun little factoid that may help put things in perspective: If you use an aluminum-based antiperspirant every day of your entire life, you would still be getting less aluminum from your deodorant than you are otherwise getting from your food and water.

There have been many studies on this, and the overwhelming mass of toxicity data does not indicate any risk of harmful effects from using cosmetic products that contain aluminum.

However (yup, there is always a however), a small percentage of people are allergic to aluminum. Folks with an allergy to aluminum may experience contact dermatitis when exposed to deodorants containing aluminium salts.

Aluminum and Clothes - A True Life Story

Years ago when I was a teen, my mom discovered some sort of super antiperspirant and brought home a bottle of the stuff. Don't ask me where she got it or what it was called, but it was sold as some sort of 'concentrated antiperspirant'. It was 100% liquid and had to be 'painted on' carefully – minding not to spill on any textiles. You then had to walk around with your arms out (literally) until the stuff dried – completely. The process was a little arduous, but it worked like an absolute charm. My mom and I endured blistering California heat all day with nary a drop of sweat where the substance had been applied. It was great!


It wasn't long until all of our tops and t-shirts came out of the wash with holes under the arms – lots of them. Our love affair with the 'concentrated antiperspirant' was very short-lived. We didn't even finish the bottle we had been sharing. Thinking back, I'm pretty sure the magical product contained a high dose of aluminum in some sort of non-alcoholic base. We never had any skin irritation, but seeing what it did to textiles scared us enough to dump the stuff.

Aluminum and Alzheimers

Long term exposure to aluminum-based antiperspirants has been linked to Alzheimer's disease. This is true. But there's more. What hasn't made the media (and would totally dampen the scare effect) is that these studies show a negligible association (read: less than 1%). Wikipedia states: "As of yet, there is no adequate evidence that neurotoxicity of aluminium leads to progressive dementia and Alzheimer's disease." Key words here being no adequate evidence.

Aluminum and Breast Cancer

Another concern is the possibilty of getting breast cancer through use of deodorants with aluminum. There's just no evidence of this. There is a lot of misinterpreted (or maybe deliberately twisted) information that creates doubt though.

Fact: The International Journal of Fertility and Women's Medicine found no evidence that certain chemicals used in underarm cosmetics increase the risk of breast cancer. (see article here)
The director of medical content for the American Cancer Society, Ted S. Gansler, MD, MBA, is quoted in this article "There is no convincing evidence that antiperspirant or deodorant use increases cancer risk".

So, Really, How Dangerous is it?

From everything I have been able to dig up on aluminum and antiperspirants (and I promise you I have been digging around for a while), I cannot find any scientific evidence that aluminum in antiperspirants poses any threat to health. Period.

It may sound like I am advocating using aluminum based deodorants without a care in the world. I am not advocating anything. I'm just saying you might not have to be quite as afraid of the stuff as you may have thought.

I will conclude with this:
You should always choose
and use
what is right for you.


Unknown said…
Thank you for a VERY informative post!
LisaLise said…
You are most welcome Liis! Thanks for reading :)
Rikke said…
Så er jeg mere rolig. Tak for oplysningerne :-)

Kh Rikke
LisaLise said…
Du er da noget så velkommen søde Rikke! :)
Anonymous said…
Hello, just wanted to say that I find your posts really informative and well written, it really helped me a lot in my personal researches of natural and gentler products, so thank you a lot :) But I just have a question; you said that potassium alum has no aluminium in it, but I heard that it has, as "alum" would be "aluminium". Is it safe?
LisaLise said…
Hi Anon - It's incorrect to say potassium alum is free of aluminum – potassium alum is the potassium double sulphate of aluminum. Naturally occurring potassium alum is free of aluminum hydrochloride, while the synthetic version contains aluminum hydrochloride which can be a mild skin irritant. You ask if it is safe. I have extremely sensitive skin and have no trouble with it. This (obviously) doesn't qualify as a guarantee of its safety though. I hope this was some help.
Unknown said…
Just wanted to add that they used to put a lot more aluminum in products until the scare started and it was mandated they put in less and they did, although this is going a few years back, in the 90's I believe.
LisaLise said…
Thanks Sollena -- it wouldn't be the first time the industry reformulated a product due to public concern.