Deodorant- Fresh Today, Cancer Tomorrow?

roadsidepictures / flicker
roadsidepictures / flicker

What makes up standard deodorant and how does it keep you fresh? Making use of a well crafted cocktail of chemicals, deodorant keeps us smelling good. Standard ingredients, however, aren’t selected for your long-term health in wellness.

Deodorants make sure they get the job done, advertising 48 hour protection and the ability to keep you fresh under pressure, but at what cost? Increased estrogen? Antibiotic resistant microbes? Cancer?

Keeping Me Fresh Since ’96

I’ve been wearing standard antiperspirant deodorant since I was in the second grade. I started puberty very early and was very much what one would call a “man child.” I started shaving in the 5th grade and by the 7th grade I was done growing, having reached 6’3”.

All the hormones I had pumping through my young adolescent body were activating my sweat glands and turning my armpits into funk factories. No, not assembly lines of rhythmic groove music but rather foul odor.

Your sweat glands discharge water, salts, fats, and proteins which by themselves aren’t all that bad, but the microbes living on your skin drink it up like Gatorade, ferment it, and pump out what we call body odor.

Deodorant was necessary if I stood a chance of having friends- friends that were much shorter and couldn’t yet grow mustaches.

So, I started wearing deodorant.

I have an embarrassing confession to make though. Do you know which brand of deodorant I wore? Women’s Secret deodorant- my mom’s deodorant rather than my dad’s. For whatever reason, I found it better at combating B.O. than the men’s brands I tried in elementary school. Additionally, I enjoyed the shower fresh powder scent. Judge away!

Eventually, however, I switched to men’s deodorant and wore whatever brand my mother bought us while I was in high school and then switched to whatever was on sale when I went to the store.

What is Deodorant? Antiperspirant?

Now, I need to clarify that when talking about an antiperspirant deodorant I’m actually talking about two things: antiperspirant & deodorant.

An antiperspirant does its job by stopping you from perspiring, as its name would suggest: “anti perspire.” An antiperspirant uses a compound, aluminum, which actively blocks your sweat ducts and reduces your ability to sweat. With less sweat to fuel them, your armpits’ microbes can’t make you stink as much.

Deodorant, on the other hand, makes the living conditions unfavorable for your stench-producing bacteria. Deodorants achieve this by increasing the salinity or acidity of your underarm biome.

Standard deodorant, antiperspirants, and antiperspirant deodorants do a great job. They’ve helped keep me fresh for many years and have allowed me to be a pleasant smelling member of society.

They’ve also been doing something else: slowly poisoning me.

Applying Chemicals to Your Body

Skin is two-way permeable barrier and does well to absorb chemicals and one of the best areas for absorption just so happens to be the armpit- given all the glands!

That chemical cocktail you’re smearing under your pits maybe be doing more than fending off body odor. It’s full of chemicals linked to an array of nasty side affects.

The Bad Stuff – All Those Science Lab Names


These are actually several different chemicals (ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben). Parabens are in your deodorant to prevent microbial growth, not under your armpits but rather on the deodorant itself. After you rub deodorant under your arms you put it back in your medicine cabinet where it sits until you use it again. During that time, a whole host of bacterial growth could occur. Parabens stop this.

So, why are parabens bad? They have been linked to cancer, immunotoxictiy, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation. Parabens have been found in breast tumors at the same level of concentration found in cosmetic products. Parabens are endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen- read: you’re adding estrogen to your body (source).


Aluminum is the primary weapon for antiperspirant deodorant. Aluminum chemicals move into the cells around your sweet glands and in order to maintain water equilibrium between the cell’s insides and outside environment, water then moves into the cell. This uptake of water swells the cells around the sweat gland and seals it shut.

So, from its design we see that aluminum is drawn into our body. How bad could a little aluminum be though? Well, aluminum has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as dialysis encephalopathy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease (source).


Triclosan is classified as a pesticide (mildly disturbing) and is antibacterial. Unlike parabens, triclosan is included in deodorant to fight your underarm microbes. Triclosan has been around for a long time, included in many consumer products, but over its 40 years of use the USDA has yet to make a ruling on whether triclosan is considered safe, given a lack of information.

