Natural deodorants – how green can you go?

22 January, 2014

Nobody wants to go around smelling like a compost heap (and nobody enjoys being around someone who does), but what price are we paying for keeping shower fresh all day long?

It wasn’t a question scientists gave much thought to until the early 2000s when UK researchers highlighted potential risks associated with preservatives known as para-hydroxybenzoic acids, or parabens, in deodorants. 

Parabens, are used in a wide variety of cosmetic and studies suggest that they are estrogenic. Used in formulas intended to absorbed into the skin such as body, face and suncreams scientists speculated that these xenoextrogens (estrogens from outside the body) could build up with negative health consequences.

Speculation came closer to reality when in 2004 Philippa Darbre at the University of Reading found traces of parabens in every single tumour sample taken from a small group of women with breast cancer.

Their conclusion was that the chemicals had seeped into the tissue after being applied to the skin, probably via deodorants. The findings were worrying because they suggested that  parabens awee estrogenic and could act as fuel for the growth of human breast tumours. 

Manufacturers and industry bodies were quick to counter that parabens had a good safety record, but since that first study others have been published that have strengthened the link between parabens and breast cancer.

In 2012, for example, another study by Darbre and colleagues that showed that parabens can be found in most tumour samples and that, even in small amounts, parabens had an estrogenic action linked to the spread of breast cancer.

Her most recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, found that exposing human breast cell cultures to parabens (methyl, propyl or butylparabens) could ‘switch’ a cell from being healthy to being cancerous.

What that means is that cosmetic companies can no longer fall back on the notion that absence of evidence is evidence of safety. Indeed, the evidence is so persuasive that in Denmark parabens are banned across a wide range of consumer products and across the EU in 2013 five parabens (isopropyl-, isobutyl, pentyl- and benzyl esters of 4-hydroxybenzoic and their salts) were banned.

In response to Denmark’s leading edge action, the EU is also proposing to lower the allowed maximum concentrations of butyl-and propylparaben and to prohibit these in leave-on cosmetics designed for application in the nappy area and in products intended for children under three years of age.

From the outside in

Body odour can be caused by bacteria in your armpits but can also be caused by what’s inside your body. What you eat and how ‘polluted’ your body is by toxins and allergens can also be influential.

Deodorants combat the problem of body odour by tackling the problem at skin level with a mixture of strong perfumes and antibacterial ingredients. Antiperspirants, block the pores and prevent sweat from leaking out of the armpits.

Today there is a vast range of deodorants, antiperspirants and antiperspirant/deodorants available in a variety of formulations including creams, gels, roll-ons, solids and sprays. 

A quick look at the label will tell you that there isn’t much difference between them. Antiperspirants and deodorants typically contain a range of moisturisers, solvents, preservatives (such as parabens), synthetic perfumes and antibacterial agents such as triclosan (which can be absorbed through the skin and which has been shown to cause liver damage in experiment animals). 

Some have been found to contain dibutylphthalate (DBP), a hormone disrupting chemical which is implicated in reproductive abnormalities.

Aluminium worries

However up until the news about parabens it was the aluminium content of antiperspirants that was a major cause of concern.

Most antiperspirants contain some form of aluminium most commonly aluminium chlorohydrate, aluminium zirconium, aluminium chloride, aluminium sulphate and aluminium phenosulphate.

No one knows exactly how aluminium compounds work to reduce underarm wetness. They may prevent sweat by clogging sweat ducts. Clogging the sweat ducts creates pressure from the sweat build-up inside of them and it is thought that this causes the sweat glands to stop secreting.

Alternatively they may perforate the sweat glands so that moisture seeps out into the surrounding tissues rather than coming out through the surface of the skin. Or they may block the transmission of nerve impulses that activate sweat glands.

Either way aluminium is absorbed through the skin, however superficially. The recently acknowledged link between Alzheimer’s disease and aluminium has raised a furious debate about whether or not it is safe to put such aluminium compounds into deodorants. 

This is not a question that has benefited from much scientific evaluation. Only one study has reported a link between Alzheimer’s and lifetime’s deodorant use. No other studies have been conducted that refute or confirm these findings.

Other evidence which looked at the incidence of breast cancer among 400 US women suggests it may be the combination of underarm shaving and deodorant use which allows chemicals to seep into breast tissue.  In this study women who shaved three times a week and applied deodorant at least twice a week were almost 15 years younger when diagnosed than women who did neither. The researchers suggested that aluminium compounds could act as a breast cancer trigger.

Certainly aluminium based deodorants are a major cause of skin irritation and for this reason alone should be approached with caution by consumers. Aluminium zirconium products have been shown to cause granulomas (small nodules of chronically inflamed tissue) under the arms with prolonged use.

Alum  vs. aluminium

Rock crystals are the newest alternative to aluminium-containing antiperspirants Some of these are made from magnesium sulphate while others are made from alum. These products often claim to be free of aluminium chlorohydrate, yet alum by its other name is aluminium sulphate.

Manufacturers suggest that aluminium sulphate has a much higher molecular weight than aluminium chlorohydrate – which is true – and so cannot be absorbed through the skin. However, this may be simplistic. While aluminium chlorohydrate has a lower molecular weight, it is also in a form less soluble in water (sweat). Sulphates are highly soluble in water and alum may break down into its component parts more readily in a sweaty armpit.

Does this mean that the aluminium will be absorbed into the skin? There is no research evidence to clarify. Without the emollient (moisturising) ingredients found in most conventional formulations it is unlikely, but the widely promoted idea that all deodorant crystals are aluminium-free claim may need to be more carefully scrutinised in future.

Looking for something safer

There is growing consumer desire for safer alternatives to the usual high street brands of antiperspirants and deodorants. Unfortunately, there is not yet any known compound other than aluminium that makes an effective antiperspirant. However alternatives to heavily perfumed deodorants do exist.

These alternatives are made of natural antibacterial agents and fragrances that limit underarm odour. They come in a range of forms – from solids and crystals to sprays and roll-ons – and are available in chemists, health food stores and even supermarkets.

Because they do not include synthetic chemicals natural deodorants do not perform the way conventional ones do. They can take longer to dry, for example, or they may feel more sticky on application – and in a world where more and more antiperspirant deodorants claim to last 48 hours, very few lasted the entire day.

On the plus side, natural deodorants don’t generally leave white deposits or yellow stains (the result of a chemical reaction between antiperspirant ingredients and sweat) on clothes.

Most natural roll-ons and non-aerosol sprays are fragranced with natural essential oils many of which – such as tea tree, rosemary, lavender, lemon, coriander and sage –  have a proven track record as antibacterials as well as being deeply refreshing and uplifting. While the alum compounds in rock crystal deodorants also provide established antibacterial action, they don’t do much for odour protection.

Increasingly for those who want them, natural spray and roll-on products are provide a great alternative to deodorants laced with synthetic perfumes that have been linked to a variety of health problems.

Choosing wisely

But we still have some way to go before natural alternatives equal the performance of their conventional counterparts (mostly because that performance is based on the inclusion of undesirable synthetic substances). That means that many people go on using conventional products even when they are worried they might not be all that safe or healthy.

If you wish to go on using conventional antiperspirants and/or deodorants there are some things you can do to make your choices safer and less likely to irritate your skin. Likewise if you want to address the issue of body odour there are some things you can do that will make it more likely a natural alternative will work. Consider the following:

If you don’t sweat heavily, use a deodorant rather than aluminium-containing antiperspirant and chose one fragranced with natural essential oils. Or try using a large kabuki brush to lightly dust your underarms with a little cornstarch or talc-free powder to help stay fresh.

If you are concerned about body odour, review your diet. Diets heavy in red meat, and processed foods and low in fibre are a particular problem. Processed foods lack chlorophyll, the antioxidant that gives vegetables their colour and acts as a deodorizer and cleanser in the body, neutralising the bacteria that causes body odour. Excess sugar is another. It is thought that the sugar present in the blood after eating junk food alters the make-up of perspiration  in some people. when this then combines with bacteria on the skin, it can lead to unpleasant body odour.

Pay attention to a healthy gut. Some researchers have even suggested that an imbalance in good gut-bacteria can lead to problems with body odour. If gut bacteria is out of balance due to drug use (antibiotics and steroids in particular) or a high fat, high sugar, high red-meat, low fibre diet this can aggrvate unpleasant body odour.

Is it genetic? Recent research suggests that body odour may be in your genes. The metabolic disorder trimethylaminuria (TMAU) hinders the body’s ability to break down trimethtylamine (TMA), which is found mainly in choline-rich foods such as, eggs, wheat germ, saltwater fish,organ meats such as livers, brains, and hearts and certain legumes. It’s the build-up of TMA that produces a strong body odour. Research shows that about one-third of people who report a sort of fishy body odour in spite of good hygiene odour may have the metabolic disorder.

Switch to a solid or stick variety.  It is less emollient so less likely to aid the absorption of ingredients into the skin. Sticks also tend to produce less irritation.

Never apply antiperspirants or deodorants to broken or newly shaved skin.

Choose your level of protection. If you are just hanging out at home and not exerting yourself much, or digging the garden or going to the gym, when you’re going to sweat hard anyway, try a natural alternative. If you have a big meeting on a hot summer’s day you may want to use a more conventional antiperspirant. Choosing according to your needs can help cut down your exposure to unhealthy chemicals.

Avoid aerosols, which produce easily inhaled clouds of neurotoxic and reproductive toxins propane, butane and isopropane as well as planet poisoning HCFCs. If you are in a public place like a gym – be aware that your aerosol doesn’t just poison you – it poisons everyone around.

Avoid coloured products. They don’t aid dryness and the synthetic colours are easily absorbed into the skin and can be carcinogenic.

Remember also that  body odour is sometimes associated with specific health problems including liver dysfunction, diabetes, digestive problems (parasites etc) and yeast infections and these conditions require professional attention and advice.