Beware: Your Antiperspirant is a Drug

Beware: Your Antiperspirant is a Drug

Are you applying drugs to your underarms? If you use a conventional antiperspirant, then the answer is yes. While conventional deodorants are classified as cosmetics by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the same does not apply to antiperspirants, which are classified as over-the-counter drugs.

What’s the difference?

The difference between a deodorant and an antiperspirant is more than skin deep. Deodorant is considered a cosmetic because it does not contain ingredients “intended to affect the structure of any function of the body of man or other animals,” which is part of the definition of a drug. The purpose of deodorant is to minimize the odor associated with the breakdown of bacteria in perspiration. Although conventional deodorants have ingredients that are less than healthful (e.g., mineral oil, talc, fragrance), the formulation does not meet the definition of a drug.

Antiperspirants, however, meet this definition of a drug because they perform a biological function; that is, they prevent perspiration and sweating. The ingredients in antiperspirants that block the formation of sweat include aluminum chloride, aluminum chlorohydrate complexes, and aluminum zirconium complexes. These aluminum components dissolve in the perspiration on the skin surface and form a gel, which in turn makes a temporary plug that significantly reduces the amount of moisture or sweat that can reach the surface of the skin by blocking the eccrine sweat glands.

In addition to deodorants and antiperspirants, there are also items marketed as deodorants/antiperspirants, which means they are both a drug and a cosmetic in one.

Read more about antiperspirants vs deodorants

What’s are the downsides of antiperspirant use?

One problem is that after a while, antiperspirants can seem to become ineffective or less effective. According to New York dermatologist Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, “many of my patients report that antiperspirants work for a short period and then stop working,” and “the only possible explanation is that the body adapts and finds a way to unplug the duct-although that has not been proven.” She also proposed that the body “develops compensatory hyperhidrosis (excess sweating) due to the blocked ducts.”

If you are counting on an antiperspirant to completely stop underarm sweating and odor for 24 hours, you may not be happy with the results. That is because the FDA requires that antiperspirants reduce sweat production by 20 percent only, which leaves a lot of room for wet underarms.

Here are some other facts about antiperspirant use you should know:

  • Antiperspirants disrupt the bacterial balance in your underarm area, which can result in more foul-smelling perspiration rather than less.
  • More specifically, in a small Belgium study, researchers found that use of antiperspirant resulted in an increase in bacteria called Actinobacteria, which are the main instigators of foul-smelling armpit odor. In some subjects, not using antiperspirant caused Actinobacteria levels to nearly disappear.
  • Research has found higher concentrations of aluminum in human breast structure than in blood serum, and “experimental evidence suggests that the tissue concentrations measured have the potential to adversely influence breast epithelial cells including generation of genomic instability, induction of anchorage-independent proliferation and interference in oestrogen action,” which are associated with breast cancer development.
  • Conventional antiperspirants and deodorants typically also contain triclosan, parabens, and petrochemicals like PEG, all of which can be harmful to our body.

Natural options

There are deodorants on the market that are aluminum- and alcohol-free. The things to keep in mind about deodorants is that we are all unique and a deodorant that works for me, may not work for you so the key is to experiment with different brands rather then give up and say: “Natural deodorants don’t work!” because they do. You just need to find the right one for your body chemistry. Brands that I love (and that work AMAZING for me) are: Kelly Teegarden, Purely Great, and Dr. Mist.

Read more about baking soda

You also may want to make your own underarm products using a DIY recipe. Before you do, however, you can do an armpit cleanse, which detoxes your armpits from toxic products and lays the groundwork for effective use of all-natural, DIY products.

For example, Dr. Josh Axe provides two recipes for natural deodorants. One is super simple to make and requires only three ingredients: coconut oil, baking soda, and essential oil. The other deodorant is a probiotic product that is more complex but also effective.

[Editor’s Note: Barlean’s and Lily of the Desert both make coconut oil that can be used when making your own deodorant.


Axe J. 5 natural deodorant remedies plus how to make your own Antiperspirants & deodorants

Darbre PD et al. Aluminum and breast cancer: sources of exposure, tissue measurements and mechanisms of toxicological actions on breast biology. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 2013 Nov; 128:257-61

Food and Drug Administration. Cosmetics Safety Q&A: Personal Care Products

Huffington Post. Do we become immune to our antiperspirant? Beauty myth or not?

Pomeroy R. Antiperspirants alter your armpit bacteria and could actually make you smell worse. Real Clear Science 2014 Aug 11

Smith RA. Out, out pesky sweat stains. Wall Street Journal 2011 May 11

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