Yet, it has been seen that dermal exposure to triclosan has a positive association with allergic diseases such as skin irritation and even asthma (source). Triclosan is absorbed through the skin and then is stored in your body fat. Triclosan disrupts thyroid hormones (source) and probably worst off, triclosan seems to positively select for more potent bacteria by killing off weaker strains- breeding stronger bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics (source)!


What does the “n” mean in Stearth-n? As part of the chemical’s nomenclature, it could mean any number of things, possibly being a number ranging from 1-100. When steareth-n is made through reaction, several different forms are produced. Since there isn’t just any one chemical present the “n” is placed there to cover the bases for any of the number of possibilities.

Ethylene oxide is one of the possible reactants used to produce steareth-n. This is where we see the problem. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen and could be lurking alongside the mystery steareth-n.

Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol is a form of mineral oil and is included in products ranging from brake fluid to snack foods. As with such a compound that is used over a wide variety of applications, there are different grades of propylene glycol and different concentrations at which it is used.

At levels for industrial use, propylene glycol can lead to skin, liver and kidney damage (source). The amount used in your deodorant is considerably less but research has suggested a potential for small repeated doses over time to lead to damage – you’re using your deodorant daily, right?


Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They might very well be in your deodorant but are likely unlisted because they weren’t directly added. Phthalates found their way into your deodorant because plastic particles have permeated our environment.

The verdict on phthalates potential effect on human health is still out but they have been shown to affect reproductive systems of laboratory animals. Yet one phthalate, Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, has been listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program (source). I prefer to be safe and avoid unwanted and little understood chemicals in my life whenever possible, which is very hard to do in our modern world.

Find Better Odor Fighting Options

So… what options do you have if you want to avoid body odor and not expose yourself to dangerous chemicals?

I tested out four different options while seeking out a deodorant that would keep me fresh and toxin free.

Tom’s of Maine Men’s Long Lasting Deodorant- Maine Woodspice

Tom’s of Maine is somewhat of a standard when it comes to natural beauty products and that’s the reason I bought it.  You can easily find it most places that sell deodorant.

I didn’t, however, read the label before I purchased the Tom’s deodorant. I actually didn’t read any of the labels of the deodorants I was to test, until after I purchased them!

I trusted their name brand and ‘natural’ label and purchased without hesitation. I should have known better because the calling something ‘natural’ holds very little value, if any at all. It wasn’t the smartest shopping.

After purchasing, and testing this deodorant for a week, I finally read the label. What was the first ingredient of this aluminum-free deodorant that lacked artificial fragrances or preservatives? Propylene glycol, which is neurotoxic and can cause liver and kidney damage.

The complete Ingredients List: Propylene glycol, water, sodium stearate, aloe (aloe barbadensis) gel, witch hazel (hamamelis virginiana) water, glyceryl laurate, sage (salvia officinalis) leaf extract, fragrance, chamomile (chamomilla recutita) flower water, lemongrass (cymbopogon schoenanthus) oil.

Liver damage aside, how did it work for not containing any standard antiperspirants? Pretty well. I thought the scent was great and made my pits smell like pine trees.

One issue I found with the Tom’s deodorant was that when applied while my armpits were wet, right after a shower, the deodorant would foam up as if I had worked in dish soap under my armpits.

Toweling off well before hand helped reduce the foaming, but it didn’t solve the problem completely. This wasn’t enough to keep me from liking Tom’s.

Overall, it was a good deodorant. Does it contain propylene glycol? Yes. But it was my first of the test deodorants and I didn’t know how the others would fair. Maybe the possibility of liver and kidney damage was the best option but I was holding out for something better.

Jason Pure Natural Deodorant Stick- Tea Tree

Once again, I didn’t read the label of this natural deodorant. The front label clearly listed that the Jason deodorant did not contain aluminum, parabens, phthalates, or propylene glycol. All good signs.

Yet, the Jason Deodorant contained a lot of ingredients. A LOT. And I don’t know if I would consider all of them to be “natural.”

You can decide for yourself: Propanediol, Aqua (Water), Glycerin, Sodium Stearate, Zinc Ricinoleate, Polyglyceryl-3 Caprate, Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) Leaf Oil , Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Seed Extract, Allantoin, Behenyl Alcohol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Glyceryl Stearate, Silica, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sucrose Cocoate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Zea Mays (Corn) Starch, Amyl Cinnamal, Benzyl Benzoate , Benzyl Salicylate , Citronellol, Isoeugenol , Fragrance (Parfum)

Are any of those ingredients harmful? Possibly the silica, because is unclear as to what type of silica was used.

