Deodorant, antiperspirant and the environment

The use of mainstream commercial deodorants and antiperspirants can be a really divisive topic; but certainly an issue worth considering if you’re looking to lessen your environmental impact.

As someone who spent years utilizing public transport and at times having lived and worked in conditions where showering was a luxury; I tend to be a little pragmatic when it comes to the issue. I certainly don’t smell of crushed rose petals after a few hours of manual labor!

What is sweat?

Sweat has three purposes – to help cool the body, expel waste and some believe that in males, components of sweat (pheremones) can act as an attractant to females.

There’s two types of glands involved with perspiration. Eccrine glands excrete only water and salt – nothing too offensive there. But the apocrine glands carry the sweat along with other secretions to the surface of your skin. Diet can effect what types of secretions are generated (think garlic) and whether the smell is offensive.

Additionally, bacteria can react with sweat and create an even more noxious odor.

Deodorant and antiperspirant – the difference

There is a difference between the two, although many products combine the features, which just means additional ingredients. Antiperspirants reduce or eliminate sweating while deodorants mask or mitigate odors generated when we sweat.

Chemical cocktails

Most commercial antiperspirants contain aluminum in some form – it’s the active ingredient to help reduce sweating. This aluminum has been demonstrated to cause DNA mutation, which is a precursor required for cancer; although whether antiperspirants can directly cause cancer is hotly debated. Aluminum can also present issues for people with impaired kidney function.

In regards to deodorants, triclosan is often used as an ingredient. Tricloslan is a powerful anti-bacterial agent that cannot be filtered out during waste water treatment and of course, that’s where most of it ends up. It’s one of the most frequently found chemicals found in USA waterways. As triclosan is toxic to algae, it can be a threat in waterways in terms of reducing food sources for creatures dependent on algae.

These are just two components of antiperspirants and deodorants that are cause for concern. If you take a look at the ingredients label of your own deodorant, it will probably read like a laboratory shopping list.

While not all of these ingredients will be toxic to the environment as such; they all have to be created which can often be an energy and resource intensive process. Many of them will also be petrochemicals; having their roots in crude oil. Then there’s the packaging and transport to consider.

All things considered, yes, deodorants and antiperspirants do have quite an environmental impact.

So what to do?

Natural deodorants and antiperspirants

To avoid the environmentally damaging chemical cocktail, some people swear by baking soda. There are now also commercial products available that utilize natural mineral salts and essential oils – taking a less is more approach. The mineral salts form an inhospitable environment to bacteria that cause odor.

I can’t say I’ve tried any of these products and reading various reviews around the web shows mixed results. Still, it’s an option worth trying. To find these products, try a search on your favorite search engine using the term: natural deodorant.

Before purchasing any of these products, be sure to check the ingredients lists as “natural” can sometimes be a misleading term and is subject to greenwashing practices. Don’t just look at the ingredients, also the packaging. For example, while plastic packaging is hard to avoid, can the container be recycled?

Going without

For some people, they may need nothing at all aside from normal hygiene practices; i.e. bathing regularly with soap and drying off well (moisture encourages bacterial growth).

For those lucky few, it’s more a case of marketing convincing them they need to use something. In fact, some of the chemical cocktails can create an odor problem; leading these people to believe they actually need a deodorant.

The only way you’ll find out if you are one of these folks is try going without – but don’t judge by your own nose if ; ask someone you trust. For obvious reasons, it would probably be best to carry out this experiment when you’re not going to be in contact with others who are not part of the “sniff” trial. You may also need to give this experiment a few days for your body to adjust to no longer being assaulted with heavy duty chemicals.

Harm minimization

For many of us who can’t/won’t go without mainstream commercial antiperspirants and deodorants, there are a few harm minimization strategies we can implement.

Frequency – do you really need to use deodorants every day? For example, if you’re not going to be out and about one day, perhaps this can be a deodorant free day. Even if you can reduce use by one day a week, that’s close to a 15% overall reduction.

Overkill – some people use deodorants multiple times a day and don’t really need to. Try to spray/roll/splash only once a day if possible and just a quick spritz rather that bathing in the stuff. Remember that our sense of smell will become dulled to the  fragrance if we use it all the time, leading us to think we need more.

Chemicals – compare between brands and research those mysterious ingredients. Go for the lesser of the evils and definitely try to avoid products with triclosan.

Packaging – avoid pressure pack spray cans as these contain propellants which are likely petrochemical based. They also increase the bulk of the packaging. Pump sprays and sticks are a better way to go, especially if these are in packaging that can be recycled

As with many aspects of going green, these harm minimization strategies not only reduce environmental impact, but can also save you money too!