The Protection Racket

by Kim Erickson

M y grandmother used to say that men sweat — women “glow.” But, who among us hasn’t taken a surreptitious whiff under the arms on a hot, humid summer’s day? Forget the glow — as temperatures soar, so does our tendency to worry about body odor and wetness.

It’s no wonder we worry. The skin, considered the largest organ of the body, is home to some two million sweat glands. Under normal circumstances, these glands secrete up to 6 cups of sweat per day. But, when the weather turns toasty that amount can easily increase to more than 17 cups!
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Fresh as a (Chemical) Daisy

It’s not surprising that, as the weather turns warmer, our use of deodorants and antiperspirants increases. Although we often use the two words interchangeably, deodorants and antiperspirants have two entirely different functions. Which should you use? And, are they really good for you?

Classified as a cosmetic, modern deodorants are formulated to fight odor using antiseptic and antibacterial ingredients, along with synthetic fragrance to mask any residual odor. But, while drugstore varieties may keep you smelling sweet, they do have a dark side. The active ingredient most conventional deodorant products rely on is triclosan, a broad-spectrum antibacterial. Triclosan can cause allergic contact dermatitis, a problem for sensitive users as well as anyone who shaves their armpits. Long considered a relatively benign biocide, a recent study by Boston’s Tufts University Medical School reported that triclosan may cause some bacteria to mutate, creating new strains which are resistant to antibacterial chemicals. 1

Sharing shelf space with deodorants, antiperspirants are designed to inhibit wetness by shrinking the pores, temporarily blocking the flow of perspiration. Considered an over-the-counter drug by the FDA, typical antiperspirants contain a variety of aluminum compounds. Although products containing aluminum can effectively reduce perspiration by as much as 50%, studies have linked the cumulative effects of this metal with Alzheimer’s disease. One study, published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology , found that the risk for Alzheimer’s disease increased with the use of antiperspirants. “Aluminum is a highly toxic substance in your brain,” warns Theo Kruck, Ph.D., retired associate professor of physiology at the University of Toronto, Canada. Dr. Kruck, who has participated in several studies investigating aluminum’s impact on health, believes “antiperspirants pose unnecessary exposure to aluminum.” 2

Talc is another dubious ingredient found in some antiperspirants. Used as a suspending agent during the manufacturing process, the National Toxicology Program has found cosmetic grade talc to be a potential carcinogen in animal studies. 3 Since talc’s chemical composition is similar to asbestos, prolonged inhalation can cause other respiratory problems as well, including inflammation of the lungs, bronchial irritation, and the development of fibrous lesions. To reduce the risk, avoid using aerosols. The fine mist produced by aerosol antiperspirants contains not only talc and aluminum particles, but petrochemical propellants which are easily inhaled into the respiratory tract.

No Sweat!

If the thought of slathering all these chemicals under your arms sends you looking for healthier alternatives, you need look no further than Mother Nature. Instead of the potentially harmful chemicals found in traditional deodorants, natural products use a bevy of bacteria-fighting herbs such as chamomile, rosemary and extracts of green tea. Some natural brands also include antiseptic herbs such as lavender, sage and tea tree oil.

Another alternative to conventional deodorants is the deodorant stone. Unlike mainstream products, which clog pores and can be absorbed into your bloodstream, these fragrance-free stones work on the surface of your skin. Made from mineral salts, the stones not only kill the bacteria that’s already present, they inhibit the growth of future microbes. “Essentially, mineral salts have a very good antiseptic effect,” says Andrew Scheman, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Deodorant stones are not only effective, but economical and environmentally friendly. One stone can last up to two years.

Worried about wetness? A light dusting of baking soda, cornstarch or arrowroot can absorbs excess perspiration. Botanical astringents are also effective, tightening skin cells to reduce the amount of moisture that escapes through the pores. For a homemade antiperspirant, try a bit of witch hazel or a few drops of sage tea applied under the arms with a cotton ball.


1. Firfer, Holly. “Study: Germ-fighting Chemical Could Create Harmful Bacteria.” CNN. 5 August 1998. Website: 9808/05 / a ntibact e rial. w arning/

2. Kruck, Theo. “Aluminum-Alzheimer’s Link?” Nature. Volume 363. 13 May 1993: p. 119.

3. “Aerosol Propellant Gases Shown Toxic to Animals.” Lab Animal . Vol. 2, No. 5. September-October 1998.

More tips on natural hygiene – and formulas for making your own non-toxic personal care products – can be found in Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics.

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Kim Erickson.
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