Are Natural Deodorants Really Better for You?
Google “natural deodorant” and you’ll find countless articles detailing all the reasons you should buy them. Some claim that the aluminum in most conventional antiperspirants can lead to Alzheimer’s disease or cancer. Others assert that certain ingredients in traditional deodorants and antiperspirants are “toxic,” or that they can kill off the “good” bacteria in your armpits.
Many natural deodorant companies have seized on these perceptions, implying in their marketing that the ingredients in conventional deodorants are the “stuff you don’t want,” and that what you do want is their “natural” product that is made from “plant- and mineral-based odor fighters” and “clean ingredients.”
But experts, including an oncologist, an epidemiologist, a skin microbiome expert and several dermatologists, said that there is no definitive evidence that regular deodorants or antiperspirants are worse for your health than natural deodorants. In fact, they said, they’re perfectly safe.
And while natural deodorants might contain seemingly healthier ingredients than your conventional drugstore antiperspirant, they can still have substances that might irritate your skin. In the end, the experts said, the way a deodorant makes you feel (and smell) should guide your decision to use it.
Are natural deodorants better for you?
No. One of the biggest and most alarming false claims made about conventional antiperspirants is that they cause breast cancer — a rumor that began with an email chain letter from the 1990s. It said that antiperspirants, which minimize perspiration by blocking sweat ducts, prevent the armpit area from “purging toxins,” which could build up in “the lymph nodes below the arms” and cause cell mutations and ultimately breast cancer. The letter also claimed that razor nicks from shaving could further increase breast cancer risk by allowing chemicals from antiperspirants to enter the body.
This, say experts — including those from the American Cancer Society — is false. “To date, there’s absolutely no evidence that breast cancer is caused by exposure to anything in antiperspirants or deodorants, full stop,” said Dr. Harold Burstein, a breast oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The same goes for another cancer-related rumor, which is that the aluminum from antiperspirants could be absorbed into the skin and increase breast cancer risk by altering breast cell estrogen receptors. Again, Dr. Burstein said, the evidence just isn’t there to support this idea. “The well-done human studies have really never suggested this,” he said, and the studies that have were often performed on animals or cells (like breast cancer cells in a petri dish) and used “unbelievably toxic levels” of the ingredients they were testing.
Anyway, Dr. Burstein added, only a minuscule fraction of aluminum can be absorbed through the skin, so your exposure to it from an antiperspirant is trivial.
There’s also been concern derived from decades-old research that found that Alzheimer’s patients’ brains had high levels of aluminum. This suggested that the metal — perhaps not only from antiperspirants, but also from other personal care and household products like pots and pans — could be a potential risk factor for this degenerative disease. But scientists now disregard the idea that aluminum can cause Alzheimer’s. “The evidence is of poor quality, generally speaking,” said Amy Borenstein, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. “The whole topic has kind of been abandoned.”
She did note that the link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s is challenging to study because aluminum is the third most common element in the Earth’s crust, which means that everyone is exposed to it in small quantities.
“We believe it’s important for people to have choices to find the everyday products that are right for them,” said Justin Boudrow, a spokesman for Tom’s of Maine, which makes a variety of natural personal care products including toothpastes, mouthwashes, soaps and underarm products. “This is why we offer natural deodorants without aluminum that provide odor protection, as well as antiperspirants that do contain aluminum for wetness protection.”
Are natural deodorants good for your microbiome?
There isn’t enough evidence to show that they are. There have been claims that regular deodorants and antiperspirants can disrupt or kill off the “good” bacteria living in your armpits, leading to skin irritation, redness, bumps and overall poor skin health. Some natural deodorant brands have marketed their products as “microbiome friendly,” claiming that they’re not only good for the health of your skin, but also minimize odor by promoting the growth of “good” bacteria.
But Jack Gilbert, a skin microbiology expert at the University of California, San Diego, said that he wasn’t aware of any rigorous studies that have borne this out. “There’s a lot of associative work, but nothing that definitively links deodorant or antiperspirant disruption of the skin microbiome to skin health.”
Are the ingredients in natural deodorants better than those in traditional ones?
No. Just because a deodorant is labeled “natural” doesn’t mean it won’t contain any problematic ingredients itself. In fact, the term “natural” has no regulatory definition, so its labeling on personal care products is essentially meaningless.
