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What's So Bad About Antiperspirant?

Antiperspirant has long been the punching bag of the personal-care world: It's been slammed with claims about how it causes Alzheimer's and breast cancer, it's been blacklisted by crusading hippies, and it's been the subject of many "please forward to everyone you know" emails. It's true that long before people were wondering what was in their shampoo, they were a little nervous about their deodorant or antiperspirant. And yet we all use it, every day, and for good reason: Smelling sucks.

But even as the viral scares have died down, many experts still think we're better off not using the stuff. In order to better understand why, it's helpful to look at some of the main ingredients used in them and figure out what, if anything, there is to be scared about. Then the better part: what to use instead.

(Unsurprisingly, almost all antiperspirants use roughly the same ingredients, so we've surveyed a particularly popular men's, a women's, and a unisex and assessed the most commonly used and controversial ingredients.)

Aluminum: Aluminum is a neurotoxin linked in studies to detrimental health effects in lab animals. It was thought to be associated with Alzheimer’s, but data is inconclusive and controversial. One human study found it in breast tissue, and given the proximity of armpits to breasts, it seemed to indicate aluminum's ability to migrate from the armpit into the body. Perhaps that's thanks in part to....
Penetration enhancers: That's a fancy term for ingredients that help carry other ingredients—often the active ones—into your body so they can do their job. There are many different kinds, like propylene glycol and Disodium EDTA. Often, these ingredients on their own are not the worst of the bunch—but they can be problematic because they basically work as an express lane for the absorption of more troubling ingredients.
Triclosan: Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that is so controversial that even the FDA is getting mad about it. It's in antiperspirant and deodorant because the thing that makes people smell is bacteria—not sweat. It's been shown to be a hormone disruptor capable of changing the sex of fish, and it's also suspected to be responsible for certain strains of resistant bacteria.
Fragrance: A major difference between one brand's "Swagger" antiperspirant and its "Classic" is the smell—a proprietary blend of chemicals lumped together under the vague rubric of "fragrance." Check last week's post for a refresher on why this blanket term is often hiding possibly problematic other ingredients inside your products.
BHT: While less commonly used, this bad-boy is linked in studies to nervous-system effects at low doses, is dubbed "expected to be toxic or harmful" by Environment Canada's Domestic Substance List, and there are studies linking it to the C-word.

Now, none of this is to say that if you wear antiperspirant you'll get brain damage or turn male fish into hermaphrodites, but when you consider the potential impact of these ingredients, and you consider that there's an awful lot we don't know about how they impact the planet and our bodies, it's wise to at least consider breaking up with your old stick and trying something a little gentler.

I keep a chemical- and aluminum-filled one around for travel, big nights out, and important meetings, and the rest of the time use a clean one. Tried and tested favorites are Tom's of Maine for the gents, and LaVanila The Healthy Deodorant for women.

Have you tried any you like?

Illustration by Brianna Harden

This is the sixth installment in a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Thursday.

Read more on their blog.

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