Aluminum: This metal (an active ingredient in many antiperspirants) blocks sweat glands, stopping sweat from reaching the skin’s surface. Some studies have also found possible links between aluminum to breast cancer and Alzheimer's. Can the use of aluminum-based underarms cause breast cancer because of the pits’ proximity to the breasts? Can aluminum cause dementia when it enters the brain? The jury is still out; the National Cancer Institute says that aluminum does not cause breast cancer, but admits that the current research "provides conflicting results." What scientists do know is that this metal is a neurotoxin, which is enough of a turnoff for some consumers to go aluminum-free.
Phthalates: This group of industrial chemicals, found in many antiperspirants and deodorants, has been linked to a host of health issues. Last year, for instance, a study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital showed a link between phthalates in personal care products and an increased risk of diabetes in women. Government data has shown that women are exposed to individual phthalates at levels above safety standards, and that this family of chemicals can be found in everything from plastic wrap to pesticides to shampoo. The FDA says there's insufficient evidence to prove a link, but minimizing exposure may not be such a bad idea.
Triclosan: Used in beauty and personal care products as a preservative and antibacterial, triclosan and its possible risks have been a source of debate in the public health community in the past few years. While the FDA is reviewing whether to change its current non-hazardous-for-humans stance on triclosan, both Japanese and Canadian governments have restricted the use of the chemical in cosmetics. Kaiser Permanente has phased out its use of soaps containing the ingredient, and Johnson & Johnson is working to remove triclosan from its products by 2015. Why? Research has shown that it can mess with muscle function and alter hormones.
Propylene glycol: A synthetic liquid, propylene glycol is used in cosmetic products for its ability to absorb extra water and maintain moisture. It’s also used to make the artificial smoke that pours out of fog machines. While the FDA deems this ingredient safe in small doses, it’s also an irritant that can cause dryness, redness and itchiness in skin. There’s still a lot of mystery that shrouds this chemical: The scientific community doesn’t know how much of this ingredient is absorbed into the skin, and the EPA hasn’t been able to assess its carcinogenic potential. But, if your deodorant is leaving your pits red and irritated, try switching to one without propylene glycol. If you see improvement, you may be sensitive to this ingredient.
While there’s clearly plenty more research to be done around these ingredients, people who wish to err on the side of caution will be pleasantly surprised by the options available. We've come a long way from the hippie-dippy “The Crystal” underarm option of the nineties. Companies such as Lavanila, Burt’s Bees, Melvita, and Dr. Hauschka all offer stink-blockers formulated without the above ingredients.
Lavanila The Healthy Deodorant, $18, available at Sephora.