“You can get irritation or allergic rashes, and that’s far and away the more common health issue seen with deodorants — all deodorants, whether traditional or natural,” said Dr. Jennifer Chen, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at Stanford Medicine. The most common issue with deodorant is irritant contact dermatitis, or skin irritation, Dr. Chen said, which “usually can’t be pinned down to a specific ingredient, even though some ingredients are more irritating than others.”
The most troublesome ingredient in any kind of deodorant or antiperspirant, whether it’s “natural” or not, is fragrance, said Dr. Nina Botto, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. This includes essential oils, which many natural deodorant brands play up in their marketing. “Botanicals, plant extracts and essential oils are often touted as having health benefits,” Dr. Botto said. “But those natural components actually cause a lot of health problems and trouble for the skin.”
The combination of the underarm’s thin, folding skin, hair follicles and moist environment makes this area of the body more susceptible to irritation or an allergic reaction compared to, say, if you put deodorant on your back. In fact, Dr. Chen noted, one study on fragrance allergies found that among many of the scented personal care products tested — like scented deodorants, lotions, shampoos, shaving creams and hair dyes — the deodorants caused the most cases of allergic contact dermatitis, a skin rash caused by contact with an allergen.
Dr. Botto said that while she still sees allergic reactions to synthetic fragrances, she’s been getting more and more patients who are dealing with allergic contact dermatitis after using products with natural fragrance, like those containing linalool and limonene — natural compounds extracted from certain plants, like citrus fruit peels, which are commonly used in natural deodorants.
Even worse, “a lot of times you’ll see that someone gets a rash with a natural deodorant and they’ll put on balms and other ‘natural’ remedies that contain more of the same ingredients,” Dr. Botto said. “It’s kind of like adding gasoline to a fire.” She noted that such rashes can also cause breaks in the skin, which can then lead to infection. “It can be a real mess,” she said.”
Does natural deodorant even work?
The experts said they weren’t aware of any studies that reliably looked into how well natural deodorants work. But the way they’re formulated can offer clues.
Because regular and natural deodorants don’t contain aluminum (which is what helps antiperspirants minimize sweating) they typically rely on ingredients like fragrances and baking soda to mask body odor. This means that natural deodorants generally should function as well as regular deodorants do in terms of keeping you fresh. However, while the experts were not aware of any rigorous, head-to-head studies comparing the efficacy of natural deodorants versus antiperspirants, it stands to reason that they may not counteract smell in the same way that an antiperspirant does. “Bacteria are stimulated to grow by the available water and nutrients found in sweat,” Dr. Gilbert said. “So antiperspirant is getting to the main route of the odor problem.”
Dr. Arielle Nagler, an assistant professor of dermatology at the N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine, said that the effectiveness of a product will also depend on how it interacts with your own biology. “Everyone smells a little bit different,” she said, which depends on how much you sweat and what kinds of bacteria are on your body.
Should I buy natural deodorant or not?
Natural deodorant is not better or worse for your health than traditional deodorant or antiperspirant. “A lot of the claims that one product is better than another are just marketing claims that are not based on scientific evidence,” Dr. Chen said. “I don’t think there’s any proof that one is safer than another.”
The Personal Care Products Council, an industry group that represents cosmetic and personal care product companies, echoed a view from Dr. Chen and other experts, which is that people should make their choice based on personal preference. “Our members work to ensure consumers have access to an array of safe and effective products that help meet the differing needs for themselves and their families,” the council said in a statement provided to The New York Times. “This includes offering ‘natural’ products for those consumers who prefer them. It’s all about consumer choice.”
Still, dermatologists do recommend fragrance-free options, especially if you are allergic or sensitive to fragrance. “The more exposure one has to some of these fragrance chemicals, the more at risk you are for potentially developing an allergy,” Dr. Botto said.
If you enjoy using scented deodorants, though, “that’s fine,” she added, “but particularly if you have any sort of skin sensitivity, it’s a risk.”
Or, you could simply choose not to wear deodorant at all.
Annie Sneed is a science journalist who has written for Scientific American, Wired, Public Radio International and Fast Company.
Julia Calderone contributed reporting.
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