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To avoid awkward situations, especially during summer, we spend a lot of time choosing antiperspirants and deodorants. We may wonder what is the difference between them, and which one is better. Some of us decide not to choose any of them – we might have heard about Alzheimer or breast cancer caused by these cosmetics. Should we really be afraid of them?

One of the most important functions of the biggest organ of our body, skin, is thermoregulation. Sounds proudly. Well, smells a bit worse – it’s just an ordinary sweating. Although ‘fresh’ sweat of healthy person should not have an unpleasant odor, it is almost immediately decayed by the specific bacteria, causing our discomfort. This is especially a trouble under our armpits, where the warmness of body and lower oxygen level makes microbial life much simpler.

A bit of theory

Unlike antiperspirants, deodorants does not contain substances that inhibit perspiration process. The main component of every deodorant is antimicrobial agent, that kills germs causing the unpleasant sweat odor: ethyl alcohol, triclosan or hexachlorophene. We will also find substances that mask or mitigate sweat (like fragrances), soothers and nourishing compounds.   

Substances that inhibit sweating in antiperspirants are usually aluminum salts. In most cases we will find aluminum chlorohydrate, rarely – coordination complexes or alums. They not only limit the growth of bacteria, but, which is more important, they plug the gland’s channels (like a wine with cork), physically blocking the secretion. These corks are released from glands with skin renewal process, not just with washing, which is why it’s not necessary to use antiperspirants every day. Besides aluminum salts, antiperspirants contain sweat absorbers (like talk), fragrances and other, rather not harmful substances. In both, antiperspirant and deodorant we will also find preservatives, sometimes – parabens.

Why are we worried

Therefore, both deodorants and antiperspirant contain compounds that raise our concerns. Apart from synthetic fragrances that may cause allergies and drying alcohol we are afraid of triclosan, parabens and aluminum chlorohydrate. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Triclosan. I would avoid that one. It is an antibiotic, approved for use in concentrations up to 0.3% in cosmetics industry. As a phenol derivative it penetrates the skin very well and enters the bloodstream. In 2005 WWF found it in blood and fat tissue of almost every person tested, it was also present in milk of breastfeeding mothers. Although its toxicity orally or through the skin is low, under certain conditions it may turn into chloroform, and that’s worse (irritating, really harmful at high concentrations or with prolonged, frequent contact, may be a serious threat to health or even life). Researchers also discovered, that triclosan impairs muscle contraction. When fish were given this substance, they began to move slower, and mice, that ate it, were far weaker. It is also being associated with infertility.

Aluminum chlorohydrate. It is the most often used aluminum compound in antiperspirants, and it might be irritating. However, to be true, no one is sure if it is aluminum that irritates the skin, or low pH value of the cosmetic (low pH helps to prevent growing germs). It also might cause allergies. But this is not the problem – one knows if he has allergy or not. Aluminum chlorohydrate (and other aluminum compounds) is accused of being a reason of breast cancer (here also look at parabens) and Alzheimer’s disease.

Why? The breast cancer theory was really simple – corks made by aluminum compounds inhibited both sweat and toxins secretion from parts of organism not very far from breast. Also, according to some scientists,  aluminum chlorohydrate might probably cause estrogen-like hormonal effects, which is promoting the growth of breast cancer. The other part of scientists, including Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) states that existing epidemiological data clearly exclude the relationship between breast cancer and the use of underarm cosmetics.

High levels of aluminum in nervous brain tissue of people with Alzheimer’s disease was to be the proof for relation between Alzheimer’s disease and aluminum. But this was just one study to tell that, and it was never reproduced, even more – many reports (also the one made by British Alzheimer Society) show, that high aluminum level in patients brains can’t be the reason of Alzheimer’s disease. Anyway, even if it was – every day we eat much more aluminum than we can absorb it through skin in a year.

Parabens. Very effective and well tested preservatives, yet controversial. It was once announced, that they can affect endocrine, they were also found in 18 out of 20 samples of breast cancer. The study, however, was the subject to large systematic errors, and the relationship between cancer and parabens in cosmetics has not been confirmed. Even more, parabens penetrate the epidermal barrier in a very small extent (they remain in a skin), and even if they do – they are rapidly metabolized. What is also worth saying, body fluids do not flow from the armpit to breasts, so parabens aren’t transported in that direction too. Apart from that, parabens aren’t usually used to preserve antiperspirants.

Substitutes

In the end, we need to trust someone. If European Union (which is concerned even about  the curvature of cucumbers on my table) says, that antiperspirants are fine – then fine. I will use antiperspirants until European Union scientists will change their minds, only paying better attention if they have triclosan on the INCI list.

However, if you still have concerns, if you are allergic to aluminum or if you do not like alcohol drying your skin, rather than making a difficult choice between health and friends  get some interest into organic deodorants and antiperspirants. Usually you will find alums as such, but you need to know, that alum is also an aluminum compound! Just, with elegant alun in INCI. I find plant extracts far more interesting. They might be soothing, refreshing and much more. Internet is abuzz with home remedies for sweat – tea tree oil, lavender oil or lemon juice (you can put it on the cotton pad, or use a slice of lemon as an applicator), also mixtures with baking soda and potato starch. Maybe they’re worth giving a chance? Maybe you’ve already tried?

Samanta Makurat

Chemistry student at the University of Gdańsk, fascinated with molecular modeling. Nature enthusiast.

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