Many people assume that the FDA protects Americans from dangerous drugs, especially over-the-counter drugs. But that assumption might be exposing us to unexpected risks. We recently wrote about the hazards associated with the popular pain reliever, acetaminophen. It turns out that it took the FDA decades to figure out some of the dangers of this popular pain reliever and require warnings on the label.
But have you ever thought about your antiperspirant? The FDA considers it a drug, since it changes the way the body functions (deliberately, of course: it stops sweat glands from doing their job). The agency requires all antiperspirants to contain some form of aluminum, because that is what plugs sweat glands. But how carefully has the FDA considered possible antiperspirant perils?
Researchers in Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy and elsewhere in Europe have been examining the effects of aluminum compounds on breast tissue, since the underarms are quite close to the breast and the antiperspirant chemicals appear to penetrate the skin. Studies in tissue cultures have shown that aluminum chloride exposure leads to DNA breakage and overgrowth of certain types of breast cells (Journal of Applied Toxicology, March, 2012). The authors note, “Our observations do not formally identify aluminium as a breast carcinogen, but challenge the safety ascribed to its widespread use in underarm cosmetics.”
Other scientists are also concerned. One group of investigators recently showed that breast cancer patients have higher levels of aluminum and inflammatory compounds in their nipple fluid than healthy women (Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, online July 12, 2013). A review of research shows that aluminum at the concentrations found in breast tissue may be problematic (Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, online July 13, 2013); another tissue culture study suggests that aluminum compounds may activate breast cancer cells so that they become more invasive (Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, online July 12, 2013). The authors of the review offer the following observation:
“Aluminium, at concentrations found associated with breast tissues, would seem therefore to have the properties necessary to be able to drive development and growth of breast tumours. The possibility therefore that the increasing incidence of breaset cancer might be associated with aluminium exposure justifies further investigation.”
Now, none of this research proves that aluminum from antiperspirants or any other source actually causes breast cancer. But it does give us pause. The “precautionary principle” has become popular in Europe where they are beginng to require safety studies before chemicals are approved for human use. In the U.S., most compounds are given the benefit of the doubt and have to be proven dangerous before regulatory authorities even consider warnings or bans.
Some women find they need the moisture control an antiperspirant offers. Otherwise, they end up drenched in sweat and may even have to change their blouse or shirt during the day. But many others are primarily concerned with odor control. For that, there are other options besides aluminum-containing antiperspirants. In addition to commercial deodorants, there are a number of home remedies that can be helpful.
Some people are enthusiastic about zinc oxide cream: “I’ve tried all kinds of commercial deodorants for underarm odor and have been disappointed in all of them. I’d scrub till my armpits bled and then within minutes of my shower I would stink again.
“By chance, I found something that works for me. It is zinc cream for baby diaper rash. It’s cheap and easy to find in any pharmacy.
“I apply an almost invisibly thin layer and rub it in. It keeps odor away all day long.”
This cream has antimicrobial activity (Journal of Biomedical Nanotechnology, Dec. 2011) that probably accounts for its ability to fight odors.
Others prefer white vinegar: “I keep a small spray bottle of white vinegar to spritz underarms before regular shower. Bath soap washes away remains of vinegar and seems to work well keeping odor at bay.” Baking soda is another popular option: “Baking soda also makes a pretty darn good deodorant. Just rub it in well, and brush off any excess. One caveat: I use the kind from a health food store, and it says it contains no aluminum. I don’t know if the major brands do contain aluminum, or if so, how much there is.”
Witch hazel, rubbing alcohol and vodka as armpit treatments all have their enthusiasts: “Using vodka to fight body odor is no recent discovery. Theatrical wardrobe professionals going back to vaudeville days have used vodka spritz on elaborate costumes that can’t be cleaned easily. Applying vodka and letting them air dry gets rid of the odor. The only problem is explaining to strangers why you have industrial-sized jugs of vodka in the house.”
Our favorite, however, is milk of magnesia. Splashing it into the underarms certainly works, but many folks find that procedure a bit messy and inconvenient. That’s why we asked our wonderful wizard natural chemist friend to come up with a roll-on milk of magnesia (MoM) deodorant just for The People’s Pharmacy. Here is a very short video to explain why we went to the effort of developing a MoM deodorant.
We have three different formulations: the original, which contains the natural clay bentonite as a stabilizer (bentonite has a small amount of aluminum in it naturally); the aluminum-free MoM roll-on deodorant, with a synthetic stabilizer; and the aluminum-free version scented for women. We can’t promise they will reduce your risk of breast cancer, but they offer great odor control without any worries. Here is a link to all our body-care products.