What are antiperspirants?
Antiperspirant are personal hygiene products designed to control sweating and body odour. Antiperspirants contain ingredients that control sweat and body odour safely and effectively. They are readily available on the market as sprays (aerosol), sticks, creams or roll-ons.
Is there a difference between an antiperspirant and a deodorant?
The terms ‘antiperspirant’ and ‘deodorant’ are often used interchangeably but they do in fact refer to different products. Antiperspirants control sweat and body odour (B.O.) in two ways: firstly by preventing sweat reaching the skin surface and secondly by reducing the bacteria that causes body odour via antimicrobial ingredients. Deodorants differ from antiperspirants as they only contain antimicrobial agents to prevent body odour; they do not control the flow of sweat. Both antiperspirants and deodorants often contain fragrances to help mask the smell of B.O.
Most people put on either deodorant or antiperspirant before leaving the house. There are some products that perform both functions. These products are used to control sweat and odor in our underarms. There are two types of glands in our underarms, apocrine and eccrine. The eccrine glands are by far the most numerous sweat glands and are responsible for producing most of the sweat in our underarms, as well as in our entire body.
Some people wear deodorants to cover up underarm smells, but if you sweat a lot, you probably need an antiperspirant to slow down the production of underarm sweat. Our bodies are constantly producing sweat, but there are certain times when they produce a lot more. Additional sweat is produced to cool down our bodies when we are exposed to heat, physical exertion, stress or nervousness. When the sweat gland is stimulated, the cells secrete a fluid that travels from the coiled portion of the gland up through the straight duct and out onto the surface of our skin.
Solid antiperspirants are made with several ingredients, including wax, a liquid emollient and an active-ingredient compound. It’s the active ingredient that gives antiperspirants their sweat-blocking power. All antiperspirants have analuminum-based compound as their main ingredient. If you look at the back of an antiperspirant container, the aluminum-based compound is always the first ingredient listed. Here are a few of the common active ingredients:
- Aluminum chloride
- Aluminum zirconium tricholorohydrex glycine
- Aluminum chlorohydrate
- Aluminum hydroxybromide
The aluminum ions are taken into the cells that line the eccrine-gland ducts at the opening of the epidermis, the top layer of the skin, says dermatologist Dr. Eric Hanson of the University of North Carolina’s Department of Dermatology. When the aluminum ions are drawn into the cells, water passes in with them. As more water flows in, the cells begin to swell, squeezing the ducts closed so that sweat can’t get out.
Each cell can only draw in a certain amount of water, so eventually, the concentrations of water — outside and inside the cells — reach equilibrium. When this happens, the water inside the cell begins to pass back out of the cell through osmosis, and the cell’s swelling goes down. This is why people have to re-apply antiperspirant. For those who suffer from excessive sweating,hyperhydrosis, aluminum chloride in high concentrations can prolong the swelling and may ultimately shrink the sweat gland, decreasing the amount of sweat it can produce.
An average over-the-counter antiperspirant might have an active-ingredient concentration of anywhere from 10 to 25 percent. The FDA requires that over-the-counter antiperspirants contain no more than 15 to 25 percent of the active ingredient, depending on what it is. The FDA also requires that all antiperspirants must decrease the average person’s sweat by at least 20 percent. For those who have excessive underarm sweating, there are prescription products that contain concentrations higher than those of over-the-counter antiperspirants.
For some time, an email rumor suggested that underarm antiperspirants cause breast cancer. Among its claims:
- Cancer-causing substances in antiperspirants are absorbed through razor nicks from underarm shaving. These substances are said to be deposited in the lymph nodes under the arm, which are not able to get rid of them by sweating because the antiperspirant keeps you from perspiring. This causes a high concentration of toxins, which leads to cells mutating into cancer.
- Most breast cancers develop in the upper outer quadrant of the breast because that area is closest to the lymph nodes exposed to antiperspirants. (Think of the breast as a circle divided by vertical and horizontal lines that cross at the nipple. Each of the 4 sectors you divide the breast into is called a quadrant. The upper outer quadrant of each breast is the part closest to the arm pit.)
- Men have a lower risk of breast cancer because they do not shave their underarms, and their underarm hair keeps chemicals in antiperspirants from being absorbed.
In 2002, the results of a study looking for a relationship between breast cancer and underarm antiperspirants/deodorants were reported . This study did not show any increased risk for breast cancer in women who reported using an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant. The results also showed no increased breast cancer risk for women who reported using a blade (nonelectric) razor and an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant, or for women who reported using an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant within 1 hour of shaving with a blade razor. These conclusions were based on interviews with 813 women with breast cancer and 793 women with no history of breast cancer.
Findings from a different study examining the frequency of underarm shaving and antiperspirant/deodorant use among 437 breast cancer survivors were released in 2003 . This study found that the age of breast cancer diagnosis was significantly earlier in women who used these products and shaved their underarms more frequently. Furthermore, women who began both of these underarm hygiene habits before 16 years of age were diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier age than those who began these habits later. While these results suggest that underarm shaving with the use of antiperspirants/deodorants may be related to breast cancer, it does not demonstrate a conclusive link between these underarm hygiene habits and breast cancer.
In 2006, researchers examined antiperspirant use and other factors among 54 women with breast cancer and 50 women without breast cancer. The study found no association between antiperspirant use and the risk of breast cancer; however, family history and the use of oral contraceptives were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer .
Because studies of antiperspirants and deodorants and breast cancer have provided conflicting results, additional research is needed to investigate this relationship and other factors that may be involved.
Antiperspirants and Alzheimer’s Disease
Back in the 1960s , a few studies found high levels of aluminum in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The research suddenly called into question the safety of everyday household items such as aluminum cans, antacids, and antiperspirants.
But the findings of these early studies weren’t replicated in later research, and experts have essentially ruled out aluminum as a possible cause of Alzheimer’s.
“There was a lot of research that looked at the link between Alzheimer’s and aluminum, and there hasn’t been any definitive evidence to suggest there is a link,” says Heather M. Snyder, PhD, senior associate director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association.
According to the experts interviewed for this story, the aluminum in antiperspirants doesn’t even typically make its way into the body.
“The aluminum salts do not work as antiperspirants by being absorbed in the body. They work by forming a chemical reaction with the water in the sweat to form a physical plug… which is deposited in the sweat duct, producing a blockage in the areas that it’s applied,” says David Pariser, MD, professor of dermatology at Eastern Virginia Medical School and past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. “Even [with] nicks from shaving, the amount is so negligible that it doesn’t make a whole lot of scientific sense.”
Antiperspirants and Kidney Disease
Concerns about antiperspirants and kidney disease were first raised many years ago, when dialysis patients were given a drug called aluminum hydroxide to help control high phosphorus levels in their blood. Because their kidneys weren’t functioning properly, their bodies couldn’t remove the aluminum fast enough, and it began accumulating. Scientists noticed that dialysis patients who had these high aluminum levels were more likely to develop dementia.
As a result, the FDA requires antiperspirant labels to carry a warning that reads, “Ask a doctor before use if you have kidney disease.” Yet this warning is only meant for people whose kidneys are functioning at 30% or less.
In reality, it’s almost impossible to absorb enough aluminum through the skin to harm the kidneys. “Unless you eat your stick or spray it into your mouth, your body can’t absorb that much aluminum,” says nephrologist Leslie Spry, MD, FACP, spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation.