By Bill Chameides
More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.
Did you know that antiperspirants are drugs regulated by the FDA?
Yep, unlike deodorants, which are designed to control our stink, antiperspirants are designed to stop (okay, reduce) sweating. That ability to alter a normal bodily function makes antiperspirants a drug as defined by our very own Food and Drug Administration.
The active ingredient in most antiperspirants is aluminum. And it works something like this. Once you spread the stuff on your underarm (is there another place?), the aluminum collects in your sweat glands, temporarily blocking them, and voilà! -- no unsightly wetness on your clothes. The bonus for antiperspirants is that by preventing sweat, they also reduce body odor (a byproduct of the bacteria that feed on the nutrients in sweat).
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By contrast, deodorants act as a cover-up. There's no clogging of sweat glands, no sweat stoppage, just odor abatement -- just the sweet smell of your odor mingling with that of the deodorant.
So no doubt the fundamental existential question that must nag at you as you amble down the personal hygiene lane: is a deodorant good enough, or do I need to call in the big guns against sweat -- an antiperspirant?
If you are prone to sweating and embarrassed by wet spots, you may very likely be one of those drugstore customers inclined to reach for an antiperspirant. But before you go that route there are a few things about aluminum you should perhaps know.
Aluminum: What's It Good for?
Aluminum: it comes to us by way of the stars, is the most abundant metal on the planet, was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans in medicines and dyeing processes, was given its name by Sir Humphrey Day in 1808, and used to cap the Washington Monument in 1884.
While there is little or no upside for aluminum in the body, there is a most definite downside: aluminum is a neurotoxin.
The Aluminum Downside
Aluminum has been linked to a number of health effects, including impaired mental and motor function, Alzheimer's and other brain diseases, and bone diseases. (More on public health implications of aluminum here and here.)
When links between Alzheimer's and aluminum gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans started to examine more closely everyday sources of exposure. What we found is that aluminum is around just about everywhere -- meaning we are exposed to it all our lives. Examples include drink and food cans, cooking pots and pans, aluminum foil, water treatment as well as antacids, astringents, buffered aspirin, food additives, cosmetics, and our topic du jour: antiperspirants.
So what's your exposure to aluminum? A government report you may find useful reviews the body of research on aluminum. But perusing it [pdf] makes clear we have yet to answer a number of questions about exposure to aluminum and its potential impacts on human health. One of the little studied subjects is antiperspirants. So, while the FDA regulates antiperspirants as over-the-counter drugs and deems them safe, it hasn't based its decision on a large body of work specifically examining these products. So rather than a stamp of approval, FDA's aluminum regulation seems more an indication that, given the ubiquitous nature of aluminum, exposure from antiperspirants isn't believed to be unsafe.
Antiperspirants and Disease: It's the Pits
Is using an antiperspirant likely to cause you mischief? There's no definitive answer -- while there are links between aluminum and disease, the literature shows no clear causalities between disease and antiperspirant use. For example, while scientific papers have speculated about a link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer, a detailed assessment of the subject in 2008 concluded that "no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis [of an antiperspirant-breast cancer linkage] was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research."
Similarly, there have been some studies (such as here, here, here) that appear to show an association between aluminum and Alzheimer's, but the Alzheimer's Association reports that "studies have failed to confirm any role for aluminum in causing Alzheimer's."
Here's what we do know: if you use an antiperspirant, you will almost certainly be transferring some of those sweat-clogging atoms from the outside to the inside. For example, a 2001 study found that a one-time application of an aluminum compound commonly used in antiperspirants was detectable in blood samples for at least 16 (and up to 44) days in urine after application. It's possible, some may even say likely, that that extra aluminum is harmless, but you can't be sure.
What's a Sweater to Do?
My advice: If you think hiding wet stains is just foolish pride -- or if having all that extra aluminum circulating through your body (and clogging up your sweat glands) bothers you more than those damp pits -- then just start singing, "If you see me walking down the street," as you eye the antiperspirant shelf ... and walk on by.