Are all natural deodorants really free of harmful chemicals?

Illustration by Dave Donald

The Claim

Companies that produce “all natural” deodorants often sell consumers on three things: environmental sustainability, no animal testing, and no artificial colors. But is that the whole story? Often you’ll also find allergens, petrochemicals, lung irritants and hormone disruptors on the product ingredient list—all chemicals that have been linked to cancers.

The Investigation

Propylene glycol, a petrochemical, is often a top ingredient in natural deodorants, and many believe it has no business being there. Even the chemical’s safety information is scary, with this warning: “In case of contact, immediately flush skin with plenty of water. Cover the irritated skin with an emollient. Remove contaminated clothing and shoes … Wash clothing before reuse. Thoroughly clean shoes before reuse. Get medical attention.”

Rosanne Cohen, executive director of non-profit Breast Cancer Action Montreal, has made it a mission to educate herself and others on the many potentially harmful ingredients in our everyday cosmetic products. “Propylene glycol is harmful,” she says. “It’s an ingredient you should definitely stay away from. It absorbs easily into the skin and can damage the heart, liver and nervous system.”

Even so, Cohen says that it’s a personal decision whether or not to toss products. “We believe in the precautionary principle,” she adds, “We know there are ingredients in these products that haven’t been tested for safety. We also don’t know what the effects are of low doses over the long term.”

Other known dangerous chemicals that wind up in deodorants are parabens, aluminum, and perfume. Cohen particularly advises staying away from anything with the ingredient listing “perfume.” She explains that perfumes are considered a trade secret and not regulated. “Make sure the products are fragrance free,” she says which is not the same as simply “unscented.”

The verdict

Studies on the dangers of particular chemicals are ubiquitous. Potential links to anything from Alzheimer’s, to cancer, to autism are repeatedly alleged and disputed, with no consensus in sight. So if you’re going to use cosmetics with questionable ingredients (most products!) use them in moderation.

Until advocates like Cohen succeed in convincing the Canadian government to force manufacturers to properly label products like deodorants (such as a symbol showing the product contains known or suspected carcinogens) the onus will continue to fall to the consumer to determine what is safe and what isn’t. If not using deodorant isn’t an option you’ll consider, then check that labels contain ingredients you know are safe.

Note: Websites like the Cosmetics Database and Breast Cancer Action Montreal  can help you figure out what’s in your products.