Amorphous silica is considered to be safe while crystalline Silica has been linked to cancer, allergies, and organ system toxicity (source). Furthermore, even if Jason uses amorphous silica there is potential for crystalline silica contamination.

So I can’t give a clear answer as to whether I approve of the ingredients in Jason Pure Natural Deodorant but I can tell you how I thought it worked.

The Jason deodorant was light and fresh. I love the smell of tea tree oil and expected the deodorant to have a strong tea tree scent. Nope. I couldn’t really smell the tea tree oil.

Foamy pit after applying Jason deodorant to a wet armpit.
Foamy pit after applying Jason deodorant to a wet armpit.

The deodorant did well to keep me fresh throughout the day but I noticed that I brought the deodorant to its limit with a good workout season.

But remember how I said the Tom’s deodorant foamed up when I used it after a shower? The Jason Tea Tree deodorant was worse. Way worse.

I had to make sure my underarms where very dry before I applied the deodorant and I would even dab my underarms after I applied the deodorant to remove some of the foaminess that resulted.

My summary of Jason deodorant? It was good at doing its job, contained a long list of questionably natural ingredients, and foamed up like Mr. Bubble when used.

Herban Cowboy Deodorant – Forest

This was my favorite of the store bought brands. Actually, I really liked this deodorant. For starters, it had an ingredients list that was in line with its image.

Herban Cowboy is 100% US Made, contains no parabens, no aluminum, no triclosan, no alcohol or propylene glycol, and for a bonus is 100% Vegan

Herban Cowboy Ingredients: Propanediol, aloe barbadensis leaf juice, aqua, food grade silver, sodium stearate, ethylhexylglycerin, oryza sativa (rice) starch, food grade zinc, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf extract, carum petroselinum (parsley) extract, salvia officinalis (sage) leaf extract, allantoin, fragrance.

I’m pretty sure you could eat Herban Cowboy deodorant without any harm- consult your physician before eating deodorant. Probably taste bad though.

Did it foam? Herban Cowboy didn’t foam up when applied to wet underarms. Finally, no soapy pits.

The slight forest sent was very pleasant, held its own throughout the day, and made me feel woodsy.

In making the switch to natural deodorants though, in the future I am going apply a second application before hitting the gym whereas I wouldn’t normally do so with a standard deodorant.

Several of the brands I previously used touted 48 hour protect, which I guess might be preferable at times, but not at the cost of using tons of chemicals to block my sweat ducts.

Overall, I thought Herban Cowboy Forest Deodorant was an excellent deodorant and is going to be my new standard daily use store bought deodorant.

Manly Green Homemade Deodorant – Clove

Manly Green Homemade DeodorantAll the above deodorants had their strong points and did a good job of keeping me fresh. Each one, however, had a lot of stuff in it.

So, I thought I would make my own simple deodorant using ingredients that were easy to pronounce and edible (edible and tasty are not the same).

I made my deodorant using coconut oil, shea butter, baking soda, arrowroot powder, and clove oil. Five simple ingredients. Click here for the full recipe and instructions.

How did my Manly Green Homemade Deodorant work?

Surprisingly well. Actually, really well. I tested out my homemade deodorant for a week and it stood up to my daily activities. I biked all around town. Worked up a good sweat several times in the gym. Yet, the five simple ingredients held their own in combating odor.

I had my doubts, but the Manly Green Homemade Deodorant knocked it out of the park in terms of its ability to keep me fresh.

This option, however, may not be fore everyone. Many guys won’t want to go as far as to make their own deodorant. To be honest, I can see myself easily defaulting to Herban Cowboy deodorant.


You don’t have to subject yourself to potentially harmful chemicals in order to stay fresh. There are several options available to you. I only reviewed three commercial options but there are several other choices out there.

You may have to do some trial and error testing yourself though. Each person’s body chemistry and armpit bacteria are different. What worked for me might end up failing you. You’ll just have to try it out.

Let me know if you make the switch to a better deodorant and what brand you end up going with.

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