Your Health Questions Answered

Are Anti-Perspirants Bad for You?

The sweat-wicking products don't have the best reputation. But physicians say they're not harmful.

By Allison Forsyth May 19, 2021

Image: Kari Perrin

Summer is here and for many of us, that means more sweat. We turn to anti-perspirants to keep us dry, but what exactly are in these products? And are they safe to use? Dr. Elizabeth Callahan at SkinSmart Dermatology tells us more about these sweat-wicking products, and some alternatives if you are concerned about what goes into a traditional anti-perspirant.

To start with: Are anti-perspirants bad for you?

“They are not proven to be harmful,” says Callahan. “No research to date has concluded there is harm in these products."

What traditional ingredient gets the bad reputation? “The active ingredient we are looking at is aluminum chloride, or aluminum salt,” says Callahan. “When applied to the skin, it forms a salt and clogs pores so you don’t sweat as much. It serves as a temporary plug.”

There have been some studies researching the possible link between aluminum chloride and breast cancer, but Callahan says the studies are inconclusive. If you are concerned about aluminum at all, you can avoid it.

Anti-perspirants have come a long way in the past 20 years, according to Callahan. What started as crystal deodorant, or potassium alum, originating in Southeast Asia, has expanded to include many different types of products.

What are some natural ingredients that work? Callahan says to look for moisture-wicking ingredients like baking soda, arrowroot powder and corn starch, which can absorb sweat. Coconut oil and tea tree oil are also natural deodorizers also found in some products.

A brand Callahan has tested herself is Drunk Elephant, an organic skincare and makeup line. The active ingredients in this deodorant are mandelic acid, derived from almonds; arrowroot powder; shea butter; and macula oil for moisturizing. It is gentle on the skin for those who cannot tolerate aluminum chloride or have certain skin conditions.

What is sweat? Callahan says sweating is a natural process that regulates the body's temperature. It can begin at the pilosebaceous unit, or hair follicle, and attach to underarm hair, causing a buildup of oil and odor. The odor is caused by bacteria in that buildup. While sweating is natural, it is also reactive, occurring when happy, stressed, sad or even when eating spicy foods. When you use an anti-perspirant, you are blocking that buildup. If you continue to sweat profusely, however, you may have condition called hyperhidrosis.

Hyperhidrosis, or overactive sweat glands, occurs mainly in the underarms, but can also occur on the palms of hands or bottom of feet. Treatments for the condition include Botox injections, prescription strength anti-perspirants, medicated wipes or, for some people, laser hair removal.

“Botox for hyperhidrosis is administered twice a year, with about 20 injections on each side per session,” says Callahan. “The needles are as small as insulin needles, with a little pinpoint.” Insurance may sometimes cover the cost of this treatment. With no insurance, it may cost as much as $1,000 per treatment.

For patients who don’t mind using aluminum-based products, they may be prescribed a prescription strength anti-perspirant. Callahan says there is a new topical treatment called Qbrexza, which are medicated wipes used once a day to target the sweat gland apparatus.

“Anecdotally, hair removal also causes less sweating,” says Callahan. “Over time, the removal of the hair removes the oil and sweat attached. But hair removal is not going to eliminate sweating altogether.”

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