Not so long ago, "natural deodorant" meant scraping a cold salt rock against your skin or laying heavy on the patchouli in the hopes of masking odor. While these protections did little to stave off sweat, they offered an alternative to conventional B.O. busters -- and their accompanying health risks.
By now, those threats are recognized, at least by some doctors and cosmetic industry watchdogs. Take aluminum salts (commonly referred to as simply aluminum), for instance, which account for the sweat-blocking ability in antiperspirants. "Aluminum can be absorbed into the skin," explains Dr. Kris McGrath, a Chicago-based allergist. "When it breaks free, it's highly charged and may affect DNA, which can increase the risk of cancerous cells." McGrath's own 2003 study of 437 women with breast cancer suggested that shaving along with using antiperspirant more frequently and at a younger age may play a role in the development of the disease.
Parabens, which are used as preservatives, can behave like a weak form of estrogen -- and high estrogen levels over long periods of time may be linked to breast cancer risk. Some studies show that the chemical triclosan, used as an antibacterial, could react with chlorinated water to produce chloroform, a probable human carcinogen. Talc, likewise, may pose a cancer risk. And propylene glycol, which lends deodorants their easy glide, can irritate sensitive skin.
At issue for many is the unknown cumulative effect of these controversial ingredients in deodorants and other popular beauty products even though, according to the FDA, they haven't been proven to pose significant health risks. "We're exposed to similar chemicals throughout the day in makeup, face lotion, and body lotion," says Stacy Malkan, spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Women, adds McGrath, are at particular risk. "Ninety percent of all breast cancer cases are related to environment and lifestyle," he says, "and the closest environment to the breast is the underarms."
Thankfully, better options abound. Many sticks, roll-ons, powders, and even sprays contain gentle yet effective ingredients. In place of parabens, some companies employ less risky preservatives (sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, for example). They'll also use vegetable-based "smoothers" for a chemical-free glide, baking soda to absorb sweat, and plant oils for fragrance. Tea tree oil often stands in for triclosan.
See our favorite deodorants that stand up to the heat.
See our healthy makeup picks.
Text by Sascha de Gersdorff; photograph by Thayer Allison Gowdy