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How Bad Is Deodorant For Your Health, Really?

Minimum risk for maximum benefit.
What's in our daily spray?
Getty Images/Flickr RF
What's in our daily spray?

Putting on deodorant each morning is an ingrained part of our daily hygiene routine for most of us, yet we have been led to believe that it can pose a marked health risk to our body over time.

Concerns range from minor skin irritations to suggestions of increased risk of breast cancer being tied to deodorant and antiperspirant use, and these ideas have been circulating for years.

Is this actually something we need to worry about?

Antiperspirants and deodorants: what's in them?

When it comes to health effects, aluminium and parabens are the two main buzzwords that pop up as posing a potential risk.

"The active ingredient found in antiperspirants is aluminium chloride, a salt compound that works by blocking the sweat duct and stopping secretions coming out of the sweat gland," dermatologist Dr Rodney Sinclair told the Huffington Post Australia.

"It can come in various modifications with aluminium chloride hexahydrate being a more potent form. The higher the concentration of aluminium, the stronger the antiperspirant is."

An antiperspirant or deodorant can also contain parabens -- a form of preservative that can be shown to mimic the activity of oestrogen in the body's cells.

For years, theories and studies have hypothesised that exposure to either parabens or aluminium chloride can lead to an increased cancer risk.

"It is believed that these components may affect the hormones -- in women, particularly -- and therefore may increase the risk of breast cancer by affecting the hormone balance," Professor Guy Elsick, Professor of Cancer Epidemiology at the University of Sydney, told Huffpost Australia.

"Part of this comes down to the fact that a large majority of breast cancer lesions are found in the upper quadrant, near the armpit. As a result, some researchers have tried to correlate cancer risk with deodorant use as a potential risk factor."

Do you get enough benefit out of using them to justify what is a potential and unproven risk?

According to Professor Elsick, limited data exists -- with no study effectively suggesting a causal link.

"At this stage, you cannot prove it. There is not even a link between the two, so you certainly cannot suggest a causality."

"A lot of these chemicals that are in deodorants appear in very small doses and this in itself explains why there is such a low risk in developing cancers from these compounds because there are tiny amounts in the first place."

Dr Sinclair agrees.

"As a product, antiperspirants in particular, have proven over many years to be quite useful. That doesn't exclude the one in a million side effect.

"But the magnitude of risk is well below the sort of risk that we are talking about when we drive to work in the morning.

"In the absence of knowing the absolute truth, you need to make a decision: do you get enough benefit out of using them to justify what is a potential and unproven risk?"

Natural alternatives can be an option, but may prove less effective.
Branislav Ostojic
Natural alternatives can be an option, but may prove less effective.

Are there any other ingredients to look out for?

Deodorants can contain a range of other toxic chemicals, often used to kill odour-causing bacteria.

"Deodorants can sometimes contain antiseptics such as benzalkonium chloride, triclosan and ammonium products," Dr Sinclair said.

"But a lot of these antiseptics are often deactivated when they hit the skin."

Other compounds such as zinc and zirconium can be used as alternatives to aluminium, but can cause skin inflammation and are known to be less effective.

For Professor Elsick, going natural is a sensible option.

"If you can find a natural deodorant that does not contain parabens or aluminium and works just as well for you, then by all means do so, " he said.

"Reducing intake of any sort of chemical is something I wouldn't discourage. It is really up to the individual."

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